Virginia Woolf and One Woman’s Grief Illuminated

Guest blogger Professor Johanna Van Gendt discovers that Virginia Woolf’s insights about aging and loss clarified what losing her father has been all about. This post reminds all of us how literature can be a source of comfort and self-awareness as we face loss.

“This is no book report. Rather, it is a thank you to Virginia Woolf for sharing her glorious prism of a novel, Mrs. Dalloway, whose scenes, characters and quotes have reverberated throughout my mind and my life since I first read it as a twenty-year-old.

The narrative is bookended by party preparations and a death; the backdrop is both post-war fatigue and the intimate bustle of Clarissa’s city. Each of these magnify not only the preciousness of life, but also of each passing moment. The centerpiece of the novel, for me, is this one insight from Mrs. Dalloway’s former lover, Peter Walsh: “The compensation of growing old, Peter Walsh thought, coming out of Regent’s park, and holding his hat in his hand, was simply this; that the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained-at last!–the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it round, slowly, in the light.” (p. 79) For me, nothing has been clamoring louder ‘to be turned round in the light’ than my father’s life and his recent death.

On one trip to Albany to clean out my father’s house–my childhood home–a neighbor stopped by. She said “your relationship with the deceased continues to grow even after death.” I thought that was an amazing premise. It’s true that as we cleaned, we discovered new things about his life. Commonly, adolescents react in frustration to their parents’ limitations. As an adult, their shortcomings seem not only forgivable, but also completely understandable, as your perspective grows—their intentions can still change, can become better. The leap from how I understood my father as a teenager to an adult, is nothing compared to the leap in understanding him that I made after his death. Attempting to appreciate the entire scope of a parent’s life is a project no less daunting than grief itself. As we sorted through his papers, we found documentation that he sold his wedding rings—our mother predeceased him–to pay for my sister’s law school—really only one example of how solidly he placed his life force behind our happiness and educations.

When I first read this novel as a twenty year old, I knew that it would be one that I returned to over and over again. I was a term abroad student, studying at the University of Sussex, living not too far from Monk’s House–Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s retreat. The house seems like a beautiful manifestation of the inside of the writer’s brain; as brilliant and comforting as the best of her writing. When I saw it as a twenty year old, it appealed to me as the sort of home I’d like to create; vibrant colors everywhere. Over the summer, as I’ve been cleaning out my father’s house and my childhood home—it’s even more obvious to me how home is imbued with self. Every item we donated, saved or threw away was filled with his energy; imprinted with his memories and way of thinking.

Home is self and Virginia Woolf understands this. A party–the opening up of one’s home to others—is an act of love. Clarissa knows although Mr. Dalloway doesn’t understand. Or perhaps a party is an act of ego. For her social status, she would want everyone to know that she is a good hostess—although an insult when coming from Peter Walsh. As for me, I love the anticipatory joy of preparing food for people I love.

Woolf captures feeling through her darting sentence structure. So much joy; and nervousness, too! Conventional sentence structure cannot contain; thoughts slammed against one another; running exuberance slammed against semi-colons; which slow down; but do not contain; unfettered joy. Or is Woolf’s Clarissa caught up in the mania of London’s city streets; whose shops beckon with bounty; or whose apartments are bursting-at-the seams with so many lives, stories, and perspectives that no novel could ever contain them. No party would be spectacular enough to express and share them. All we can do is dash down the street; as we complete the errands; to cultivate and share and experience; the night of a party; with the people we love.”

–Professor Johanna Van Gendt teaches English as a Second Language at Hudson County Community College in Jersey City, New Jersey.  This article is a reprint from that school’s  September 2015 Faculty Senate Perennial, a faculty magazine.

