Loss Is In The Details

I would never have noticed except that Pam pointed it out to me as I looked at her mother Nora sleeping in the hospital bed:  She did not have any eyebrows.  There were two crescent depressions in their place. “That’s because when Mom was eighteen years old she thought she would be smart and shave off her eyebrows and put makeup there to look like she had them. But they never grew back. So I would always see her, flipping out her little mirror, and making her quick little movements with her cosmetic pencil to make them keep looking like they were there. So it’s weird looking at her face and not seeing anything there where the eyebrows should be. So I miss seeing them there and now that she is too weak to use her liner I miss seeing her fill in those two bare recessed spots on her face.” Thus her mother had surrendered even her stand-in eyebrows for good.

Nora’s granddaughter Merced was there too, reminiscing about this micro story of the eyebrows as well. Meanwhile I could not help but notice that Pam’s and Merced’s eyebrows were only minimally present on their faces, like the sketchiest of crescents.  After everyone ran out of things to say about eyebrows, the talk tilted away from intimacy and more towards small talk, as if they were afraid anything more than a normal pause would hint they had enough of seeing a hospice chaplain and that I should go. Merced announced she was a real estate agent. I said, “I bet you encounter plenty of emotional drama with people buying and selling such an important thing like a home.”  “Oh yes,” she agreed. “Each home has its own story.”

I thought about Merced’s remark, and all that it implied. So much emotion and personal history is invested in the places we dwell in, and so much loss and confusion faced when we sell them. Then there is so much disorientation upon occupying another. If one little thing out of place like eyebrows gone missing can throw us off it is no wonder what a confounding experience it is to move into a new place.

Nora of course, who had transferred to a hospice residence, was in alien surroundings.  But almost constant sleep guarded her from registering all the other things she had given up besides the mock eyebrows. She still had one more “home” left to move to, and the story about that place is perhaps the one most often told albeit with so little to go on besides the hypotheses of one’s religion.

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Reprinted with permission from the blog, Expired and Inspired in the Jewish Journal, June 27th, 2018 at this link: http://jewishjournal.com/blogs/expiredandinspired/235492/loss-details-rabbi-karen-b-kaplan/

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On a personal note, this week marks the 5th anniversary of my blog, Offbeatcompassion. Would that be considered a “venerable” age in the blogosphere?

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Not The Last Word On Last Words

There is a mystique out there that a dying person’s last words will contain rare wisdom or will give us a clue about what awaits us in the Beyond.  Emily Dickinson’s last words were supposedly, “I must go in, for the fog is rising.” Even if she did say this, for the overwhelming majority of us, the idea of our last words being jam-packed with significance is just a romanticizing of the end of life. The death scenes in many movies of a loved one saying a few brave words, letting out a sigh, and then turning their head away as they painlessly depart are no closer to the truth.  Also, I am skeptical of people having the presence of mind at the very end to be witty as in the famous quote by Oscar Wilde, purportedly his last: “This wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. Either it goes or I do.”

Sorry to shatter this myth, but my experience on the job as a hospice chaplain is that last, or close to last words, are often mundane or consist of expressions of discomfort. “I am thirsty.” Or “I’m dizzy.” Or, “What time is it?” Or, “Oh my stomach hurts and I have to go to the bathroom” is more likely. Or something confused, as when I gave a woman some tepid tap water and she said, “That is the most delicious thing I have ever tasted.” There may not be any words at all, of course, if the patient is unresponsive or can no longer verbalize or is unintelligible or incoherent.

If it is any consolation, “next-to-last” words of a person still relatively clear-headed and sans dementia, can have more significance. “I love you” is very common, as are expressions of concern that the patient’s loved one will be able to get along after the patient is gone. Sometimes I do hear questioning of what their lives were all about, or declarations of faith or what has mattered most. One of my patients talked at length about some poems he wrote in a book he gave me as a present. He loved having me listen to him reading a few aloud and getting my reaction. He even asked if I would promote his book in my blog, something I could very much relate to as an author myself. Not many days later his life ended. In his memory I will mention the title of his book: Lifelines by Ben Verona (He chose this name, a pseudonym, because he thought it sounded Jewish and romantic and would attract female Jewish readers!)

Perhaps we want to think literally about final words because of the unknowability of death itself; as if part of what death is all about “seeps” into the final moments of life, throwing us a clue here and there. But unlike a novel or a film, alas for us real people, loose ends are left loose, and the ending after the ending is left undisclosed.

Fast Backward

Juliet, the wife of a patient of mine, used to work at the residence where I now serve as a chaplain before it became a hospice. “It was a place for elegant ladies,” she said, fondly reminiscing about the luxurious setting she experienced there some sixty years ago. “I would prepare their lunches and set the plates in front of them by the hand -carved napkin holders on the linen tablecloths and run other errands. And they wore gloves as they ate and most of them wore tiny white caps on their heads. They were so well-to-do. And another thing, if they wanted to leave the premises, they had to sign out with the receptionist to go out to lunch (never mind dinner) and then sign back in when they returned.” As she relived that time, I wondered where all this quaint standard of behavior really happened. In Mayberry perhaps?

