A Garment You MIGHT Wish to Be Caught Dead In

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Karen B. Kaplan:

Guest blogger Joanna Shears caught my attention because she writes about death in an even jauntier tone than I. In her Twitter profile @winding_blog, she styles herself as a “promoter of death positivity,” and in her blog she largely focuses on creative funeral planning. This September 26, 2014 post of hers is about designer shrouds and how we ourselves can be the designers!

Originally posted on The Winding Sheet:

As I’m always banging on about the importance of preparing for your own funeral in advance I thought it was time for me to shut up, put my money where my mouth is and get on with it. Having thought long and hard about what kind of disposal and ceremony I want I have decided on an eco woodland burial (hopefully in the same woodland as my nan). I’m super passionate about funerals that give something back to the earth instead of taking from it. I don’t want to be buried in a big wooden lead-lined coffin and if anyone even thinks about embalming me I’m coming back to haunt you!

With this in mind I have decided to forego a coffin completely and be laid to rest in a shroud (aka winding sheet). These days shrouds can come in all different designs and shapes and materials but basically a…

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How To Be Alive And Like It Too

The lower you go down on a trampoline, the higher you go into the air. Perhaps this dynamic of one extreme begetting another is at play in the heating up of opinions on assisted suicide. I think the more that technology allows life to be extended at all costs (literally and figuratively), the less we feel in charge of our final days. Hellish stories abound of health professionals keeping people alive by tortuous procedures who cannot communicate their potential wish to discontinue them. In other words, it is coercion. But assisted suicide can involve coercion as well.

I think fear fuels both extremes. The futile treatments and withholding of pain medications which may shorten life is about the fear of death, whether originating from the one dying or their loved ones. It is an attempt to escape killing the fear rather than letting the person die. But the wish to legalize assisted suicide stems from the fear of facing the remaining days of a life so dreadful that it would be worse than death.

There is a middle ground despite the vested interests of some institutions and health care professionals to keep it hidden. There is an alternative to actively prolonging life or finding an escape clause in a death ahead of schedule. Rather than work to ban one extreme or the other, I think our efforts should be to make that middle ground so attractive that patients and their families will resort to the extremes less and less. (I feel the same way about abortion. I am not in favor of banning it. Instead, society should make alternatives available and attractive. In both cases, assisted suicide and abortion, I am talking about incentivizing life.)

While not a cure-all so to speak, hospice is that middle ground. How ironic that uninformed individuals think that going on hospice means “giving up.” I never have heard anyone refer to assisted suicide that way. If someone contemplating assisted suicide is reading this, then can you at least “give hospice a try” before going the “nonrefundable” route? See what the nurse can do about pain. See what the social worker and chaplain can do about feelings of guilt and depression regarding emotionally and financially depleted caregivers. See what the whole hospice team can do to join your search for any potentially remaining sources of meaning. Some unexpected reason for living may turn up. As for the other extreme, hospice is the gateway to appropriate pain relief such as morphine that other types of care preclude due to fear of legal consequences, addiction (obviously an irrelevant concern for terminal patients), or ignorance. It is also a safeguard against “treatments” that increase or prolong suffering. Not only are many if not all such treatments not allowed in order for patients to remain on hospice, the hospice team is available to address their or their loved one’s fears behind the desire to pursue such treatments.

As with any fears, the more we lay them bare, the more each of us will restore control of our destiny.

How to Avoid “Comforting” the Bereaved with Uncomforting Sayings

Announcement on March 22nd–Just in: on this date my post called Why I Am a Stuffed Shirt about Jeans at a Funeral is the top trending one in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal. The link is: http://www.jewishjournal.com/expiredandinspired/item/why_i_am_a_stuffed_shirt_about_jeans_at_a_funeral


This week’s guest post is by professional listener  Mr. Marc Wong:

Have you ever found yourself tongue-tied, in the middle of an awkward silence, with someone else who is going through an emotional situation? In moments like these, it’s easy to say something wrong and make people feel worse.

Fortunately, there’s a simple way to determine what to say. If you wouldn’t say it in a movie, then you shouldn’t say it to an upset friend.

Let me use one of my favorite movies to explain this. It’s called “A Few Good Men.” Jack Nicholson was nominated for an Oscar for playing the arrogant Colonel Jessop in the movie. In the climactic courtroom scene at the end, he yells the famous line at Lieutenant Kaffee (played by Tom Cruise), “You can’t handle the truth!” Lieutenant Kaffee doesn’t back down. He bears down on Jessop, and ultimately gets him to confess to the crime.

But imagine if Colonel Jessop had simply said, “Maybe it was all for the best.”

And Lieutenant Kaffee agreed, “You’re right. Let’s just move on.”

