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.

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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:

Name

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 http://chaplainmaggie.tumblr.com   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 soultender.maggie@gmail.com    

The Finals Week Results Are In. Everyone Passed!

To celebrate finals week, my last post consisted of a real dialogue between a chaplain and her patient. I gave all of my readers a test to see if they could identify problems with how the chaplain did her job. I am reproducing the dialogue here for everyone’s convenience followed by my evaluation of the answers that over a dozen people gave. Smart but tough crowd! To see their original comments, please see my previous post. Here is the dialogue:

Chaplain: interaction #1   (The patient seemed alert and was sitting up in bed reading a book. The chaplain knocked on the door.)

Patient: interaction #1     Yes, come in.

C2     Mrs. Jones, I’m So and So, the chaplain-on-call.   I understand that you wanted to visit with a chaplain.

P2     (She smiled.)  I like the way you said that…”to visit with a chaplain.” Our minister said that there would be chaplains available to talk to if I wanted to.  (She winced some. I sensed that she might be in some pain.  I waited a moment and then responded).

C3     Indeed, I am here to visit with you, Mrs. Jones.  Am I picking up that you are in some pain right now?

P3    (Smiling but still wincing some.)  You observed accurately, Chaplain. I am having some pain.  Not a lot but some.  By the way, it’s Mary. (A slight pause).  I hate being in the hospital. The nurses are very sweet, and I have a very competent oncologist.  But being here is such a waste of time.

C4    Mary, you sound like a busy person.  It’s no fun just to lie here, especially in some pain, when you could be doing…what?

P4     I’m a manager of a large real estate company…Oh (she winces again).

C5     Mary, are you sure you feel like visiting now?  I could come back another time, say, in the morning.

P5      Chaplain, you don’t need to stay.  I know there’re probably some here worse off than me.

C6     Mary, if you want me to stay, I will.  You’re important, and you did have the nurse page me.

P6     (Smiles slightly).  Thanks, Chaplain.  I would like to talk…I really don’t want to talk about it…But (winces slightly…pauses.)…I know I need to…My family physician came by while my daughter was here earlier… [She then tells her concerns in the rest of this transcript]

My steller class picked up on three issues. The first was about the patient’s physical pain. Nancy makes the pun that the chaplain “wasted time” by discussing pain. Not only once, but three times she refers to it. Cathy acknowledges that the chaplain can ask about pain, but that she should then ask the patient what the patient herself wanted to discuss. Cathy by the way also picked up on the patient’s hesitation to ask for help, manifested by her saying to the chaplain that she probably has other patients to visit who are “worse off.” This hesitation was made worse by the chaplain’s ambiguous signals about her availability.

Vicki correctly explains that to be fair, pain must be addressed. The whole hospice team is supposed to address the issue of pain during a visit, and to report it to the nurse right away if necessary and if the patient gives permission to do so. But then, anyone visiting is free to address other issues. Peg says the chaplain shows discomfort through all this talk about pain and wants to run away from it. Now that’s an astute answer. Perhaps the chaplain was focusing on physical pain to avoid dealing with emotional and spiritual pain! DJ speaks to that as well.

Another issue was how the chaplain responded to Mary’s assertion that being in the hospital was a “waste of time.” Many of you said the chaplain should not have tried to guess what the patient meant by that. Let the patient do the explaining. You get an “A” for that extremely important point. As Gydle said, maybe the patient wanted to talk about nearing the end of her life and could think of far better ways to spend her time. Sande thinks the chaplain’s guess as to what wasting time meant was a lot more about the chaplain’s own issues than the patient’s. Right you are! Jessica said never to assume what the patient needs. Instead, ask an open-ended question. Jane got that right too. As for Elizabeth, she is being very very generous to us chaplains.

The biggest issue in my opinion is the mixed signals the chaplain gave about wanting to be there. Strangely enough, she is basically asking the patient if she is sure she wants the chaplain there. This wrong signal definitely came across because the patient takes it as a hint that the chaplain rather be elsewhere. I give Leah kudos for the following perceptive answer: “Maybe the chaplain was looking for assurance that Mary wanted her there.” Talk about having it backwards! Chaplains should be reassuring patients, not the reverse. Thus the chaplain was showing her own discomfort, which almost got in the way of a successful visit when she gave the chaplain a way to get off the hook basically by saying to her: “Chaplain, you must have more pressing cases than I to take care of.” The good news is that despite all of these problems, the patient went on at length about what she needed to say. (I did not show this part of the dialogue.) One lesson here is when we badly need to vent, we will take any listener, no matter how flawed, as long as some compassion is present (and maybe not even much of that quality).

