The Wish for On-Demand Revelations

The worse the situation, the more we yearn for a script to explain it all, and for the victim to find redemptive value in their ordeal. Dying or narrowly missing that status ranks right up there at the top for such a demand, and Los Angeles Journal columnist Meghan Daum writes that people want the poor suffering soul to be the star of the show. She should know, because she herself almost died from a disease and recovered virtually completely. The title of her article very clearly shows that she rejected such stardom: “I Nearly Died. So What?” (LA Times, November 14, 2014) She hated how a friend asked her if “surviving such a close call had made me think differently about life.” She scoffed at how people expect a spiritual or moral overhaul from such an experience. Just like me, Daum hates platitudes like  nearly dying “puts things into perspective.” I’m with her. After all, the teaser for my own book says it is “unencumbered by religious agendas and pat answers.” (I actually had the gall to Tweet to her that we are thus kindred spirits.)

The columnist not only raises the question of why people react this way to people who might die or who surely will soon, but she also posits a motivation for such behavior: People above all want to find closure, to feel that the senselessness of disease does in the end make sense on some level. That is, we get to have the consolation prize of a spiritual revelation on account of dying soon or coming close to it, as part of our grand finale. Bottom line: The loved ones who are emerging unscathed (this time) want to comfort themselves by saying, there is a silver lining in there somewhere or other…Um isn’t there?” Daum does not buy it. She reminds us that crisis can “bring out the worst in people as well as the best.” I for one cannot deny that. I have experienced that firsthand as I imagine many of you have.

I agree with Daum that we might burden patients with demands that have far more to do with our own agendas and our own anxieties. I agree that fears about ourselves getting sick or not surviving getting sick can drive us to push ourselves away from reality via scripted explanations such as “God does not give us anything more than we can handle.” (Argh!)

But perhaps she and certainly I should look at such reactions with more forbearance. When death crouches by a loved one, nothing can make us feel more helpless and out of control. From sophisticated theology to folk theology such as the platitudes above, we are grasping at anything that can give us a sense of control. Wanting closure is our way of doing the impossible: of containing chaos within the confines of an orderly story that we tell ourselves.

You might protest that this does not address the burdens we are leaving at the feet of the patient. They do not deserve to have our anxieties displaced onto them. The fact is, Daum’s article and anything I or anyone else happens to say about this is not going to alter how we act in the future. As Daum herself said, she acted the same fool way when her mother was dying, hoping that her mother would bestow some special wisdom presumably available to her only at the end of life.

So what can be done? I think the answer lies in why else we seek revelation besides gaining control and controlling anxiety: we think that when people are close to death, they and thus the bystanders are getting an advance glimpse of what it is all about. (Some people have faulted me for misleading them into believing they would get such answers due to the subtitle of my book, i.e, What People Told Me Before They Died.) Thus we yearn for clues and wistfully hope to penetrate the ultimate mystery. I hope that when I am in dire straits and people ask me about my perspective on life, that I will see myself as their joint searcher as to what it was all about for me and for them. I hope that I will gracefully take on my role as the tenured partner in this search for meaning.

Why I Am Writing about Vegans in a Blog Like Mine

“You can be a vegan but still have an unhealthy diet,” one of my tablemates at a pre-Thanksgiving vegan potluck informed me. “Think French fries and all that grease.” I nodded sympathetically. It is hard enough to push people’s eating habits in one direction, let alone two at once. Another vegan sitting there with at least three varieties of cranberry sauce on her plate next to her tahini-topped zucchini pancakes asked how long I had been a vegan. I had to confess that I was there only because decades ago, my husband had belonged to their Baltimore-based group when it first formed. (It is now called the Vegetarian Resource Group.) He wanted to reconnect with old pals during our recent visit there; I came along to enjoy the food and meet offbeat people like myself, two of my favorite pastimes.

When my tablemate next asked a bit about me and I told her about this blog, she hopefully asked, “Does it have something to do with veganism?” Once again I felt compelled to spill out the unvarnished truth and say, “Well I can’t really say that it does.” Luckily, I rescued the conversation from dying prematurely by asking her to tell me a little about her interests as I ate my first ever vegan enchilada. After hesitating, she risked letting me know that certain meditation techniques could take you back four thousand years to one of your previous lives, and help you resolve things that happened then that will heal you now. I cannot help but be skeptical, but if a concept relieves spiritual distress then I am all for it. Still, I do think she outranked even me in qualifying as an offbeat person.

