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?

Her Reality Star

Pulled over here and pulled back way over there: This is the reality of grief. Newark poet Ms. Lillian Washington captures this sensation in her prose poem, “Her Reality Star.” Night is beguiling, but brings no release. Finally, the woman finds a hint to a way out from her despair from a source that is true to her life path.

Hope was no longer alive.

A spring eternal never sprung.

Her smile, like that in a child’s eyes, was gone.

The hum of the night’s forces as she walked the pavement

Began to fade into the distance.

No longer did she believe that the magic of that day’s night

Would bring her closer to freedom from the pain of her loss.

Daybreak would come soon and the pain of that day

As the pain of yesterday would haunt her again and again.

“Why?” she cried out as she stared into the midnight sky filled with streaking stars.

The deep dark blueness cradled the stillness of the other stars that

Stared back at her tear-filled eyes.

Soon silence came upon her. No longer crying, she stood up and a peaceful look now covering her face, she rose up and declared, “No.” No longer would she believe in magic. She began to realize she should believe in the power of prayer and she would find her way back to the happiness she once knew. With her new direction found, she did not have to believe in magic anymore.


Author’s biography: In her teen years Lillian Washington performed with soul singer song writer Jackie Wilson at the Branford Theater in Newark, NJ with a female singing group called the Vandettes. Later as a member of the Theater of Universal Images she performed various plays at Symphony Hall and Essex County College in Newark. As a part of a comedy duo she did stand-up comedy at Catch a Rising Star in NYC.  Ms. Washington’s current goal is to become a published writer of poetry and children’s stories. She is a member of my writers’ group, The Angry Bean Writers.

Singled Out Versus Blending In

There’s an old joke in my religion that underscores our almost impish impulse to deviate no matter what: One pious Jew was stranded on a desert island and built two synagogues. When rescued, the crew members asked, “There was only you and your limited resources, so why two places to worship?” The Jew answered, “One was for me to pray in. The other one I wouldn’t be caught dead in.” Hmm, maybe the “other congregation” had a different way of handling the prayer for mourners (called the “Kaddish” in Hebrew and recited towards the end of each service). I have been reciting it for my father who died last December, and the tradition is to recite it for a deceased parent for about a year. In some synagogues only the mourners rise to recite it, while in others everyone stands and says it to support the mourners or to say it for those who passed but have no survivors to say it for them.

I have said this prayer in both kinds of congregations, and I have mixed feelings about each custom. On the one hand, if a few other people and I rise to say it, I feel acknowledged that yes, I am stepping through the peculiar passage of my first year without my father. Anyone present at that service who still does not know I had lost an immediate family member can later ask who I am mourning for and potentially become an additional source of support. On the other hand, I feel self-conscious drawing such attention to myself, as if a screaming scarlet “M” had sprouted on my forehead.

In the “other” synagogue, I feel more protected and less vulnerable as mourners and non-mourners alike participate in this ritual. But I feel that this dilutes and minimizes my feelings as they are “distributed” across the group. What do you non-mourners know about my feelings and those of the others grieving? The intention of course is fine, but it reduces the significance of the ritual for me. If everyone is carrying it out, then I am not doing anything special to mark my relationship with the deceased or to drive home yet again to myself the reality of the loss. I feel deprived of the power of this ritual.

If I and some other hapless survivors of another ship wreck had joined the Jew stranded on that desert isle, I would have instituted the following compromise: Everyone rises but only the mourners actually recite the prayer.

But wait, I hear an objection from the chair of the Board of Trustees: “That’s not the way to do it. Everyone recites but only the mourners rise.” Alas, we will need two synagogues after all.


A prior version of this article was published September 6th, 2017 in the blog “Expired and Inspired”, in The Jewish Journal: http://jewishjournal.com/blogs/expiredandinspired/224040/two-jews-three-opinions-rabbi-karen-b-kaplan/ Permission was granted to place it here, with minor modifications.