And the jury returned a not guilty verdict for the wrongfully accused and the movie ended.

This vastly unsatisfying alternative ending helps to explain why we shouldn’t say certain things when we’re comforting someone (and in the case of the movie, confronting someone.). Karen Kaplan, in her Feb 16, 2015 interview on the Homestead Hospice radio show, explored the subject of how to listen to people who are grieving. A well-meaning person might say one of the following to their friend:

“At least they died peacefully.”

“Feel better. They’re not suffering anymore.”

And of course, “Maybe it was for the best.”

Unfortunately, these comments don’t honor the pain, suffering, confusion, and efforts of the grieving. Imagine the characters saying these things in the middle of a movie. It would never work. The comments come from nowhere and just throw you off.

You see, the delicate emotions we feel in a movie are similar to the real emotions that life thrusts upon us. What works or doesn’t work in movies is similar to what happens in life. We can’t magically make things better or help the process along with a few simple comments.

The truth is, these comments are more about our haste to put an upbeat spin on things, to end the awkwardness, or even to vent our own fears and confusion. But it’s tough for our friends to deal with our stuff on top of their own turmoil.

What we can do is to share the pain and discomfort. We can share the journey. We can offer a hug or other concrete assistance. If we really don’t know what to say, we can just keep quiet and be an audience, which is often more useful than we realize. We can walk by our friend’s side and allow them to discover at their own pace, their own dignity and courage.

—- Marc Wong helps people unleash the power of listening. Web: www.8steplisten.com Twitter: @8Steplisten (Twitter is how I originally met Marc. We share an interest in enabling compassionate listening.) Have a romp through his site to see some engaging graphics and more on his movie imagery.

Marc Wong, author of "Thank You for Listening: Gain Influence & Improve Relationships, Better Listening in 8 Steps".

Marc Wong, author of “Thank You for Listening: Gain Influence & Improve Relationships, Better Listening in 8 Steps”.

My Fascination with Detractors

As I was setting up my display table for a book reading at Crane’s Mill Retirement Community, a woman hurried over to point to the subtitle of my book and say, “Why would anyone want to know what other people said at the end?” As I answered, I had the feeling that no answer would do, because after I did so, she retorted, disappointment marring her face, “That’s what I thought you would say,” and took off before I could refine the dialogue further. My answer had been, “As we hear what people say at such a poignant and intimate time, we can gain some insight as to what is important and meaningful to ourselves, and ponder how we want to spend the rest of our own lives.”

I wonder what she was after, and why she was so unsatisfied by my answer. Shall we speculate? (I say “we” because you can respond in the comments section after this post.) If she had lingered longer, perhaps our dialogue would have gone like this:

Me: What do you wish I had said?

Her: Well I’m not sure, but that is the expected answer.

Me: (Nodding in agreement) Uh-huh. A canned answer.

Her: (Flustered) Well no it’s you see it’s just like wanting to know what is going through a prisoner’s mind before they get executed.

Me: What would be scary about finding out?

Her: Oh I don’t know about scary. Some things are better left to the imagination.

Me: My curiosity does get the better of me sometimes.

Her: I suppose there’s no harm in that. But why about such a….such a (look of distaste on her face) subject.

Me: I guess finding out what people think towards the end makes you uneasy. Maybe for you it’s not like what people say who are about to start a new job or how are about to retire or who are trying something else that’s new for the first time.

Her: Yes, those are different.

Me: (I keep quiet, wondering if I’ve struck gold.)

Her: This is too close to home. (She pauses and I refrain from any potential diversions from what she needs to articulate.) It’s private. We shouldn’t know about what other people say. It’s like, I don’t know, it’s like catching someone in their pajamas. Like you first said, it’s a very personal time.

Me: When someone is dying, or looking back on their life as a whole, it can be very intimate. And when we hear about these conversations, we can feel very vulnerable and unprotected. Perhaps you have lost a loved one recently. I hope, though, that in the spirit that I reveal these encounters, that readers will feel accompanied and understood rather than intruded upon.

Her: (She nods and thanks me, leaving me wondering what even deeper layer would evolve if we were to speak at a future time. Had she lost someone recently? Had that person not talked with her towards the end and left her feeling alienated? Had she herself not broached important but scary subjects and regrets not having done so while she still had the chance? Perhaps she did not like my initial answer because it reminded her that she failed to make use of that intimate and irretrievable time.)


You: (If that woman had engaged in a dialogue with you about her repugnance at finding out what other people say at the end, what other direction might it have gone?)