The residence is actually in Elizabeth, New Jersey and still has the features of a mansion, such as chandeliers, a stairway carpeted with a floral design, sun rooms overlooking a gushing fountain, a miniature walkway, and gardens that meet the standards of squirrels and Siamese cats. One of my other patients there, who had been homeless, felt he too had fallen into the lap of luxury, as if sensing its former classiness. “This is like a hotel,” the former motorcycle repairman told me. “I get food brought over to me anytime I want and don’t have to do anything. I can stay in bed all day if I want.” He also liked not having to hustle for drugs and could get all the pain medications he wished on demand. His friend even cautioned him to treat us staff “real nice” because it was a special place and he should not do anything to get thrown out. But both of them knew darn well what he was there for, and the patient took a guess that he would last for two months and then that would be “it.” He figured the residence was a great warm-up for the hereafter. Nothing like ending on a high note. But before “it” happened, he showed me pictures of the detail work he did for motorbikes, and had me run a tape of a band he had played with on a cassette player borrowed from the recreation room.

The inhabitants at the residence, like the mansion itself, keep transplanting me back to their individual pasts as I listen. With so little future ahead, they prefer to unravel their own long histories rather than poke around their Spartan present. As I listen, I do the opposite of what you might expect from a chaplain: I midwife a rebirth of what has already occurred; I do not flash forward to presume what a patient may expect in the Beyond.

Book Review: Starting With Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love After Loss by Lisa Romeo

If an author is not famous, the trickiest thing about writing a memoir is to include material that interests others besides friends and family. This book makes that leap for the most part if you are grieving the loss of a father and your grief is ambivalent. That is, he was not abusive, but he lacked essential ingredients of closeness present in a healthy relationship between him and you as a son or daughter. If you are grieving a father who connected with you in some ways but not in others, and especially if he suffered from dementia in his final years, you will identify with Romeo (with a name like that who needs a pen name?) and feel that she has validated your mixed and confusing feelings of longing, resentment, remorse and perhaps admiration. If you are of Italian descent, you will find even more to relate to, with the author’s details on her Italian heritage.  As a “bonus” in this book, she has profound insights about dementia: “Did he know that his fondness for home, the spiked worry when not home, was him not being an old fart, but him needing to stay safe?”

Having to summarize her book in one word during a question and answer session, I was fascinated with her choice of “insistent.” I think this means she yearned to bridge the distance she and her father had created by using her imagination to “talk” with her dad after he died.  She explains, “I know that, for reasons I don’t completely understand yet and maybe never will, I’ve constructed this father to fill in for the one I could not talk to before.” Talk about yearning! Throughout the book she refers to second chances and how her “postmortem conversations” helped her gain more insights about her father and  accomplished the work of grieving.  By doing this, she is comforting readers who have felt something akin to this, thereby normalizing their feelings and helping them grieve as well.

As I read through Starting With Goodbye, my motivation for continuing to the end evolved. First I wanted to know what she meant by having conversations after the death, and what it means to have a relationship after the death, and what the conversations were about.  She is up front about imagining these dialogues as a tool to self-understanding, implying its relevance to the reader.  But hospice chaplain that I am, I started to analyze why she had the conversations. I was aroused to do so when she stated that guilt was not the issue in her “unfinished business.” I think it very much was, and I state this not to “win” an argument or show off, but to make the book even more relevant to a griever dealing with ambivalence toward a father or to any key family member. I also mention it because guilt and the like need more recognition as one of the tasks of normal grieving, especially in conflicted relationships. Romeo mentioned over and over how she regretted playing her own part in keeping a distance from her father, either through her sarcasm to him or avoiding visits as an adult.

If she is still grieving, then the part that may be unfinished, or had been unfinished while writing the book, may have to do with guilt or its cousins such as remorse, regret, and resentment. These emotions are a key component of ambivalent relationships: we yearn to be close to someone who could not be fully available that way. Yet we feel repulsed and rejected by the behavior that barred us from emotional access to them in the first place. That is indeed a painful thing to mourn. Romeo may not have explicitly stated this, but her whole book pulsates with this paradoxical theme, thereby rendering spiritual and emotional healing to  readers who themselves are stuck in this agonizing push-pull with loved ones even beyond death.

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Lisa Romeo is a manuscript editor and consultant. Her nonfiction is among Notables in Best American Essays 2016 and she has been published in The New York Times.  Her book is available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble as well as from independent bookstores. Her YouTube video is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zJENeXCAKbs

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive 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.”

Why I Sing To People Who Are Dying

Announcement: This is the title of my guest post in a new blog called samada.com, which I think of as a one-stop shopping place for all your end-of-life needs.  The link to my post there is https://samada.com/health/singing-to-people-who-are-dying/

Tomorrow May 25, 2018 you can stop in to Offbeatcompassion for my book review of Starting With Goodbye by Lisa Romeo, who talks of dealing with her ambivalent grief through imaginary conversations with her father after he is gone.

