Standing Astonished in the Swirl of Existence

Here’s a paradox, and one that accounts for why any agreeable person would take on such work as preparing a body for burial, or in my case, serving as a hospice chaplain: being present to the dying the dead and the bereaved  has intensified my sense of being alive. Just as a malevolent character in a novel can heighten the goodness of the hero, being near the dying or the dead can serve as a foil to life. Sometimes as I step outdoors after visiting a hospice patient, everything I encounter seems more firmly anchored in the here and now. Birdsong and the patter of rain make of me a rapt audience. A swaying traffic light beams out with more redness; a wind kicking up and vacillating between cool and cold bars my way from any warmer crosswinds. How can all this be happening around me while someone is about to cut loose from the moorings of her life?  I stand astonished in the swirl of existence.

Where does this intensity come from?  The closer I am to reading the end of a piece of fiction, the more weight the sentences bear. Each succeeding word seems to take on a deeper significance. Likewise, as I am talking with someone who is nearing the end, whatever they are saying is more poignant given that backdrop. I think that is why so much is made of hearing a person’s “last words.” We assume they will be loaded with wisdom, or that they will enlighten us regarding something we had never understood about that person or about ourselves.

Those of us who care for the dead and the bereaved, get a continuous sneak preview of our own final crossing over the inscrutable edge between life and death. As with any rehearsal, we reap benefits that could never accrue if we were to simply improvise when the time came.


This is a reprint of my guest post in the blog, Expired and Inspired, in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, November 25, 2015. The precise link is:


The 99.5 Percent Solution

A short cartoon, just one frame of Charlie Brown and Snoopy, has provoked an awful lot of thought on my part. Snoopy is taking it easy as usual on top of the doghouse and Charlie comes round to vent to his buddy and perhaps imbibe some wisdom. He has some news for his dog: “Someday we’re all gonna die.” Snoopy retorts, “But not on all the other days!”

I told this joke last Wednesday in an unlikely place for a not only Reform but female rabbi: A Chabad Center. At this very Orthodox venue, where the male host would not shake my hands in case I was “unclean” from a feminine characteristic (never mind my postmenopausal age), I was invited to be on a panel alongside an Orthodox rabbi to discuss, “how to make our lives better now.” No sweat, I could handle that question. I was less sure about the venue. I Tweeted, “What was a female Reform rabbi doing in a place like a Chabad Center in Bedford Hills NY? To discuss our mortality but of course.”

The Charlie Brown joke got surprised laughter from the crowd of Boomers and Generation Xers. Whew, I would be alright. But really, the cartoon captured in one sentence one of my main observations that night, which is that contemplating death can tune us in so much more to life, and to what we want to continue and discontinue for our remaining allocation of days. Snoopy the sage also intimates that we should appreciate and savor all those other days that are left.

Savoring life by staring at death may be a commonplace. But how about this? I told the group that sometimes my work in hospice intensifies some of those days that I get to live. On such an occasion, objects seem more present, more “there.” Sounds are richer, reflections off of water brighter, overheard talk more poignant, smells more pungent. I stand in the inscrutable swirl of existence.

During the question and answer period, many questions hinted at fear of death. They asked if people tend to accept it near the end, or whether everything falls into place for them at that point. I sensed the yearning for ultimate answers, which of course no honest human can provide. I gave the consolation prize of explaining how chaplains at least strive to clear away inhibiting agendas and provide a safe sacred space with open-ended questions. This and abundant time to listen lets persons articulate their thoughts without censoring them for family and friends. This way they can then clarify to themselves what their life story has been about.

But you know? Maybe humans don’t have the answers, but Snoopy makes a good point: Around 99.5% of the time that we are alive we are not going to die. Why worry about that less than 1% exception?

Not Officiating At My Own Funeral But Close Enough

When I officiate at a funeral, I quickly become absorbed in the drama of the event. I feel like an actress who seeks to faithfully bring to life the heightened emotions of confusion, disorientation, grief, longing and gratitude that lie behind the prayers and other readings. I notice as well that my tone varies depending on the circumstances of the death and the mood of the family. When the grief is intense, I read the words with sadness in my voice. When the mood is of relief (admitted or not) for the end of prolonged suffering, I try to impart the gentleness and calm that reflect this relief.