On my way back home from Baltimore, I mulled over my hasty answer that my blog and veganism have nothing to do with each other. While there is no obvious surface connection, I thought about what I had heard and seen at that potluck. For one thing, they were handing out T-shirts that said, “Expand compassion” on them. Well there you are. I noticed too that several people brought their own plates and silverware, so that less paper- and plastic ware would be used, thus showing their consideration for the health of our planet. Posters abounded that reminded us to “be kind to animals: don’t eat them.”

Perhaps it is fair to say that vegans and my blog followers and I are/aspire to be: purveyors of offbeat varieties of compassion.

A Chaplain Sleuth in a Murder Mystery?

Being a chaplain myself, I could not resist getting my hands on a whodunit whose detective is a female hospital chaplain. Having a protagonist with a day job like that  is not totally outlandish, because chaplains and detectives have more in common than you might think. But before I go on in this vein, I’d like to introduce you to a few samples from this suspense-filled comedic and at times “offbeat” murder mystery, which is one reason I am writing about it here. The other reason is that the portrayal of healthcare chaplains in literature is of interest. Set in North Carolina, A Murder in Mount Moriah by Mindy Quigley opens with a Civil War reenactment. Despite all the bullets in the guns being blanks, one of the soldiers is shot for real.

The following refers to the shooting and then describes Lindsay’s routine as an on-call chaplain at night. It just so happens that during her shift she comes across the man who was shot and sees his wife there as well as she enters his hospital room. As Quigley does throughout the book, her powers of description are well, powerful. That alone is an achievement, since most authors do not make the setting sound engaging. Her setting is practically a character itself. Here is her description of that encounter:

“The events of the previous night seemed like a dream. At the beginning of her night shift, Lindsay had fallen into a fitful sleep in the hospital’s tiny chaplain’s bedroom. Around 1 a.m. she had been awaked by a page from the ICU. She had zombie-walked down the dimly lit hallway and up two flights of stairs passing through the main intensive care room, where the beds’ occupants lay sleeping and still—a row of sarcophagi. At the end of the room, a little hall led to two private rooms. Lindsay knocked on one of the doors.

‘Come in,’ a woman responded.

Lindsay opened the door. It took her eyes a moment to adjust to the fluorescent lights that blazed from the ceiling, illuminating vinyl seat coverings, laminate tables, and curtains that forged an unholy alliance between paisley and polyester. Vernon Young, a plump yet sturdy-looking black man in his early thirties, lay in bed, connected to an array of life-support machines and monitors. Kimberlee Young, his wife, looked up wearily from her sentry post at his bedside. She had an appealing chubbiness and freckles that dotted her pale white skin like confetti. Her eyes were red-rimmed and swollen.”

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In this next selection, which I am adding purely for fun, she describes a meeting of another kind: man vs. squirrel. Lindsay’s home guest Drew met his match while in the bathroom, and Lindsay started to help him by telling him to scare it away with some noise:

“Drew waved his arms noncommittally and made a low grunting sound through his gritted teeth. The effect was something akin to a talentless actor portraying a very unconvincing Frankenstein Monster. He took a step toward the squirrel. Instead of fleeing away, the squirrel made some kind of irrational calculus in its terrified brain; it dashed straight toward Drew. Drew hurtled himself backward to evade it. His knees buckled as he hit the edge of Lindsay’s large, claw-footed bathtub, and he tumbled head over heels back into it. The squirrel, in a surge of adrenaline-fueled frenzy, leapt upwards. With the grace of a kung fu master, it kicked off a wall, using its momentum to propel itself sideways out of the small opening in the window screen. No wires, no special effects. Just 15 ounces of raw squirrel power and the will to get the hell out of that bathroom.”

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While the book unfortunately does not illustrate “best practices” of how chaplains offer spiritual care, it does remind me of the more metaphorical  connections between chaplains and detectives. Both have to be brave about entering the unknown. Both try to solve mysteries of the human heart. Both try to find the deeper issues and get to the heart of whatever is amiss. And detectives and chaplains strive to help those in spiritual distress reconstruct and make sense of their permanently altered world.

For those interested in reading more of A Murder in Mount Moriah, published by Little Spot Publishing, you can go to Mindy Quigley’s site for more information at: http://mintyfreshmysteries.wordpress.com/the-lindsay-harding-books/

Mindy Quigley

Mindy Quigley

 

The Long and the Short of It

The isle of Griefland has many unique geographical characteristics, including its varying distance from your home. Not only that, its size and terrain constantly mutate as well. You might become entangled in masses of vines unable to break free for a while, or have to drag yourself interminably over harsh rock after harsh rock. Or, as someone recently wrote in her blog, you might be forced onto a most capricious roller coaster there. A few of you might be lucky and just take  in poignant scenes as you sit on grass as soft as cashmere. Most peculiar of all, visitors never know in advance the length of their stay let alone the starting date. Not even “death professionals” can give an estimate. In fact, their own assumptions can throw off their estimate more than the average person’s.