How to Help by Not Helping

Ever wonder what is inside a chaplain’s head as they ply their trade? How they counsel grievers and persons facing their own end? In a Homestead Hospice radio interview, I explain how I “help by not helping,”  a Zen-like concept which meets with some resistance from the host, a hospice professional. The interview is about 50 minutes long, which I realize is quite an investment of time compared to reading my written posts. So I most recommend it to: (1) aspiring chaplains (2) aspiring bereavement therapists, (3) anyone who wants to understand what might go through chaplains’ minds in the middle of interacting with you  and (4) anyone curious about what I sound like!

The Youtube link is as follows: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D8VsIb1rKcA



The Holding Cell

If you want to make  hospice workers wince, just tell them about an unresponsive patient with no discernible quality of life alive only on account of feeding tubes and the like. And not only that, some family members insist on this even with no anticipated increase and possibly even a decrease in the patient’s quality of life. As one of my clients who did not request this for his own dying loved one said, “There is a difference between living and between merely existing.” However, the common wisdom is that the motive for family members who do beg to differ and wish to “do everything possible” to maintain their loved one’s life, stems from their own fears of death. Or that by pulling the plug they are sinning or at the very least will feel guilty about giving up.

I think a different fear drives some families to keep their loved ones nominally alive. It is the fear of launching probably the hardest task one can undertake: grieving. Let us suppose for the moment that we are looking at a case where avoiding grief is the primary reason the ventilator and whatnot are plugging away with no end in sight. As awful as that is, it is a way to psychologically stall time. It sticks the patient in the twilight zone between living and being dead. He is being put on hold if I may say. But the family too is in suspended animation, no longer relating to their loved one in the usual understanding of “relating.” Yet, neither can they go full swing into grieving because the patient is not dead. No funeral can take place to do its job of acknowledging the end of a life and of lending public support to the family’s grief. No friends can affirm how sad it is and be there to offer condolences and ongoing offers of help. Whatever grieving does leak through “in advance” is lonely and unarticulated and unsupported.

Fear is so powerful that it can cause cruelty and unethical behavior. A supervisor’s fear of being outperformed by a subordinate can result in that subordinate’s dismissal. Fear of grieving can result in keeping someone alive even when there is a “negative” quality of life due to pain. Let us release them and us from our holding cells. Let us a face the repercussions on our own souls and our own reduced quality of life if we let fear rule over us. Muster enough strength to let our loved ones rest in peace.

The Very Odd Couple

One circumstance even more intimidating for me as a chaplain than offering pastoral care to other clergy is to do so for Holocaust survivors and their family members. I imagine it must be daunting for Jewish burial society volunteers as well. The “prime directive” for chaplains is to say little and listen a lot, but in the presence of Holocaust survivors I have to make sure I do not take refuge behind that rule rather than use it for spiritual healing.

“Spiritual healing?” Are we kidding ourselves? Surely it is presumptuous of us to think we can offer that to people who have faced absolute evil.  I feel absurd talking with them about such things as God and the sources of evil unless of course they are the ones who bring it up. Who am I, so unschooled in evil with my petty experiences of sorrow? I remember a phone call I had with a deceased Holocaust survivor’s sister who I will call Madge. The subject had surfaced somehow in reference to her brother about how Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) accounts for the existence of evil. The gist of the explanation is that when elements of existence are out of balance, then what is normally wholesome gets distorted into evil. When Madge dismissed that as “rubbish,” I certainly was not going to argue the point or even explore it to gain a deeper understanding of why she felt that way. Just as trying to make sense of the Holocaust is absurd, it felt ludicrous to bring in any theology surrounding it. She was expressing anger, and my job was to accept and affirm her emotion, nothing else.

What also gives our efforts to comfort Holocaust survivors a false note is what their very existence implies: they suffered, and we have had it so easy (“Survivor guilt” is the term for this feeling, as when a child dies but the parent lives on in perfect health). We may have felt that God is present in our own privileged lives, which may feel like nothing more than a conceit on our part given God’s lack of presence with Madge let alone with her brother.

We cannot offer comfort in the midst of our own discomfort. We cannot give answers to unanswerable questions. But the paradox that can lead to spiritual healing is to acknowledge the lack of it in people like Madge. We help by not helping, as a Kabbalist might say. When we make no pretense of offering answers to their laments, when we do nothing more than hear their distress and not attempt to ease it, the very act of making ourselves vulnerable and entering their overburdened world is precisely what renders it more bearable to them.

–Reprinted from my guest post entitled “The Very Odd Couple.” This appeared in the blog “Expired and Inspired” (hosted by the Jewish burial society Kavod V’Nichum) in the online Los Angeles Jewish Journal December 17th, 2014

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Additional note: It is especially fitting to post an article at this time related to the Holocaust; January 27th, was the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camp Auschwitz.