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.

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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/

 

Endangered Memories

“When I look at even a tiny scrap of paper in all the ‘clutter’ I can’t part with,” my cousin reflected, “the whole memory comes rushing back, completely reconstructed.” I was having a heart-to-heart discussion with her about hoarding and clutter in general. Being a “declutterer” par excellence I wanted to understand more about savers, and possibly more about why I am so “Spartan” (as a saver friend of mine puts it). So when I asked my cousin why it was so hard to part with what she admitted were “no longer necessary things like the three extra coats my mother had and which are just sitting there in the closet,” she gave me a moving answer: “If I throw something out, I am so afraid I will lose the memory.”

I think my cousin would highly appreciate what some wise aliens had to say to a human visitor who could not fathom why memories of a pleasant event are “just as good” as the event itself. In Out of the Silent Planet by C. S. Lewis, the alien patiently explains to the human that memory is not separate from the event remembered:

“A pleasure and the memory are all one thing…What you call remembering is the last part of the pleasure. When you and I first met, the meeting was over very shortly, it was nothing. Now it is growing something as we remember it. But still we know very little about it. What it will be when I remember it as I lie down to die, what it makes in me all my days until then—that is the real meeting. The other is only the beginning of it.”

Now that may be going too far, but so much about religion is about remembering, and by so doing, reenacting the event. The example that comes most readily to me as a Jew is Passover, where the principal purpose of the ceremonial meal (Seder) is to relive the story of transitioning from slavery to freedom. The Sabbath is about recalling the opening moments of Creation and the refreshing break that God took after all that work, which goes for us too at the end of each week. And for Christians, Easter is about “replaying” the events surrounding the end and the new beginning of the life of Jesus. That is a lot of remembering!

When we lose someone, they die. But our memories of them can last throughout our own lifetime. True, they are a distant remove from the “real thing,” but we cling onto whatever we can. Maybe that is why we do whatever it takes to make these memories as enduring as possible. For those of us who identify with a particular faith, we do not want to “forget” the pivotal events that make up our identity and understanding of who we are such as becoming a free and distinct people and receiving the Ten Commandments. As individuals, we want to remember our loved ones through letters (I can’t seem to bring myself to say “emails”), photos, videos, conversations with others who knew them, and through things they owned such as jewelry, awards, or things they created. Yes, things can add up and become clutter. And yes, saving too little can imperil those cherished memories, causing a secondary death.

But whether you are a “saver” or a “declutterer,” there is another even more enduring way to keep them alive: the ethical and other life-affirming deeds we perform as a result of the influence of our loved ones perpetuates their legacy. Just as whenever we read sacred writings we can ponder what is being revealed to us at that moment, when we carry out the good deeds that our loved one has done and has modeled for us to do, these bring our loved one to life anew.

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With permission, this article was reprinted with some modifications from the blog, “Expired and Inspired,” a Jewish Burial Society blog regularly published in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal. The link, of especial interest to the Jewish reader, can be found here: http://jewishjournal.com/blogs/expiredandinspired/231943/mementos-mori-rabbi-karen-b-kaplan/ .

Grief Without A Home

Famous essayists can go through it too, and of course express it so eloquently—the kind of grief nobody thinks should count as “real.”  Or has no business being present. Anita Diamant, author of The Red Tent and columnist for The Boston Globe Magazine, writes about grieving for her ex-father-in-law:  “My grief had no quarter. I would not be counted as a mourner [at the funeral and subsequent prayer services]. There was no prayer for a former daughter-in-law to say. When I told people of my loss, they said, ‘I always forget you were married before.’ So I wrapped up my mourning in a private bundle…I am stunned at how people interrupted my reminiscences about Milton’s  generosity. I didn’t want to be distracted from my sadness. I didn’t want cheering up. But for losses like mine, losses without standing or status, grief is an orphaned state, and lonely.”

When I read that, I longed to immediately write back to her and say, “How I hear your distress! We chaplains know exactly what you mean and want to listen and not distract or cheer you up. Just give me a ring and I will listen.”

Diamant titled her essay, “Grief, Dispossessed.” That is a much more vivid term than the official term “disenfranchised grief.” “Dispossessed” means being made homeless. Dispossessed grief is like someone throwing you out of your home after all the lights in the town have dimmed. When you grieve someone or something not recognized by loved ones or our society, such as death of an ex-spouse, a miscarriage, hopes one had for oneself or someone else, or loss of a partner in a hidden gay relationship, you get a one-two punch. One for the loss, and one for having to hide the loss or having the loss dismissed by everyone as not legit.

So if you are on the punching end, ponder how to change thy ways. Prescription : reread this post.

If you are being punched, persist until you find someone who will give you a home for your grief, completely furnished with love, acceptance and patience.