Come again? Haven’t hospice personnel and the like seen zillions of cases and discerned some trends? Sure there are overall patterns, but like the weather and the stock market, on any one given day, the pattern appears totally random or idiosyncratic. Just because we have a hot day at the end of October in the United States does not mean that October is typically a very warm month. And it does not mean that the next day will be hot as well.

One of the two major mistakes I’ve seen hospice personnel make is overestimating how long a mourner will be in Griefland after the death. I once read about a chaplain urging the surviving son of a dementia patient to be in touch with his feelings and allow himself time to mourn. On the face of it, that sounds pretty wise: If you give yourself permission to feel and work your way through the sadness and anger and whatnot, then your departure date from Griefland can be sooner rather than later. That is generally true, just like October is generally on the cool side in the Western Hemisphere. Alright here’s the catch: This response came after the son revealed that “My Mom died the day she forgot who I was.” In other words, that was his start date in Griefland, which might have been months or who knows even years before he heard the crunch of shovels filling with dirt to throw onto the casket. Not only that, his departure date from Griefland might have been more or less before the start date of the funeral.( Note: if you are a budding death professional, the terminology goes like this: the mourner had engaged in anticipatory grief.)

The other mistake, as you might guess, is underestimating how long someone will grieve, or telling the griever in so many words that they have worn out their welcome in Griefland. Sure, the concern is unhealthy grieving (i.e. inability to do one’s job, not enjoy anything at all in life, not function with other surviving loved ones and friends), but there are cases where extended grieving is not dysfunctional. One of my most popular recent Tweets was to the effect, “Once the whole fandamily stops telling you to ‘get over it,’ that’s when you will be able to take the first tentative steps to doing so.” Whether dysfunctional or not, indicating that a griever is “overdoing it” impedes his or her expression of feelings. Ironically this keeps the grieving process stalled and therefore even extends our stay in that most frequented but least popular destination, Griefland.

Moral of the story: Grieving outliers unite!

A Suspense Story: Our Lives

One of the downsides of dying is that it can be like failing to find out whose hand gets asked in marriage in a romance novel or which of the semifinalists you have kept track of in a beauty pageant, horse race or ballgame will win. This may sound morbid, but sometimes while I am reading a gripping novel I pray that if I do have to die suddenly, let me at least get to the end of the story before I get to the end of my own. (Do you think like that too or is that just me?)

There are more personal stories people are afraid of missing out on, such as a grandchild’s wedding, a graduation, and so on. Then there are those matters, which differ from completing a crossword puzzle, seeing the outcome of a bet or missing a holiday, that are further out into the future. I will most probably have to content myself with not finding out if extraterrestrials exist or whether humankind will ever be able to transfer in a pinch to another planet, or whether the Beatles will endure as many centuries as Beethoven.

There is yet another kind of loss, and that is missing something or someone versus missing out on something or someone. Even though presumably the former is not possible once we are dead, we do and can anticipate such  losses beforehand. Besides loved ones, this might include any ongoing part of our lives, such as appealing food, travel, uplifting music and so on.

I suppose what people would miss or miss out on depends on personality and priorities. How about we make this post a workshop and see? That is, to be on the honor roll, you have to participate! I will even go first so you can work up some courage: Besides friends and family, I think I would most miss being out and about in obedient nature (That is, I am fine with setting aside forceful winds, flooding and immoderate temperatures.); chocolate of course; writing posts and collections of stories; and satisfying my curiosity about other people’s life stories. As far as what I most probably will miss out on as opposed to missing, as I just mentioned, I wish I could know if there are extraterrestrials and what they would be like. What might their values be? What might they understand and not understand? What might we learn from them and them from us? (At least as a consolation prize, I can answer these in the fiction I am writing these days.) In general, I will miss out on whatever technological advances are in store for humankind, and how and whether worldwide problems such as mental illness will ever be eliminated or at least better managed.

As I started this post, I did not completely think through what I would list beforehand. This is the genuine deal. What I learned, and least anticipated listing, was writing. This makes me reflect on how valuable it has been in making my life an adventure through the interaction it has generated. I relish all the comments I have received on this blog, emails and Twitter for example, and of course all the feedback on my book.

