Loss Is In The Details

I would never have noticed except that Pam pointed it out to me as I looked at her mother Nora sleeping in the hospital bed:  She did not have any eyebrows.  There were two crescent depressions in their place. “That’s because when Mom was eighteen years old she thought she would be smart and shave off her eyebrows and put makeup there to look like she had them. But they never grew back. So I would always see her, flipping out her little mirror, and making her quick little movements with her cosmetic pencil to make them keep looking like they were there. So it’s weird looking at her face and not seeing anything there where the eyebrows should be. So I miss seeing them there and now that she is too weak to use her liner I miss seeing her fill in those two bare recessed spots on her face.” Thus her mother had surrendered even her stand-in eyebrows for good.

Nora’s granddaughter Merced was there too, reminiscing about this micro story of the eyebrows as well. Meanwhile I could not help but notice that Pam’s and Merced’s eyebrows were only minimally present on their faces, like the sketchiest of crescents.  After everyone ran out of things to say about eyebrows, the talk tilted away from intimacy and more towards small talk, as if they were afraid anything more than a normal pause would hint they had enough of seeing a hospice chaplain and that I should go. Merced announced she was a real estate agent. I said, “I bet you encounter plenty of emotional drama with people buying and selling such an important thing like a home.”  “Oh yes,” she agreed. “Each home has its own story.”

I thought about Merced’s remark, and all that it implied. So much emotion and personal history is invested in the places we dwell in, and so much loss and confusion faced when we sell them. Then there is so much disorientation upon occupying another. If one little thing out of place like eyebrows gone missing can throw us off it is no wonder what a confounding experience it is to move into a new place.

Nora of course, who had transferred to a hospice residence, was in alien surroundings.  But almost constant sleep guarded her from registering all the other things she had given up besides the mock eyebrows. She still had one more “home” left to move to, and the story about that place is perhaps the one most often told albeit with so little to go on besides the hypotheses of one’s religion.

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Reprinted with permission from the blog, Expired and Inspired in the Jewish Journal, June 27th, 2018 at this link: http://jewishjournal.com/blogs/expiredandinspired/235492/loss-details-rabbi-karen-b-kaplan/

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On a personal note, this week marks the 5th anniversary of my blog, Offbeatcompassion. Would that be considered a “venerable” age in the blogosphere?

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Book Review: Starting With Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love After Loss by Lisa Romeo

If an author is not famous, the trickiest thing about writing a memoir is to include material that interests others besides friends and family. This book makes that leap for the most part if you are grieving the loss of a father and your grief is ambivalent. That is, he was not abusive, but he lacked essential ingredients of closeness present in a healthy relationship between him and you as a son or daughter. If you are grieving a father who connected with you in some ways but not in others, and especially if he suffered from dementia in his final years, you will identify with Romeo (with a name like that who needs a pen name?) and feel that she has validated your mixed and confusing feelings of longing, resentment, remorse and perhaps admiration. If you are of Italian descent, you will find even more to relate to, with the author’s details on her Italian heritage.  As a “bonus” in this book, she has profound insights about dementia: “Did he know that his fondness for home, the spiked worry when not home, was him not being an old fart, but him needing to stay safe?”

Having to summarize her book in one word during a question and answer session, I was fascinated with her choice of “insistent.” I think this means she yearned to bridge the distance she and her father had created by using her imagination to “talk” with her dad after he died.  She explains, “I know that, for reasons I don’t completely understand yet and maybe never will, I’ve constructed this father to fill in for the one I could not talk to before.” Talk about yearning! Throughout the book she refers to second chances and how her “postmortem conversations” helped her gain more insights about her father and  accomplished the work of grieving.  By doing this, she is comforting readers who have felt something akin to this, thereby normalizing their feelings and helping them grieve as well.