Faux Chaplains

A colleague recently wrote about the perplexing issue of well-meaning family and friends pressuring the patient with theological platitudes such as “You should not question God” or with bromides such as “Be thankful it is not worse.” (For Chaplain Stacy Sergent’s post, see She wrestles with how awkward it can be to jockey between shielding the patient from comments that isolate their feelings even more, and between honoring the family members’ own needs to quell their own anxiety. The following excerpt from my own book, Encountering the Edge is apropos:

“Even in the context of nearing the end of life, the patient and I have to sort out the nature of the relationship between us, no matter how transient it may turn out to be. Part of that relationship is the power imbalance between me as the professional and the patient… Upsetting the power imbalance works well when I am the one letting it happen. But there are less benign situations where someone else on hand other than the patient and family tries to take on the role of providing spiritual support in a dominating way. Not only do such persons usurp my role, they are, as faux chaplains, engaging in just the opposite of what clinically trained chaplains do. That is, despite best intentions, some people actually are preying on rather than praying for the patient and/or family, thus using the power imbalance for ill.

The problem of this misuse may be most clear in a context outside of hospice. A few weeks or so after the horrors of 9/11, victims’ families gathered in the renovated Central Railroad Terminal in Liberty State Park in Jersey City. A slew of social services were there to provide comfort to them in various ways, including a meal and the chance to pick up urns for their loved one’s ashes. Chaplain organizations, including the Association of Professional Chaplains (Protestant) and the National Association of Jewish Chaplains had summoned their members to help out with this event and circulate among the families to offer their nonjudgmental listening ears. I spent my time listening to families vent their anger and shock and feeling of senselessness. What I found most appalling was that some of the religious people on hand not trained to be chaplains were viewing the families as ripe for “being ready to know the Lord.” They handed out pamphlets galore and delivered their message but did not lend their ears. Yes, when people are in crisis they may find meaning and support by belief in a caring God. But people in crisis are vulnerable, and have less capacity to make decisions, including theological ones. A crisis can heighten ambivalence toward religion as well as resolve it…”

What follows in the book is an especially complex case of how I did my own hot-footed dance between handling a well-meaning friend who was overdosing on prayer with the patient, a spouse who wanted to buy the false hopes of her friend, and the dementia patient himself, who gave me subtle signals that he wanted peace and quiet. But you’ll have to read or listen to the book for yourself to find out what I did! (You didn’t expect me to give away the whole store, now did you? Encountering The Edge: What People Told Me Before They Died is available from Amazon and any other bookstore and on

Book Review of a Classic: At the Will of the Body

Once every so often I would glance at Arthur W. Frank’s memoir, At the Will of the Body, in my chaplain book collection and have a feel-good memory about it without knowing precisely why. I had not read it since the time I first started training to be a healthcare chaplain, which was in the late 90’s. What book could be that phenomenal that I still have fond memories of it for more than fifteen years? I decided to find out and reread it. Short answer: that one qualifies. The author is a highly articulate renowned sociologist who expresses his experience of two different sorts of diseases without rancor and without sentimentality. (He has since written  much more about “illness narratives.”)

As I read his experience of a heart attack and then of cancer, I found myself at the source of so much that I have incorporated in my interactions with patients. Straight off in the opening pages he asserts, “[The problem with] taking recovery to be the ideal is, how is it possible to find value in the experience of an illness that either lingers on as chronic or ends in death? The answer seems to be in focusing less on recovery and more on renewal. Even continuing illness and dying contain opportunities for renewal.” (p.2) Though I would rarely say so in so many words to a patient, on the right occasion I can guide a patient with open ended questions to making a perspective like that another choice to consider.

A recurrent theme throughout At the Will of the Body is his partially satisfying interactions with doctors and hospitals. Yes, they excelled medically, but fell far short spiritually and emotionally. For example, he says his doctor and he “talked about my heart as if we were consulting about some computer that was producing errors in the output. ‘It’ had a problem….Professional talk goes this way:’ A problem seems to have come up…Here’s our plan; any questions?’ Hearing this talk, I knew full well that I was being offered a deal. If my response was equally cool and professional, I would have at least a junior place on the management team.” (p. 10) As chaplain interns reading this book, we all yearned to be the ones to fill in the spiritual gap, thus the purpose I am sure we were to read it. If only one of us had been there, we thought, to “recognize the patient’s fear, frustration, and personal change,” he would not have suffered as much.