What’s In A Preposition: A Grammar For Grieving

It’s bad enough to grieve for someone you truly miss and who was so affirming of who you are. And it’s plenty confusing, too, to ponder the mind-boggling fact that they are not here. One of my patients recently captured this fact by stating, “I just want my obituary to say ‘Lucy WAS…’ and that’s all.”  She sure captured the essence of the matter: the most basic difference between life and death is existing versus not.

But it feels far more perplexing if not downright contradictory to grieve for someone who was not exactly a model of goodness and caring. Perhaps they neglected you or far worse. You might say, “Who said anything about grieving for that sorry son of a gun? I don’t care and I’m not sad that he is dead. Good riddance.” But wait, we can’t get off the hook that easily. The definition of grief is “reaction to the loss.” No one said anything about that reaction having to be sadness or missing that person’s presence. Maybe you even danced on the grave. But react we must, whether it is relief that he is not there to act indifferently to your latest news, sorrow that he had not been a better parent, anger over how he had mistreated you…you get the idea.

Yet it seems odd to say under such circumstances, that “I am grieving for my mother.” I think part of successful grieving is portraying the process to oneself as honestly and accurately as possible. Otherwise you will hinder  the purpose of grieving in the first place, which is to allow all the feelings, great and small, peaceful and turbulent, joyful and gloomy, an open path for release. Somehow saying “grieving for” sounds like the tears are ready to roll at almost any provocation and that you miss them if not for how they were at the time of their passing, then at least for how they were in better days.

Methinks I have found a solution for us unconventional grievers. Let me know if the sentence below helps you to  express to yourself how you really feel about that louse. Does saying it this way give you permission to stop censoring those less socially acceptable emotions?

“I am grieving against my father.”

Book Review: The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells

Early on in this romantic time-travel novel, author Andrew Sean Greer (HarperCollins, 2012) clues me in that he is not going to follow some predictable formula. One of his characters is a gay man dying from AIDS who is both gentle and provocative. He says to a woman who had made a petty complaint  about his dog coming close to her flowers “When you were a little girl, madam…was this the woman you dreamed of becoming?”  I, and I suppose just about any of Greer’s readers, immediately pondered this question for myself. What are my own regrets and embarrassments, what my sources of pride and fulfillment?  If nothing else it is a fantastic comeback for any stranger who acts surly about a trifle and who is taking being alive for granted.

Another profound observation comes about for Greta, the main character,  (and for us) when she travels back to 1941. Then, unlike in 1985 when her twin brother, the gay man’s partner, had died of AIDS as well, he is alive. Greta thinks about some irritating behavior of this “restored” brother, and muses, “It was infuriating, and so like my brother, but not in any of the ways I had hoped….And yet of course when the dead come back to life they come back with all the things we didn’t miss.” (emphasis mine.) How astute of the author to refer to an earlier stage of grieving which typically does not include the negative memories that might occur in a later stage.

I am very glad that I read on. Greta gets more insights about love and loss, which we could always benefit from. But while the plot is intriguing on one level, it is confusing on another: Greta cycles between three times, 1918, 1941 and 1985, which is clear. The confusing part is that while she is in one time period, “another” Greta is getting things done and affecting other relationships in the other two periods while she is “away.” Moreover, the reaction of some of the other people in the older time periods to her revelation to them about her traveling to the other two is far-fetched, but the pleasure of the fantasy, the romance and the insights, are well worth the trips.


I borrowed this book from the local library. 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.” 

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 http://www.jewishjournal.com/expiredandinspired/item/youre_a_member_of_a_what

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.

A Dutiful Daughter’s Keeping Grief at Bay

Judith Henry, author of The Dutiful Daughter’s Guide to Caregiving: A Practical Memoir has an offbeat yet compassionate way of expressing herself, thus her inclusion here. For instance, advising us to “write our own obituaries to have the last word” is a novel take on the matter and humorous at the same time. Judith has a knack for describing what caregivers go through and what advice they could use, paving the way for those about to begin this role as well as affirming the complexities that more seasoned caregivers face. Her book also shows you what it might be like just after a loved one dies. There is the usual mixture of anger and sadness, but also the use of sarcasm and incongruous images.

