Eulogy Of The Dancing Hands

“…..Dad loved to dance, especially square dancing. We heard his stories about dancing growing up, and all those stories have become our stories and in the retelling they are all together…”

“In his later years, he didn’t do the square dancing but he danced with his hands. You all know, his beautiful long-fingered hands, expressive and moving. When I sat with him in his final days, they were jumping and dancing and fluttering like birds and there was music in that motion as he told me his inscrutable Yiddish stories. He gesticulated wildly and told his stories until his final hours. After Daddy died my heart was broken, but perhaps God will be filling up that space. His last words to me were, ‘So long kid.’ So I say now, ‘So long Daddy’. “

That is how my sister-in-law Beth finished her eulogy for her father, Irving Isadore Kaplan, last week. That eulogy tested my family’s prediction that I would “hold it together” as I officiated at my own father-in-law’s funeral at their heartfelt request. Beth’s eulogy did make me tearful, and I simply acknowledged it before I called up the next speaker. I also cried when I got to watch her eulogy afterwards on Vimeo. This video provided virtual access during and after the funeral. (For those so inclined, the link is . Beth’s eulogy begins at approximately 24 minutes in.)

I’d like to say a few words now what it was like to officiate at a funeral for family as opposed to congregants or complete strangers. I felt more subdued and quietly emotional than usual. At all funerals, I sense the drama of the mystery of death and the intense emotions or stunned numbness of those present. As I am reciting or singing the Psalms and readings, I feel that I am bringing to life their most profound levels of meaning. I even feel like I am in a play, as a narrator facilitating the expression of a family’s feelings and confrontation with loss. This time, I was engaged in the same sort of thing, launching the stories of memories and loss. Yet I felt awed in the presence of death, swept along with the rest of family and friends into the swirling turmoil of feelings around and within me.

Yes, I held it together. Yes, I let myself be a member of the family as my heart dwelt beside theirs.


FYI I just got quoted in this comprehensive article about normal grief versus dysfunctional grief:

A Truck Named Bertha

Sometimes the most poignant conversations occur in the most unassuming places. During a recent trip to southern Delaware, after traversing cropland after cropland, my husband and I selected a breakfast place in the town of Milton (yes, named after the poet). Called “The Nook,” the restaurant advertises itself as “our neighborhood eatery” and has such things as a hefty glass of orange juice the waitress makes from oranges the instant you order it. This was promising, as it looked like a place that would have friendly regulars, you know, a non-alcoholic version of Cheers.

Seated at his own personal nook way at the very back was a placid gentleman who had his radar out for would-be listeners. It did not take long for him to tell us his life story, including his disease history and how hard it was to be a widower. But then, as is true with many people after they get their initial sources of distress off their chest, tales of more general interest emerged. He talked about another loss aside from his wife, and that was his 1946 Ford pickup. It was a dump truck, designed for hauling away small loads, but when he saw he could use it more for snowstorms, he bought or found snow plow parts that he figured out how to attach to the Ford. So he went around doing odd jobs plowing away snow, which were in more demand than hauling away trash. He was very proud of the new role he had given to this truck, and he even named her Bertha and placed her name on a decal on one of the windows.

As he grew older, it was harder for him to drive, and also more dangerous to do so. His children were worried about that, and so as to remove temptation for him to drive the snowplow, they took it away from him without—God help them!– his permission. He does not know whether they sold it all intact, or whether it ended up as nothing but a heap of parts, long since separated from each other. Not sure if being dismembered was the end of that vehicle’s history, he shook his head at how that was a fate even more unbearable for him to countenance . Hoping for the best, the former owner put ads in the local papers asking if anyone knew about the truck, which could be identified by its name Bertha placed right in the rear window. He asked his friends and neighbors, everyone he could possibly think of in the area, but no one knew of Bertha’s whereabouts. This man, in the nook of The Nook, looked at us and said, “You know, I wasn’t trying to sneak off and drive the truck again or nothing like that. I just wanted to kiss its fender goodbye.”


Well if you want to meet this fellow or know anything about Bertha, you can get the particulars about the restaurant here: If you go, be sure to say we said hi.