Now it is your turn, in the comments below, to try out this exercise. You might find out something new about yourself. Not only that, you may become more aware of who and what is most important to spend time on now. And who knows? Perhaps seeing each others’ answers below may increase our awareness in unforeseen ways. Care to join in this experiment?

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Announcement: The Angry Coffee Bean Café in North Arlington, NJ on 89 Ridge Road will present “The Spoken Word,” my writers’ group first public event. Eight writers (some published such as I) will read from various genres. The event starts at 6:30PM on Monday, November 10th.

My “how-to” guide to writing a eulogy got published in the LA Jewish Journal Oct. 15th:  http://www.jewishjournal.com/expiredandinspired/item/biographer_for_a_day

The Pleasures of an Untasted Beer

“How can not drinking the beer be satisfying?” a member of my audience asked with irritation. She was reacting to another person at my book discussion in the local library who was a hospice volunteer. She had just told a story about one of her patients, who I’ll call Seth. He had described to the volunteer his urge to have a beer in such nostalgic terms, the advertising department of any brewery would have loved to get ahold of the words he poured out. On the next visit, the volunteer brought the longed-for beverage, presumably after getting medical clearance. It was in a thoroughly chilled can, its thin coating of moisture revealing its recent history of refrigeration. Seth’s hands reached out as the volunteer approached, her hands meeting his until the transfer was made complete. She could hardly wait to see the pleasure he would have as the prized liquid hit his tongue. But simply holding it and rolling it in his hands sufficed. He was too weak to drink it, or not thirsty. Yet he was contented as anyone who had had their fill of their favorite kind of beer at some pleasing backdrop such as an outing with their buddies to the playoffs or a school reunion picnic.

“How could just holding the can be enough?” the doubter kept persisting. This sufficed to get the discussion flowing liberally. “Of course,” someone else put in. “Don’t you see? Seth saw the beer and enjoyed the cool sensation of the can.”

“Yeah,” someone else added. “Seeing the beer probably brought back memories of all those good times he had when he could drink it. And you know, he must have liked the volunteer going to the trouble to bring it to him.”

I sealed up this discussion by remarking that when people get close to dying, more and more subtle things can please them. In the excerpt from Encountering the Edge that I had read to them prior to the volunteer’s story, the link between beer and its consumption was twice removed: With nary a can of beer in sight because Sam was not allowed to have it, I sang, In heaven there is no beer, that’s why we drink it here. The smile on his face reflected all the contentment of a beer connoisseur who had successfully demonstrated his own sensitivity to subtle variations in flavor.

Movie Review: Departures (“Okuribito”) 2008

If you think being a hospice chaplain is not your cup of tea, just wait till you see this film. What could be weirder, you say, than being a hospice chaplain? Maybe a Japanese “encoffiner.” A what? A deliberately misleading classifieds ad draws an unsuspecting unemployed cello player to what he thought was a tourist company. But surprise surprise, and with the help of an advance, the boss cajoles the young man into learning how to ritually prepare a body in front of the mourners and gently place it into a coffin. This is a young man who has never even seen a coffin before, let alone touch a dead body.

As I watched his first days on the job, and subsequently other people’s reaction to his new career, I thought about the beginnings of my own. Both the movie and my own story share many elements: the sense by some in society that the young man and I were contaminated by our work; that there was the “eesh” factor; that we were plain old weird.

As the movie progresses, I suspect that along with me, the average viewers feelings evolve with the protagonist’s and ultimately with those of his wife and of the broader society. We feel less afraid, then curious, and then finally, in awe of a ceremony that can get family conflict out in the open or help mourners release their feelings, or take “honoring the dead” to a refined level.

This movement from fear to admiration is the main plot in the movie (This is no spoiler, because the way this happens is of supreme interest.) But there is another significant plot not referred to at least in the very short reviews I read: The protagonist felt unresolved intense anger at his father for abandoning him when he was quite young. As he confronted these feelings—I  cannot tell you how without it  truly being a spoiler—this somehow forced me to confront my own feelings about people I have not yet been able to forgive for abandonment of a different sort, and thereby be done with some of this hurt at long last. What more coveted review can there be for a movie or book or other creative work than for the reviewer to say that it provoked a healing change within?

Disclaimer: I saw this movie for free on television on September 20, 2014. I was not required to write a positive review and was not asked to write a review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Announcement:

See this link for a comprehensive article about Jewish perspectives on hospice care. I was one of the rabbis interviewed in this September 15th article by doula Amy Wright Glenn:  http://jewishexponent.com/judaism/2014/09/the-growing-appeal-of-hospice-care