I remember one time officiating at a funeral for a relatively young woman who championed animal rescue and who was extraordinarily sensitive to human needs. I sensed the anger of the mourners as well as myself at the premature ending of such a giving and loving person. So as I delivered the eulogy, I felt myself singing out her beautiful life story in a defiant tone, as if to say, despite her cruel disease inflicting such an end, this person managed to contribute more to the Universe than many of us ever would in a life twice as long.

Officiating at a funeral entails a big responsibility as I try to be true to what will be most meaningful to the family  with my choice of readings, transitions between each part of the service, silent prayer, songs and sometimes through a eulogy. I try to discern what will be of most comfort depending on the kind of grieving and expectations there are.

Imagine now my doing this for a relative. “No pressure,” one of the relatives assured me about an hour beforehand. I sighed and said “Right.” At least they were aware of the ticklish position I was in. And gosh what did I get myself into now? The funeral home was even going to videotape the whole business and put it on a CD for the family. This is definitely not what I have in mind when it comes to publicity.What about all the stuff I had read in psychology books about role confusion and crossing boundaries? True enough, but somehow in this case since they wanted the comfort of a familiar figure rather than a “cold” stranger, I gambled on making an exception to role confusion (i.e. “authoritative rabbi” and “plain old member of the extended family.”)

I decided the way to go about this was to respectfully convey the simplicity that matched the family’s other decisions, such as a plain pine casket and a modest number of short eulogies. To be honest, I also avoided anything elaborate so as to minimize the risk of having something go wrong! But like all other funerals I have done, I soon got lost in the drama of what I was doing, invoking the comfort of Jewish ritual, of taking on the honor of leading this sacred event, and signaling the end of months of suffering and the beginning of eternal rest for the deceased. I can only hope that rather than create more wear and tear on us all, that I managed to set the scene for the healing powers of grieving.

“You’re a Member of a What?!”

“Somebody’s got to do it,” we muse when we hear about someone pursuing a career or activity we cannot fathom doing ourselves. Funeral directors, hospice workers, members of burial societies and others in contact with death get this sort of reaction on occasion. Or keeping our thoughts to ourselves if we come across such folks, we may fantasize asking them, “How on earth can you be doing this kind of work? Yeesh! Not me.”

In a recent talk, Dr. Michael Slater, president of the Kavod V’Nichum Board, which is a group that advocates for Jewish burial societies, reveals all the prior steps in his own journey to becoming a member of such a society. By following his logic from step to step, we come to understand how on earth he could voluntarily do things like wash a body. As we hear each step, the final outcome becomes something we can draw nearer to rather than cautiously back away from as if escaping a bear.

His first step was when he heard a family member at a funeral gently but honestly explain to his young children what was going on. Then at the house of mourning, Doctor Slater was surprised to run into people he had not seen for a long time, and even more surprised to see how comforting that was to him. As he subsequently thought more about the Jewish (and by extension “spiritual”) value of being present in the moment, he concluded that being present even in difficult moments like visiting with friends and family in the days after the funeral has lasting value and a poignancy and vividness all of its own.

Later on, Dr. Slater’s medical career necessitated dissecting and later washing bodies. This was another step to becoming comfortable with the idea of contact with the dead. Finally, with the death of a close friend in the Jewish community, he realized that he had been present for happy occasions in that community as well as funerals. But then he made the leap to another kind of being present: Why not be present between the death and the funeral? Why not comfort the family in that manner as well?

If you are a “death professional,” (how any human stops being an amateur and becomes a professional at this sort of thing is something else to ponder) or volunteer, you may want to review to yourself what hidden steps you traversed before it “made perfect sense” to become one. Not only will you become more secure in your understanding of what brought you to this way of being present. But if you share your insights, you will also model for others (O Reader, is that you?) that what seems outlandish at first to others is admirable and perhaps even doable after all.


I adapted this article from my September 2015 guest post in the Jewish Journal. The article was published at

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.