As I read through Starting With Goodbye, my motivation for continuing to the end evolved. First I wanted to know what she meant by having conversations after the death, and what it means to have a relationship after the death, and what the conversations were about.  She is up front about imagining these dialogues as a tool to self-understanding, implying its relevance to the reader.  But hospice chaplain that I am, I started to analyze why she had the conversations. I was aroused to do so when she stated that guilt was not the issue in her “unfinished business.” I think it very much was, and I state this not to “win” an argument or show off, but to make the book even more relevant to a griever dealing with ambivalence toward a father or to any key family member. I also mention it because guilt and the like need more recognition as one of the tasks of normal grieving, especially in conflicted relationships. Romeo mentioned over and over how she regretted playing her own part in keeping a distance from her father, either through her sarcasm to him or avoiding visits as an adult.

If she is still grieving, then the part that may be unfinished, or had been unfinished while writing the book, may have to do with guilt or its cousins such as remorse, regret, and resentment. These emotions are a key component of ambivalent relationships: we yearn to be close to someone who could not be fully available that way. Yet we feel repulsed and rejected by the behavior that barred us from emotional access to them in the first place. That is indeed a painful thing to mourn. Romeo may not have explicitly stated this, but her whole book pulsates with this paradoxical theme, thereby rendering spiritual and emotional healing to  readers who themselves are stuck in this agonizing push-pull with loved ones even beyond death.

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Lisa Romeo is a manuscript editor and consultant. Her nonfiction is among Notables in Best American Essays 2016 and she has been published in The New York Times.  Her book is available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble as well as from independent bookstores. Her YouTube video is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zJENeXCAKbs

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Why I Sing To People Who Are Dying

Announcement: This is the title of my guest post in a new blog called samada.com, which I think of as a one-stop shopping place for all your end-of-life needs.  The link to my post there is https://samada.com/health/singing-to-people-who-are-dying/

Tomorrow May 25, 2018 you can stop in to Offbeatcompassion for my book review of Starting With Goodbye by Lisa Romeo, who talks of dealing with her ambivalent grief through imaginary conversations with her father after he is gone.

 

 

 

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.

Even The Patients Puzzle Over My Offbeat Career

It is one thing for a friend to ask how in the world I can deal with hospice work, but quite another matter when a patient asks me. The way Shirley put it was, “How can you do this job when you have to keep losing people you get to know?” I stumbled out an answer to the effect of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “ ‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” (No, that quote is NOT by Shakespeare.) To myself, and to my readers here at offbeatcompassion, I will comment on Shirley’s query more searchingly. First of all, it is always of note when a patient says something like that, because it makes me wonder what is behind it, and what it might  have to do with her own feelings about losing other patients she got to know very well and who had died before she did. Unusual for a hospice residence, for one stretch of time, several patients had been pretty alert and visited each other and smoked with each other out in the back before most became bedridden or died. Shirley’s comment possibly touched on her sorrow of anticipating that some day, she herself would lose everyone and everything when her time came.

Anyway, I will stall no longer about how her question applies to me and anyone else who works with hospice patients. Why was Tennyson right?  I think one thing Shirley was implying was, okay, I only get to know my patients for a relatively short time, and this keeps happening over and over, so is the pain of losing them worth the pleasure and experience and reward of having known them in the first place?  The answer for hospice caregivers, as well as for me, is yes, otherwise turnover in this field would be pretty frequent. I once heard at least for chaplains that the average number of years they spend in hospice work is about eight years. That to me sounds plenty long, so there must be a reason for it other than masochism. And it certainly cannot be the pay!

Sure I miss some of the patients I get to know well and find more in common with, like Shirley herself. But the mourning is brief, as the relationships are. When I lose members of my own family, just like everybody else, grieving is not a pretty picture. But I think because patients are strangers and not exactly friends no matter how much we like each other, the grieving is simply not intense or prolonged as with family. On top of that, I must maintain a professional distance in order to think carefully about what a patient needs to talk about and what kind of response will best help them. This leaves me mostly the “better” and easier part of grieving. Such grieving touches on the memories of the interesting things they said or showed me, such as advice about how to relax, pictures of them posing with famous people, or even an audio of a band they played in. At most I may feel wistful about a particularly endearing or admirable person. Writing about some of them in this blog or on Twitter is also an outlet for honoring their memory and my feelings about them.

If you do “this kind of work,” how do you handle the constant leave taking?