This book is so quotable. Just about every sentence would be a worthwhile Tweet. I noticed when I looked around at other blog reviews, at least one was more filled with quotes than commentary. Oh, I can’t resist either: here’s another: “The time when I cannot immediately put something into words is usually the time when I most need to express myself.” Doctors, as well-meaning as they may be, usually have no time for more than immediate dialogue. The beauty of making chaplains available is that competent ones are all about slowing down. About allowing no competitors for attention such as other people in the area or God forbid a digital device. They have the precious gift of open-ended time, where conversations can unfold at the deliberate pace that it takes to build trust, to risk being vulnerable, and to let pent up emotions gush out.

I hope that these many years later, that the book has become outdated in that respect. I hope chaplains are indeed filling in the gaps, and that doctors and nurses are more aware of how they can let their own “inner chaplain” at least spring into play long enough to acknowledge with a sentence or two what the patient may be experiencing. After the heart doc explained his plan of care to Arthur, he could have added, “Gee, this must really an earth-shaking experience for you.” Of course the danger here is that this might cue the patient to vent for a long time, but I think most know that the doctor’s time is very limited. This risk is worth it to make someone feel like a human being just with one sentence. Besides, a chaplain might be practically at the doctor’s elbow, waiting their turn to be there for you.

Post Script: I was going to end the article here, but when I looked at Twitter today, I saw a reference to the August 13th 2015 article in the online “Well” section of the NY Times called, “Doctors Fail to Address Patients’ Spiritual Needs.” The article is written by a doctor, who sees a heart-wrenching case and wonders if he is even to contact a priest, let alone bring up anything spiritual himself. He concludes, “I still regret my silence with that patient, but have tried to learn from it. Doctors themselves do not have to be spiritual or religious, but they should recognize that for many patients, these issues are important, especially at life’s end. If doctors don’t want to engage in these conversations, they shouldn’t. Instead, a physician can simply say: ‘Some patients would like to have a discussion with someone here about spiritual issues; some patients wouldn’t. If you would like to, we can arrange for someone to talk with you.’” Attaboy! Talk to us chaplains and make referrals!

Alas, At the Will of the Body is as timely now as it was years ago.

In One Ear And Into Another. Maybe.

You, a hospital patient, are meeting me for the first time. A sound-proof curtain divides the room between you and your roommate. Wait a second. Sound-proof curtain? That’s my bit of compassionate science fiction for the moment. If that kind of curtain existed, probably the percentage of patients who shared their true feelings and concerns with chaplains and others would soar. Even with total privacy, a patient who divulges their innermost thoughts to me is taking a gamble. Will I be insensitive to her making herself more vulnerable through such sharing? Will I fail to acknowledge her pain because I am distracted, incompetent or tired? Will she have wasted precious energy in our exchange? Or will the gamble be worth it as I validate what she is saying? So much of my verbal and nonverbal communication is about encouraging the patient to take that risk.

The hear-through curtain is one of those variables that make the gamble more risky. The roommate might be indifferent or asleep or wrapped up in convoluted problems of her own, but then again she might be eavesdropping. She might not be as friendly to you in the future. Or maybe what she overhears might disturb her. Thus sick people have the burden of this social calculus as well as the disease itself.

Assuming you cannot leave the room just then to come talk with me in a more private place, my action to create a space just for you and me may seem nothing more than some mystical idea in my head only. But this is what I do: besides keeping my voice down and sitting very close to you, I intensely focus just on you as if there was nobody and nothing else that could siphon off any of my attention away from you. I hope that by not glancing around the room, least of all at that spurious “privacy-granting” curtain, that my serious tone signals to your roommate that our conversation is none of her business. I hope my focus gives off the signal to anyone who happens by from the hallway that they are not to consider themselves included. I like to think I am carving out a private space for us, or at least that you sense my intent to do so.

If we are patients, may we come across the kind of person we sense it is worth the gamble to vent to. If we are caregivers, may we find ourselves ready to receive and confirm the patient’s experience, and to clear away or mitigate barriers to such reception.