My thanks to all for participating. We’ll have to do it again sometime. :-)

Celebrate Finals Week: Take This Test

When chaplains write down conversations they have with patients to share with other professionals, the dialogue may reveal a heap more about themselves than about their stellar patient care. We like to think we are showing off our expertise and resultant comfort, but as any chaplain in training knows, our own issues can subconsciously leak out, especially when we show the transcript for other chaplains eager to hunt for our rooms for improvement. That is why we write these verbatims: to find out what gets in the way of better care and work to get it out of the way in the future.

I took a portion of the following verbatim from an article in the chaplain literature. Since the article did not allude to what I saw as a problem, partly out of curiosity, and partly as a challenge, I now invite my readers to look through the transcript and identify the issue, or the principal issue. So if you can stand the suspense, read through it, comment if you can, and you will hear my answer in my next post. I will also wait until then to respond to comments, so everyone has a chance to take this “test.” Good luck! Whoever gives a great answer will get honorable mention.

Chaplain: interaction #1   (The hospital patient seemed alert and was sitting up in bed reading a book. The chaplain knocked on the door.)

Patient: interaction #1     Yes, come in.

C2     Mrs. Jones, I’m So and So, the chaplain-on-call.   I understand that you wanted to visit with a chaplain.

P2     (She smiled.)  I like the way you said that…”to visit with a chaplain.” Our minister said that there would be chaplains available to talk to if I wanted to.  (She winced some. I sensed that she might be in some pain.  I waited a moment and then responded).

C2     Indeed, I am here to visit with you, Mrs. Jones.  Am I picking up that you are in some pain right now?

P3    (Smiling but still wincing some.)  You observed accurately, Chaplain. I am having some pain.  Not a lot but some.  By the way, it’s Mary. (A slight pause).  I hate being in the hospital. The nurses are very sweet, and I have a very competent oncologist.  But being here is such a waste of time.

C3    Mary, you sound like a busy person.  It’s no fun just to lie here, especially in some pain, when you could be doing…what?

P4     I’m a manager of a large real estate company…Oh (she winces again).

C4     Mary, are you sure you feel like visiting now?  I could come back another time, say, in the morning.

P5      Chaplain, you don’t need to stay.  I know there’re probably some here worse off than me.

C5     Mary, if you want me to stay, I will.  You’re important, and you did have the nurse page me.

P6     (Smiles slightly).  Thanks, Chaplain.  I would like to talk…I really don’t want to talk about it…But (winces slightly…pauses.)…I know I need to…My family physician came by while my daughter was here earlier… [She then tells her concerns in the rest of this transcript]

 

Write your answer here, under “Comments.” I will give a passing grade to all who try, and an “A” and special mention for the best answer!

What’s Your Hurry?

You would think that if you were nearing death but pain-free and not depressed, you first choice would be to stand anywhere but the head of the checkout line that the Angel of Death was in charge of. If anything, most of my hospice patients jostle to stay at the back of the line or pretend there is no line in the first place.

But every so often, a hospice patient says to me, “When I wake up each day, why am I still here?” Or more generally they will ask, “Why am I still alive?” Or more directly, “I have said all my goodbyes and accomplished everything I wanted. I am at peace with the end. I am ready.” In other words, the spirit is ready before the body. I suppose it is a bit like getting all ready to move out of a home, with the van all packed up to go, but then an unexpected delay at the new locale forces you to stay put indefinitely, and you even have to unpack a few things as you wait in limbo.

Since there is no way I can sneak them ahead in the line, as hospice “neither prolongs life nor hastens death,” what can I tell them? How can I as a chaplain respond to “Why am I still here?” As with any discussion where the answer lies within the individual asking it, all I can do is ponder along with them and wrestle with this existential question together. I may suggest answers I have heard elsewhere, which may in turn help them pull up their own concern. I may open with, “sometimes there are loose ends where something is not resolved. Social workers have told me that you cannot be finished until you have looked back on all the crucial things in your life, or until you have reconciled with someone important.” Usually I get a “no not that” to such remarks, but saying nothing can be even more unsatisfactory to them because I suppose a crummy answer beats nothing at all. So we go on brainstorming. What still gives them meaning now? What memories keep coming back? Is there something else your family needs to hear from you or you need to hear from them?