Biden Team’s Inner Chaplain: Covid-19 National Memorial Service

I wondered how I could talk about the presidential inauguration without being political. Answer: a ceremony the evening before that taps into one of the most elemental emotions of all humans and perhaps many animals as well: grief. The view opens on the reflecting pool at the Lincoln Memorial, subdued and peaceful as Cardinal Gregory comes up to speak. We see the Biden and the Harris couples in the background, distanced and masked. Cardinal Gregory says, “Our sorrow unites us to one another as a single people with compassionate hearts.” After his speech ends, I am temporarily puzzled as I watch an unknown person approach the lectern. But no, he is not going to speak, he is disinfecting it for the next speaker!

Kamala Harris conveys the message that it is one thing to grieve alone, but we attain another level of grieving as we do so together as a nation. She then introduces a “singing nurse” who has served in COVID-19 wings. The nurse sings Amazing Grace, and later, after the lectern is again disinfected, Joe Biden comes up to speak, looking to me at this moment just like a clergy person. And like a clergy person, he makes a moving profound statement: “to heal, we must remember. By remembering, that is how we heal.” During the speeches,we see an interpreter using sign language. But it is not just their hand gestures. The interpreters use their faces and arms to convey the mood of the speeches, like a minimalist dance supplementing the words themselves. As the ceremony concludes, it moves me so much as the camera pans the reflecting pool lighting up, that I cannot give more details without it being a spoiler. For emotional, spiritual, and yes patriotic healing, see this quarter-hour service:

My Condolences

Some time ago I wrote this condolence poem. I offer it here for the comfort it may provide for you or for someone yo know who is grieving:

These days,

May the Angel of Solace be beside you

Every time you wake,

And the loving touch of friends and family

Sustain you before each nightfall.

May the bittersweet release of

Fear, hurt, sadness and gratitude

Reassemble the scattered shards of your soul.


Autumn Contemplation

This guest post by author Leaf Seligman is a lyrical reflection about this season, our core selves, the teachings of trees, and the resurgence of old griefs. Reading this is like beholding a photograph that has faded but fills us with tenderness all the same.:

“Bathed in the beauty of such radiant fall foliage,these days, I cannot help but turn to the trees for inspiration. It’s not lost on me that deciduous trees appear most exquisite in peak color right before they lose their leaves.

Autumn reminds us of the impending winter—not just the annual season but the metaphorical season of our lives. A time I am in now at sixty, the decade my mother assures me will be my best. In the autumn of our lives, hopefully we know ourselves and have made peace with the conditions and circumstances that shaped us. By autumn, we have found our authentic expression, our passions and we take note of our gifts, synthesizing them and offering them to the world in meaningful ways, with a bit more kindness and clarity than we did in summer or spring.

By the time winter appears, we recognize the shortness of our days. Like animals preparing to hibernate, we prioritize, conserving finite energy for what matters most. The frivolous and unnecessary: be it banter, decorum or social obligations, fall away, leaving a core self sometimes diminished, sometimes intact, that preserves the essence of who we are. And while the trees with their bare branches focus inward, quietly reinventing spring, we like the fallen leaves, contemplate our moment of final release.

The trees suffer with us, and long before us, in the arc of their four hundred million years on planet earth. Trees know everything there is to know about loss and resilience, devastation and renewal, bravery and death. Trees, connected underground by fungal networks that extend over hundreds of acres, experience loss as we do. Each loss we experience touches all the other losses, as if linked by underground pools, so that grief rises and falls like a water table. Some days we feel saturated, and other days, dry.

When grief rises, it can be a subtle sensation, a slow dampening of energy, or it can crest like a mighty swell, toppling us. Either way, it rises to gain our attention, insisting we notice the loss, honoring what or who has been and is no longer, summoning a presence of an absence we might otherwise overlook in the busyness of our days.