A Dutiful Daughter’s Keeping Grief at Bay

Judith Henry, author of The Dutiful Daughter’s Guide to Caregiving: A Practical Memoir has an offbeat yet compassionate way of expressing herself, thus her inclusion here. For instance, advising us to “write our own obituaries to have the last word” is a novel take on the matter and humorous at the same time. Judith has a knack for describing what caregivers go through and what advice they could use, paving the way for those about to begin this role as well as affirming the complexities that more seasoned caregivers face. Her book also shows you what it might be like just after a loved one dies. There is the usual mixture of anger and sadness, but also the use of sarcasm and incongruous images.

It is worth pondering how using sarcasm and unexpected comparisons can help us grieve in the beginning. Death of a loved one is too much to take in, so any strategy we can latch onto to let this information come in a little bit at a time is a blessing. I have met with survivors who even months later would wonder out loud whether so-and-so was “really” dead. They knew this intellectually but could not absorb it emotionally. As Judith confronts the death of her mother, she uses humor to distance herself from the awfulness, to defend herself against it. Perhaps reading her description below will suggest how you too can find a way to add humor to your arsenal of healthy defenses if you are currently grieving.

[From a  section called,Dealing with Grief and Loss] “How many times can a daughter say the words ‘my mother has died’ without crying? For me — the stoic, the realist, the pragmatic ‘death is all part of life’ philosopher — only once.

A week after Mom’s passing, I drive to Orlando with my current ‘to-do’ list in hand. The first of many that serve to keep the grief at bay, this one addresses the business side of loss. The day is gray and rainy.

I’ve mapped out each step of my visit, beginning with the funeral home to pick up my mother’s ashes and multiple copies of her death certificate, which are soon to be handed out like flyers everywhere she’s had an account or an enrollment of some kind.

The funeral director speaks in hushed, respectful tones, but I don’t blink an eye when he presents me with the small, white cardboard box containing her remains. It looks like a present in need of a bow and with my lifelong tendency to ‘awfulize,’ I imagine someone breaking into the car to steal it. Figuring that my mother, of all people, would understand, I place the box safely in the trunk as I go about my other errands.

Next stop is the Orange County Courthouse to file her last will and testament. I get lost downtown and end up parking blocks and blocks away from where I need to be. After a twenty-minute hike in heels, I enter the security labyrinth of the courthouse lobby and stand speechless as a guard roots through my purse and proudly confiscates a pair of tweezers. What a relief that the chin hairs of Orlando, mine included, are safe for another day. The head of security tells me I can retrieve them on the way out. Like I am really going to add that to my freaking list.

Finding the second-floor Probate Division takes forever and requires directions from several people. When I finally walk into the right office, a woman with a genuine smile looks up at me from behind the counter and says in a warm southern drawl, ‘How can ah help you?’

The words ‘my mother has died,’ spill out of me with a flash flood of tears, and when she reaches out and squeezes my hand, I cry even more. Minutes later, I leave with a gift of tissues from her desk and a suggestion to do something nice for myself that day.

Arriving next at the neighborhood bank where my parents have kept a checking account and safe deposit box for more than 40 years, I walk up to Juanita, the young woman at Client Services, and say, ‘I’m here to close an account. My mother has died.’ The last sentence is barely out of my mouth when she comes around the desk and wraps her arms around me as a parent does a child. And I, almost 60 years of age, rest my head on her shoulder and sob.”


Judith Henry: "How to have the last word: write your own obituary"

Judith Henry: “How to have the last word: write your own obituary”

Judith Henry’s Biography

In addition to working on her second book and writing for online publications, Judith leads a well-loved writer’s group for caregivers, and does presentations on caring for aging parents, the benefits of expressive writing, how to create a legacy letter for family and friends, and having the last word by writing your own obituary. For more information about Judith and purchasing her book, go to.


