A Contest between Prejudice and the Angel of Death

My husband Steve will do just about anything to obtain a hard copy of the Tuesday science section of the New York Times. If we are at the airport and the Times is sold out, he will search newspapers abandoned in the terminal’s seating areas or left behind in the plane. Now that’s devotion authors would maybe not kill for but do at least one hundred pushups for. Today I am glad to have my copy in hand, because an article about the racism that doctors face reminded me of a related issue I have confronted in hospice care. The main point of the article was that doctors tend to focus on how to avoid being racist, but not enough on how to handle the reverse, when it is the patient who is prejudiced against the doctor.

I may never know when a patient is prejudiced against my gender, race or religion, but I have faced patients who have confessed to me their prejudice about someone else’s race or other characteristic. Unfortunately, this most often has to do with race, but sometimes I get comments about religious groups, gays, the wealthy, and even party affiliation and geographic location. I feel very ill-at-ease during such conversations, but if the patient is unwittingly referring to me, I can be amused by the irony. Oh my, a liberal right under their nose under cover!

Ordinarily, if people disparage minority groups, I speak my mind if I feel physically and emotionally safe doing so. But with hospice patients I have to balance accepting them with all their moral failings versus considering what harm they are doing to myself as well as others they still affect, such as a home health aide of color. Be that as it may, in the face of the demise facing them and the current trials of the disease, those concerns drown out anything I have to say about that anyway. This is no cop out on my part; the times I have tried to voice disagreement I might as well have been speaking an unbreakable code.

I remember when a patient herself, Miriam, expressed her prejudice but at the same time consciously struggled with it. She was an Orthodox Jew, thus she did not recognize the ordination of female rabbis as legitimate. Since I knew beforehand that she was Jewish, I identified myself as a Jewish chaplain as I approached her bed for the first time. At first she was not sure she would or should talk with me, but her need to talk about her beliefs and her final days to a willing listener got the conversation rolling. With nary an Orthodox rabbi in sight, she settled for what she could get. As if in an aside to God she looked at me doubtfully and said, “I guess at this stage in the game it’s alright to have a woman rabbi visit. I’ll give it a try.” While hers was not the most enthusiastic reception to my identity, when it comes to a hospice patient, I will go more than halfway (about 2/3rds of the way give or take). With this help from the Angel of Death to clear a passage for Miriam and I to connect in an authentic way, she proceeded to lighten the burdens on her soul.

7 thoughts on “A Contest between Prejudice and the Angel of Death

  1. Dia says:

    Great post Karen and it brought up some interesting memories. It always seemed like a unique position to be in as a hospice worker…we tend to enter these homes on the most intimate footing where we see a lot of things that might otherwise be more carefully hidden. I learned that trying to stay focused on a person’s basic humanity rather than their prejudice was a good tool for me, as it helped me stay in my heart and keep my eyes on the higher objectives of the work. It also helped to try and remember that nobody is ever the worst thing about them…including me, which is usually the biggest challenge. 🙂


  2. When people puzzle over why anyone would want to work for a hospice, I explain as you indicated that we are privy to the intimate thoughts of patients and their families, which gets us to deeper levels of who they really are. Once they share like this out loud, this can help them reach down into the ever deeper levels they have been trying to access as they make sense of their life story.


  3. curriershouse5@comcast.net says:

    “I guess I’ll give it a try”—–hmmm. Not an overly warm response!    N


  4. You are right! It’s amazing how much people can reveal even in a few words. Perhaps she was standoffish in general with people, not just with me.


  5. […] I talk with patients who are racist or have other prejudices. (See my earlier post on that topic: https://offbeatcompassion.wordpress.com/2013/08/13/a-contest-between-prejudice-and-the-angel-of-death… ) We cannot talk people out of their beliefs; we can only let them articulate them, creating a […]


  6. This article has given me much food for thought. Most blatant prejudice, especially around race and gender, make my blood boil. But mentioning ‘rich people’ in her list, made me realize that I have, sadly, issues in my own mind that could be looked at! I tend to cringe at loud braying voices and tattoos: but then one meets or gets to know the people concerned and the prejudices can often melt away. As for ‘rich people’, I would think it’s more ‘greedy people’ that upset me. I read recently that the chairman of an animal charity lived in lavish luxury. That does beg the question “How much is too much?” Life is never an exact science; I suppose we have to go by our instincts, and check ourselves if we are being unfair.
    PS: Should crimplene be made illegal? Does the sound of ‘gasps and pearls being clutched’ make you smirk? Much food for thought…


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