 

 

 

Feedback From The Beyond: A Fantasy in Two Parts

A hospice nurse told me an afterlife fantasy so captivating it has stuck in my mind for months. She said, “When I am in heaven, I hope to see every patient I have taken care of. All they have to do is file by and nod at me.” She has been in this line of work for many years; she would probably have to reserve several hotel ballrooms in the beyond in order to accommodate them all. The amount of people hospice staff see really does add up quickly. Say I see three patients and one or two family members a day three days a week which becomes about 780 people a year, then in ten years that is about 8,000 people. And that is just working part time.

As in any helping profession, we hospice workers yearn to know if we are making a positive difference. But unlike other professions, it’s a different story in that our patients cannot exactly give us feedback once discharged into the next world.  Not counting family, it’s not like we can conduct an exit interview! And the vast majority of family members do not return bereavement calls so we do not often get even a secondhand account of “how we did.” So I think that is why that nurse has um “nursed” that image as I have.

I have to be contented with what patients say in the here and now, and hope that the few who express their appreciation for letting them vent or helping them with some unresolved issue or simply entertaining them (I sing but I can’t dance), are representative of what I have done for others.

The nurse’s fantasy also is about how our patients have impacted us. I have learned about so many points of view that I am unfamiliar with or have little exposure to, such as those who voted for Trump, or those who believe that they are going to a mansion in the afterlife even if it has to be one of the smaller ones due to their sins, or who hunted and fished on their time off, or who fled Puerto Rico years ago because the island is going bankrupt, or who have had jobs I have never heard of such as  “recycling” bricks by cleaning old ones from a demolished building for use in a new one.

If I could reverse this fantasy and make me the one who files past all my deceased patients, I would hope that I would nod at those I felt privileged to know because of their passionate caring for those around them until the last moments of lucidity. I would nod at those who have dampened my fear of death, those who have shared their creativity with me—the other day a poet gave me a copy of his book of poems and signed it with a personalized message before dying just days later— I would nod at those who challenged my religious beliefs, and to all those who reminded me to slow down and relax. As for those who wish to nod back at me in return: that would be heavenly indeed.

How To Honor Thy Abusive Mother And Father

Guest blogger Rabbi Dinerstein-Kurs wrestles with this perplexing paradox and comes out on top, and in the process, comforts those of us who have had abusive parents:

“For those of us who had neglectful or abusive parents now deceased, what do you do with the Fifth Commandment, which seems to say be good to them by honoring them with memorial prayers? I think the question should be flipped: How can one have positive self-esteem yet still honor such a parent?

Data and surveys show that certain negative behaviors of parents – witnessed by children – can often lead to children continuing that behavior. To honor ourselves, we would have to make a concerted effort to knowingly and willingly and purposefully separate ourselves from such parents, the bad influencers.

During our moments of memorial prayer we can give thanks that we are not them. We can review the past with sadness, but hopefully also see the present and how far we have come in spite of their actions. That we have overcome, that we are stronger for it, as we are standing here and are no longer broken. For those of us who are not yet completely healed – Please God – there is tomorrow.

In bad times, we need to build ourselves up, even when others try to knock us down. Remaining strong is the biggest push back to their attempts to keep us weak.

These prayerful moments such as at the anniversary of a death afford us the opportunity to give the royal finger, saying, ‘I am a survivor of your actions. I am here, I am relatively happy, and I will move forward.  My horrible memories can be countered by my successes.’ There is no law preventing anyone from changing the words of the prayer to fit the occasion (custom – maybe – but not law). Reinvent the prayer to say what is in your heart.

So with every moment of a memorial prayer, those of us who might find love and loss difficult concepts recalling their various and sundry relationships, we might take the time of prayer as our personal time to:

1) Smile as we free ourselves to say the truth.

2) Be proud that we are not them.

3) Stand up tall, shoulders back – for what we have accomplished in spite of them!

4) Thank Adonai that we have become the fabulous persons that we are – on our own – with little or no help from them, and likely no support!!

5) Pray with gratitude and joy that we have this opportunity to dilute a toxic relationship and call it out for what it really was.

6) Rather than dwell on the negative past rejoice in our positive present. May we have the strength to look back and acknowledge the pain…but also have the strength to move forward in gladness.

Here’s to our continued successes!  AMEN!”

Rabbi Laurie Dinerstein-Kurs hails from Brooklyn.  She held the Federation position of  Mercy County Chaplain for 15 years in New Jersey.  Her two children have blessed her with grandchildren. The original version of this article, in a version more relevant to Jewish readers, appears in the Jewish Journal: http://jewishjournal.com/blogs/expiredandinspired/225687/different-take-kaddishyizkor-issue-rabbi-laurie-dinnerstein-kurs/