Not Your Typical New Orleans Photo

One of the elements that draws me to my kind of work (hospice) or to a story or in this case a photo, is its mixture of loss and resilience. Friend and photographer Jay Martin was in New Orleans during the Sugar Bowl and took this shot of a  person selling beads.   I invite my site visitors to let the photo speak for itself to you of obstacles versus moving along, of drabness versus color, of frivolity versus labor, of being in the center versus going unnoticed. Do you wonder along with me how he navigated with his arms extended, and whether  stretching them out like that was onerous?

Here is what Mr. Martin had to say: “I took the picture of the man selling beads from his wheelchair during Sugar Bowl festivities in the French Quarter, early afternoon, Friday, 29 Dec. ’17. A small parade of floats, marching bands, and anyone who wanted to be in the parade wound its way through the quarter. I could hear the bands playing as I spotted the man, shouting to prospective buyers– ‘Beads! Beads!’–on Bourbon.”

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Jay Martin is a technical and science writer who lives with his wife and cat in San Francisco. He has interacted with photography for over 30 years, taking pictures of people and animals. He thinks he can understand the world a little better than he did the day before by daily observation through the lens.

 

 

How To Have The Final Farewell Without Fear

It’s about time I figured this out after nine years as a hospice chaplain. A patient’s daughter showed me how to tamp down my intermittent fear of death. And you don’t even have to buy into an afterlife to value what Jill said.  It was a “usual” day at work, and I was talking with her as she was nearing the point of losing her loved one then and there. She just up and made the following aphorism:  “When you are tired, you go to sleep. When you are Tired, you are ready to pass on.”

Naturally she did not “capitalize” and “bold” the “t” with some auditory equivalent, but this is what I pictured as she said it. Depending on what “tired” writ large suggests to you, I believe whatever you come up with would illustrate what she meant, making it a superb aphorism indeed. When my turn to die comes, I think being Tired will mean feeling satisfied that I accomplished and enjoyed personal and creative and professional goals but at the same time having such a low physical quality of life that I will be good and ready to say bye bye. Maybe for someone else it will mean once all their loved ones are gone, they will be ready to leave everything else behind. And for someone who believes in an afterlife, (I am an agnostic in that regard) it may mean they are ready to join those who preceded them, continuing their love on a different level.

Like the aphorism, it may be wise to keep this post unusually short and conclude by asking you two questions: (1) Does this lady’s remark mean anything to you too or does it seem trivial and/or obvious? (2) If you do find it meaningful, what might make you feel “Tired” enough for your own farewell?

Film Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Although this provocative and fascinating film is “old news” having come out in 2008, I heartily recommend it for its timeless themes. This fantasy captivates me because it challenges assumptions about youth and old age so much that I was tempted to title this post, “The Elixir of Old Age”. The movie is about an individual born in his eighties, found abandoned on the porch of a nursing home who then gets younger instead of older as time passes. At first this sounds marvelous: why not get over all the bad stuff like arthritis and forgetfulness and baggy eyes in the beginning and have things get better and better, not only physically, but spiritually? There we would be, with the wisdom of our mature brains reflecting how we could make better use of those years of being in top shape and be attuned to appreciating them more once we reach them. Sure enough, as Benjamin becomes younger, he luxuriates in being able to do more things. He abandons the wheelchair. He then abandons one crutch, then the other. He enjoys getting a job on a ship because it is fun to be doing things “and even getting paid for it.” But life gets very complicated as he forms various bonds, including romantic ones…..But in case you have not seen the film, I won’t say much more about that part of the story save that what happens is not hackneyed but also most insightful.

But picture how getting younger would actually work out.  If we were to grow younger, and the ones we love grow older, we would have less and less in common with them. We would have less and less to share with them and we would literally be growing further and further apart. Just think of how it would accelerate or mutate the changing roles in our relationships, especially across the generations. Say my 13-year-old niece gets married in thirty years, would I want to be around her age at the time? When they have their 10th anniversary, how would I relate to them as a much younger person? The feelings of loss we all experience arise at least in part from the loss of connection we have with others, and being out of temporal sync would be another spur to such loss.

This film made me think about how glad I am to be growing old along with my husband, other family, and friends. We are increasing and deepening rather than decreasing our connections in so many ways. We have a growing stock of shared experiences, challenges, and insights. We have a shared understanding of what it is like to be older, and therefore can empathize with the limitations that others face. As he “younged,” Benjamin Button found himself even cutting off relationships he was doing well in, because he feared the consequences of eventually having to be taken care of as well as being cared about. The darkest side of becoming younger became painfully clear to him as he wandered about as a teenager for many years with virtually no connection with others at all.  This is as close to a living death that one can get. Although some of our loved ones including ourselves may have to be cared for, I see in a vast majority of cases, the people involved continue relating to each other on whatever level that may be. Unlike Benjamin, I rarely witness the caregiver nor care receiver completely cutting themselves off from each other except of course due to certain diseases or other extreme matters.

Whatever our circumstances, I rejoice in the ever deepening connections I have with people I have known, as well as the increased quantity of connections with new people I meet. Our stories get longer and filled with recurrent themes as we journey in step. Benjamin ends up as a baby…with no memories… at last closing his eyes, uninitiated.