One time when I was with such a patient, she suddenly reached into herself and came up with her own answer: “Maybe I am still alive because there is some future good news in my family that will fill me with much peace and contentment.” Not only was that a magnificent answer for her, I think it is one that all of us should keep in mind.

THE ENCHANTED ONES

Karen B. Kaplan:

Hospicediary.com is something of a nursing counterpart to my own blog. Amy Getter has been blogging since 2011. Her guest post below is about how pets are masters of the bedside vigil, providing comfort in various ways to their owners.

Originally posted on hospicediary:

My mother always said that the animals were enchanted, and in another life they will be able to tell us, the humans, all the things that they know, though we give them so little credit. I hear people say, “Animals are very sensitive” and I’d like to add, I am pretty certain that animals really do know things that we, with all our evolutionary advancement, don’t!
I have a visual of a very ancient man, returning home from the hospital to die in his own living room, with his very ancient Great Pyrenees dog lying beneath his bed, only cajoled away for a few times a day, to eat something and to relieve himself outside, hurriedly returning to his master and the sentinel post beneath the bed. And today, another visual, of the King Charles Spaniel lying atop his beloved human mother, with his arms outstretched across her, his face…

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Why I Am a Stuffed Shirt about Jeans at a Funeral

When it comes to officiating funerals, I am fairly easygoing and liberal about what goes on. Toss your dear aunt’s earrings after the lowered casket? Sure. Play a recording of the deceased’s singing from a recital in her teens? No problem. But one time at a graveside service, my eyes helplessly kept returning to the attire of the next-of-kin, who moreover was delivering the longest and most heartfelt eulogy of the occasion. My eyes were roving thus because a pair of jeans was taking the star role in his ensemble.

As far as I could discern, this mourner was not conveying anger or disrespect toward the deceased through sartorial signals. His eulogy did not hint at his relief and joy at finally getting rid of the %&*!% Nor was he rebelling against ritual or religion, though he may have been indifferent to social convention when all he cared about at that heightened moment was the loss of his loved one. Besides, haven’t we all seen jeans and other informal wear at religious services and weddings? I myself was not much bothered on such occasions, but this time I inwardly fretted that the perhaps well-intentioned gentleman did not have a sense of propriety. I felt that the final frontier for jeans should stop short of a funeral, especially for the chief mourners themselves. But again why was I thinking like such a stuffed shirt about it? One might say formal clothing contributes to respect for the dead, which may enter into my complex of feelings. Jeans can communicate the message, “I am not taking this seriously or deeply or at least I am pretending to myself not to.” Or more simply, “I don’t care.” Yet as his eulogy showed, he certainly did care deeply.

But there must be more to this clothing issue for me (and for you?) besides that. After all, as a loved one approaches death, the relationship can be more intimate than ever as final reflections are voiced, meaningful and poignant events reviewed, and goodbyes are uttered. Informal clothes imply such closeness. Once the funeral begins, however, most of us create distance from the departed and everyone else present with an upgrade in our dress. Perhaps the subconscious impulse operating here is our acknowledgment that a great divide has opened up between ourselves and our lost loved ones. We stand in humility and in fear and in in awe and yes even in wonder at this Separation of separations.

A funeral is a time to ponder what the life of the deceased was all about and what our relationship with the deceased amounted to, and what we could be doing with our own lives going forward. At that funeral, if you get right down to it, the offending jeans, being the most everyday clothing possible, minimized the out-of-the-ordinary elements of that day. Funerals are a rare opportunity for families and communities to reflect and to mourn, to make amends and to show gratitude and love. Let us not have informal wear blur the distinction between heightened awareness and mere routine.

Reprinted from my March 11, 2015 guest post in a blog about Jewish burial societies called Expired and Inspired, in the Jewish Journal. The original article appears in: http://www.jewishjournal.com/expiredandinspired/item/why_i_am_a_stuffed_shirt_about_jeans_at_a_funeral