It is worth pondering how using sarcasm and unexpected comparisons can help us grieve in the beginning. Death of a loved one is too much to take in, so any strategy we can latch onto to let this information come in a little bit at a time is a blessing. I have met with survivors who even months later would wonder out loud whether so-and-so was “really” dead. They knew this intellectually but could not absorb it emotionally. As Judith confronts the death of her mother, she uses humor to distance herself from the awfulness, to defend herself against it. Perhaps reading her description below will suggest how you too can find a way to add humor to your arsenal of healthy defenses if you are currently grieving.

[From a  section called,Dealing with Grief and Loss] “How many times can a daughter say the words ‘my mother has died’ without crying? For me — the stoic, the realist, the pragmatic ‘death is all part of life’ philosopher — only once.

A week after Mom’s passing, I drive to Orlando with my current ‘to-do’ list in hand. The first of many that serve to keep the grief at bay, this one addresses the business side of loss. The day is gray and rainy.

I’ve mapped out each step of my visit, beginning with the funeral home to pick up my mother’s ashes and multiple copies of her death certificate, which are soon to be handed out like flyers everywhere she’s had an account or an enrollment of some kind.

The funeral director speaks in hushed, respectful tones, but I don’t blink an eye when he presents me with the small, white cardboard box containing her remains. It looks like a present in need of a bow and with my lifelong tendency to ‘awfulize,’ I imagine someone breaking into the car to steal it. Figuring that my mother, of all people, would understand, I place the box safely in the trunk as I go about my other errands.

Next stop is the Orange County Courthouse to file her last will and testament. I get lost downtown and end up parking blocks and blocks away from where I need to be. After a twenty-minute hike in heels, I enter the security labyrinth of the courthouse lobby and stand speechless as a guard roots through my purse and proudly confiscates a pair of tweezers. What a relief that the chin hairs of Orlando, mine included, are safe for another day. The head of security tells me I can retrieve them on the way out. Like I am really going to add that to my freaking list.

Finding the second-floor Probate Division takes forever and requires directions from several people. When I finally walk into the right office, a woman with a genuine smile looks up at me from behind the counter and says in a warm southern drawl, ‘How can ah help you?’

The words ‘my mother has died,’ spill out of me with a flash flood of tears, and when she reaches out and squeezes my hand, I cry even more. Minutes later, I leave with a gift of tissues from her desk and a suggestion to do something nice for myself that day.

Arriving next at the neighborhood bank where my parents have kept a checking account and safe deposit box for more than 40 years, I walk up to Juanita, the young woman at Client Services, and say, ‘I’m here to close an account. My mother has died.’ The last sentence is barely out of my mouth when she comes around the desk and wraps her arms around me as a parent does a child. And I, almost 60 years of age, rest my head on her shoulder and sob.”


Judith Henry: "How to have the last word: write your own obituary"

Judith Henry: “How to have the last word: write your own obituary”

Judith Henry’s Biography

In addition to working on her second book and writing for online publications, Judith leads a well-loved writer’s group for caregivers, and does presentations on caring for aging parents, the benefits of expressive writing, how to create a legacy letter for family and friends, and having the last word by writing your own obituary. For more information about Judith and purchasing her book, go to. http://www.judithdhenry.com


Announcement to my followers and visitors: Now hear this! Encountering The Edge: What People Told Me Before They Died is now available as an audiobook on Amazon and on audible.com. Go here for a free sample of the narrator’s emotionally touching voice (Cindy Pereira): http://www.audible.com/pd/Religion-Spirituality/Encountering-the-Edge-What-People-Told-me-Before-They-Died-Audiobook/B011CHH2BE

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:


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