Think of trees hollowed out in the center or with a scoop of side canopy removed to accommodate utility lines. The trees do nothing to mask what’s missing. This we can learn from them: to honor the losses, the diminishments, and not shrink from acknowledging them. Many of us know the experience of inhabiting a loss as others tiptoe around the perimeter, afraid to say anything when what we desire most is the opportunity to speak of the person who has died or is ill; instead of pretending the source of grief isn’t there, we welcome the chance to recognize it. Any of us might worry, feel uncomfortable bringing someone up for fear we will upset the grieving person; yet like the trees, we don’t magically forget that we had another child or spouse or dear friend who suddenly isn’t there. We wake each day knowing and being able to acknowledge it lessens the burden.

Trees bear their scars. Unlike us they do not cover them. They simply incorporate them into the bark and branch of existence, into the wholeness of being.

A great value to glimpsing a tree with a scar from a decades-old lightning strike or pestilence is the reminder that old griefs re-emerge and they, too, need acknowledgment. There are so few places and spaces in our lives to honor old losses by name: to take a moment or longer to acknowledge that sometimes, the missing returns, even increases, with the passing of decades. I miss my brother who died almost fifty years ago, more now than I missed him in my thirties or forties. I invite you to consider the long lost losses that resurface. Imagine being able to invoke them, to honor them, to make a space the way trees retain the shape of lost branches while still growing new leaves.

In the last year, when my own grief surfaced with a force that often dropped me to my knees, I reached deep into the stores of faith and friendship that have sustained me over the years. Like the trees that need wind resistance to develop deep roots, we draw on the winds that might otherwise destabilize us if we don’t reach out, if we don’t dig deep into the sources of sustenance. And having the opportunity to stand our ground can deepen the conviction that roots us to core principles, to the values that shape us.

.We all can do this. Trees have been around for four hundred million years. They can teach us the virtues of community and sacrifice, compassion and ingenuity: just consider photosynthesis—resilience, endurance and legacy with an economy of prose and abundance of example.

Whatever the season surrounding us, and whatever season of life we inhabit in this precious moment, we are never alone. We dwell among the great teachers who tower over us and occasionally grow underfoot, springing up in yards and meadows, reclaiming land once farmed or grazed. The trees exemplify life’s longing for itself and summon us to do the same.

On this radiant day, a shower of blessing in the form of autumnal leaves, yielding, may we pause in the presence of our arboreal elders, welcoming wisdom, taking heart. May we stand in our truths as resolutely as trees, hallowed by what hollows us, strengthened by winds that sink our roots deep so that our branches grow sturdy and wide”


Leaf Seligman began writing during her Tennessee childhood. She has taught writing in colleges, jails, prisons, and community settings since 1985, and worked as a minister, jail chaplain, a youth services caseworker and a restorative justice practitioner. Her books include A Pocket Book of Prompts, Opening the Window: Sabbath Meditations, and From the Midway: Unfolding Stories of Redemption and Belonging.

Pay Dirt

“I got a weird notice from our Jewish funeral home,” began the daughter of a hospice patient who I will call Donna. I was on the phone with her because she had asked for a rabbi on our hospice staff. “They have those dinners, you know, where they try to get you to prepay?” I thought to myself, no, I didn’t know they did that! She continued, “And what confused me is the paper they gave me that said ‘burials or cremations.’ How could a Jewish funeral home be offering cremations? Anyway, that’s what I want. But I don’t know what to do.”

 I responded, “You mean because that’s against Jewish law?” (After the phone call, I checked, and yes, some Jewish funeral homes offer cremation, with at least some requiring procedures such as burial of the ashes.)

 “Yes,” said Donna. “My mom taught Hebrew school, tutored students for their Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, was very active. But I want something in my house to look at and remember her after she’s gone. I want to put her ashes in an urn and have it where I can see it.”

 So here she was, conflicted about following Jewish law and following her needs as a mourner. When I face a dilemma like that, I try to be creative. “I wonder,” I suggested, “if there is some other thing you could display on the mantelpiece that would be distinctive and remind you of your mom? That way you could still have a traditional burial. What about something she made, like an embroidery, or something she wrote or painted, or something she owned. Maybe clothing?” Donna said no to each one. She definitely did not want the obvious one of photos, because “that would be the same as what I had before Mom died.” I was running out of suggestions. Now what? I kept on thinking, and I had to think fast, because Donna was in distress and I did not want to leave her empty handed. Also, “dead time” (pardon the pun?) on a phone is almost as bad as on the radio.