Announcement to my followers and visitors: Now hear this! Encountering The Edge: What People Told Me Before They Died is now available as an audiobook on Amazon and on Go here for a free sample of the narrator’s emotionally touching voice (Cindy Pereira):

Foregoing Fireworks

One of Val's etchings

One of Val’s etchings

Instead of going in search for fireworks, my husband and I visited over sixty soldiers from the Revolutionary War buried about two miles from my home. After a July 4th ceremony in that church cemetery (the church was first built in 1697), I eavesdropped on the conversations of several clusters of people who were hanging around after a fifth grader sang the National Anthem and men dressed as colonial soldiers fired a 21-gun salute from a cannon. I paused at one cluster as I heard a man named Val speak of his commission to sandblast-etch a new stone for a soldier who fought alongside his father in one of the first battles of the war. As one speaker said during the ceremony, on June 6th 1780 the eighteen-year-old Hermanus Brown was “just a farm boy,” on June 7th, a “soldier” and on June 8th a “hero” when he was killed. The inscription taken from the original stone will read, Behold me here, as you pass by, Who died for Liberty, From British tyrants now I’m free, My friends prepare to follow me.”

As I changed from eavesdropper to conversational partner, Val took me around to the gravestones and explained how the lettering on them would give him some ideas for the new marker. He wanted to use a style that was contemporary with the other markers. Val made me notice characteristics I never have ever thought about before, such as the depth of the engravings, the decorative form of the letters, the fact that acid rain and salt erode the engravings, and that granite is much more durable than marble. As I looked carefully at the gravestones while he described how he makes modern engravings, I appreciated such things as the mix of script and print within one marker, and the variation in quality. One scribe was apparently an amateur because he ran out of room on one line and squeezed a few letters above it! Another had letters so ornate that they were a work of art. I also saw how the shapes of some of the letters in the alphabet had changed in the last two centuries. One last thing of interest is that some of the gravestones were sunk almost halfway into the ground, so I asked Val about that. He said it was preventable, though I do not recall the technical details.

A cemetery is a museum, not just a place to mourn. It is filled with the history of scribal art, language, trends (many child deaths), and in this case history of the independence of the United States. For a reflective moment and to capture the reverberations of community, you may someday wish to visit a local cemetery, or see one on your travels to new locales.


A personal note and announcement:

Today marks the second anniversary of this blog. Many thanks for following and commenting or simply stopping in to visit.

Also…..(drum roll)

Encountering The Edge will soon be available as an audiobook. “Stay tuned” for details.

Wanted: Word For “Former Widow”

In her poem “Name,” Unitarian Chaplain Maggie Yenoki yearns for a word for “former widow” or “both widow and bride.” There is no end to the varieties of grief and of love, and we all want affirmation that whatever we feel is real. I include this poem as one step in our affirmation of Maggie’s new identity:


What’s in a name? 

Googling this question takes you to Juliet’s rhetorical question of her beloved Romeo as he sheds his prized surname of Montague in William Shakespeare’s famous love story. 

My answer to this question comes from a heart matter as well, also illumined by death and by deep love. 

Six short months ago, when George & I wed, my name became the same as his.
We are One. Us.
We love Us.

Soon after the joyful whirlwind of our wedding day, the work began to change everything from Robert’s name to George’s.
From widow to bride?
No, I Am somehow both. 

Each time a straggling contact is informed of the name change, there is a palpable shift. A small but significant transformation of identity is granted with each edit, each deletion, each correction. I am not who I was. I am newly named. 

I now carry George’s name on every document; we inhabit one another. We love Us.

While no longer carrying Robert’s name on any document,
I carry him in my heart. I Am his widow.
There is no term for “former widow”.
We inhabit one another. We love Us. 

I wonder at the mosaic-like identity that comes with naming.
I wonder at my blended identity, widow and bride
I wonder at the identity of oneness. Us-ness. We are Us. We Love Us.

I am a new version of me, and a new name is appropriate.

Renamed by Love’s ever-enhancing life and expanding identity.
We love us.


This poem comes from Maggie Yenoki’s blog, Your Soul Tender, at   Maggie  received her Master of Divinity degree from Drew Theological School in 2012, and recently became a Candidate for Ministry in the Unitarian Universalist Association. She enjoys embracing newlywed life with her husband George, she loves serving those at the end-of-life, and is becoming certified as a Death Midwife and Home Funeral Guide. You can  contact her by emailing her at