 ..Ahh, now I got it. I reflected on how some mourners bring or order some soil from Jerusalem to place into the grave during a funeral, which led me to a related concept: “Donna, what do you think of taking some of the dirt they dig up to prepare your mother’s grave, putting it in an appropriate container like a jar of some kind, and taking that to put in your home?” Donna warmed up to the idea, especially when I added for good measure that she could get some dirt from Jerusalem and add some of it to the grave, and some to the sample that she would be taking home. Success! No conflict between remembering and feeling closer to a deceased loved one and between being an observant Jew. No tug-of-war for her between “Honoring thy mother and father” and honoring Judaism as her mother had done. We had hit pay dirt.


This  June 2nd, 2019 article of mine reprinted with permission from

Grief Lesson For Petless People

If you think people say the dumbest things to you when you are grieving for family or friends, just wait until your beloved pet dies. Or if you are the one saying such things to pet owners, you won’t ever again be so insensitive after you read the guest post below by Dr. Dolores Spivack. A tear might just creep out of your eye.

I Miss My Cat    

When your pet dog or cat or bird dies, nobody sends you flowers or donates money in its name to a favorite charity, not even the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. If you get any condolences at all, your friends will say at best “Sorry and did you see the game last night?” Some people have even said to me “Your cat died, so now you don’t have a cat.” I miss my cat.

My cat, Mel, died two months ago after living all of her eighteen years with me. She was born right into my hands after her mother’s difficult labor. No bigger than a small potato, I massaged her chest with my pinky finger and Mel took her first breath in the palm of my hand. I then helped her mother clean her and nurse her.

At the end of her life, Mel only had one tooth and was almost totally blind. Because she shook her head so much after her second stroke, her ear shriveled leaving her only one ear. She was equal to about one hundred in human years. But, she could still navigate the house, find her litter box, and jump on the table. If, and when I reach one hundred years old, I want to be able to jump onto a table just like her.

I miss Mel. I miss her faithfully waiting for me to come home, even if all she wanted was her can of food. I miss her underfoot, even though I often stepped on her tail. I miss her scattering of toy mice I would give her as holiday presents. She couldn’t catch the real mice, only the toy mice. That made me laugh so much. The toy mice only collect dust now.

I knew she was important to me while she lived. I did not know how cherished and how vital she was to me now that she is gone. I find it difficult to explain to my family and friends how much I miss her. Often, when I wake up in the morning, I think I feel her cuddled next to me. Then I remember she died. I miss Mel.

My grief for Mel is as deep and sad as any I have ever felt for any human, friend or family. Why is that not acknowledged? For almost two decades, Mel made her presence known in my house; she ate her canned food with me while I ate my meals. While I slept, she cat-napped but for many hours more than me. She greeted me and all visitors with curiosity and a welcome. She was as much a part of my life as my family and she witnessed more of my life than anyone else. Why would it seem strange to mourn her loss so profoundly? All I ask of my loved ones is empathy at best or solemn silence at least.

When Mel died, I waited until I was alone to bury her. I knew I would cry long and hard. I wanted the privacy to cry how I wished. I felt no need to be strong. I placed her in the earth with the same hands that welcomed her when she was born. I sprinkled dirt over her shrouded body and tamped it firmly down while my tears made puddles of mud on her grave. I miss Mel so much.


Dr. Dolores Spivack started a writing group to motivate her to finish her dissertation about New York City building codes. After successfully completing her PhD in Architecture, she has gone on to write creative nonfiction pieces like the one here. The survivors include a greyhound and Dolores’s husband. They both attend a yearly greyhound convention in Gettysburg. And yes, the owners’ dogs attend too.

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.


Reprinted with permission from the blog, Expired and Inspired in the Jewish Journal, June 27th, 2018 at this link:


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

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.


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:

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, which I think of as a one-stop shopping place for all your end-of-life needs.  The link to my post there is

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.