In Praise Of Euphemisms

The way some people pooh-pooh euphemisms you would think they were a miniature form of fake news. When I was a chaplain intern I was admonished, “Don’t say ‘pass away’ or ‘ she is in a better place.’ Tell it like it is and say the person died or is dying.” I do get the point about being honest and direct about a painful and scary subject, and that such directness is a corrective to all the death avoidance in our culture. Euphemisms can even do great harm by breeding misunderstanding. I have cautioned families with small children that if they say “Grandpa went to sleep” the kids might be afraid to go asleep and suffer the same fate, or they might keep hoping Gramps will wake up. Clear language also may help the mourners grasp more quickly that their loved one is going or gone and that it is time to go forward on their grief journey.

But sometimes euphemisms may be exactly what the chaplain ordered. The problem with directness is that it can be, well, too direct. Is it always necessary to drop the unvarnished truth on someone all at one go? Maybe truth in small doses is more manageable. Sugar-coating has its place if the alternative is not to take the dose at all. After all, what family member can take in all at once that death is imminent? So many times I talk with family on the phone when their loved one is on hospice who ask me if the patient talked with me during my visit. This is after I see the patient  just prior to the phone call and observe that he is completely unresponsive and glassy-eyed, which means, to coin a new euphemism, he is about to become a part of world history. Rather than necessarily say, “I’m so sorry to say this, but it seems that your husband is about to die and probably has only  a day or two left,” I might say, “I think he is not speaking now because he is turning inward and preparing for the end.”  That is pretty clear without mercilessly rubbing in the details. And even with that, the family might go on to chatter about the patient feeling better tomorrow.

Sometimes I use euphemism as an entrée into general discussions on death. After all, the title of my book, which is about true stories my hospice patients told me, is a euphemism! (The title is Encountering The Edge.) And if you are a health professional reading this blog post, you may well know that humorous euphemisms are a part of self-care. So very many times I have joked with my own husband, a baseball lover that so-and-so is “in the bottom of the ninth.”

Next time you see that someone is in Act Three, Scene Three, consider euphemism as one tool among many for helping others as well as yourself find a byway when the main road is impassable into that most formidable of subjects, death and dying.

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Not The Last Word On Last Words

There is a mystique out there that a dying person’s last words will contain rare wisdom or will give us a clue about what awaits us in the Beyond.  Emily Dickinson’s last words were supposedly, “I must go in, for the fog is rising.” Even if she did say this, for the overwhelming majority of us, the idea of our last words being jam-packed with significance is just a romanticizing of the end of life. The death scenes in many movies of a loved one saying a few brave words, letting out a sigh, and then turning their head away as they painlessly depart are no closer to the truth.  Also, I am skeptical of people having the presence of mind at the very end to be witty as in the famous quote by Oscar Wilde, purportedly his last: “This wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. Either it goes or I do.”

Sorry to shatter this myth, but my experience on the job as a hospice chaplain is that last, or close to last words, are often mundane or consist of expressions of discomfort. “I am thirsty.” Or “I’m dizzy.” Or, “What time is it?” Or, “Oh my stomach hurts and I have to go to the bathroom” is more likely. Or something confused, as when I gave a woman some tepid tap water and she said, “That is the most delicious thing I have ever tasted.” There may not be any words at all, of course, if the patient is unresponsive or can no longer verbalize or is unintelligible or incoherent.

If it is any consolation, “next-to-last” words of a person still relatively clear-headed and sans dementia, can have more significance. “I love you” is very common, as are expressions of concern that the patient’s loved one will be able to get along after the patient is gone. Sometimes I do hear questioning of what their lives were all about, or declarations of faith or what has mattered most. One of my patients talked at length about some poems he wrote in a book he gave me as a present. He loved having me listen to him reading a few aloud and getting my reaction. He even asked if I would promote his book in my blog, something I could very much relate to as an author myself. Not many days later his life ended. In his memory I will mention the title of his book: Lifelines by Ben Verona (He chose this name, a pseudonym, because he thought it sounded Jewish and romantic and would attract female Jewish readers!)

Perhaps we want to think literally about final words because of the unknowability of death itself; as if part of what death is all about “seeps” into the final moments of life, throwing us a clue here and there. But unlike a novel or a film, alas for us real people, loose ends are left loose, and the ending after the ending is left undisclosed.

Chaplain Kaplan’s Complaint

As a chaplain, I am a servant of two masters: my patients and the government.  On the one hand, I want to give patients all the room they need to talk about whatever they want, and not to talk about anything they do not want or need to bring up. On the other, the government (via the hospice agency) requires my best efforts to get the answers to certain questions in my documentation, such as, “What is your religion? Do you belong to a house of worship?  Tell me about your career or hobbies.” Having these questions at least in the back of my mind as I meet a new patient or family member nags at me. At a minimum, even if I do not ask them,  they might be influencing our interaction with each other. At worst, they may be a hindrance rather than a help to anyone but the government.

When people ask me to succinctly define what chaplains do, I say something along the lines of, “We provide a sacred and safe space for clients of any faith background, free of our own agendas, to express their emotions and gain a better understanding of whatever they are facing at the moment.”

You might say despite the fact that these questions force me to have an agenda,  the questions are good ones for finding out what the patient needs and for priming the pump for them to begin talking. But I think more often than not, people find such questions, and questions in general, as intrusive, especially upon a first meeting. I remember when I was a chaplain intern I read an article that suggested that chaplains ask no questions at all during the whole encounter. That might be an extreme, but aiming towards that through open-ended comments and reactions  is a good corrective.

Then there is the issue of trust. Even the government acknowledges the importance of that at least. They require that I conclude my documentation of  my first contact with each new patient, (for every single patient, mind!) with the words, “A trusting relationship is being established,” whether that really happened or not. Building trust takes time even in the speeded-up world of hospice where even a few minutes later can count as “taking your time.”

I am reminded of my talk with Vanessa (pseudonym) over the phone a week ago, when I asked if she wanted me to contact a church on behalf of her loved one. She said, “no, there’s no church.” I felt awkward, and switched to some small talk for a moment. But then several minutes into the conversation, Vanessa brought up that they did belong to a church, and that she would appreciate it if I contacted them. I found that very interesting that at first she was guarded about revealing that information and was uncomfortable entrusting me with it. But after  she got a better sense of my intentions, she felt she was in a safe space to share it. Also she was a member of a minority, which I think adds to the negative impact of having to answer questions. Question-askers have power. The ones answering are vulnerable and struggling to protect themselves.

In an ideal world, my initial question during a visit to my patients  would always be, “How can I best be of service to you at this moment?” O Government, please document  and process my complaint!

The Rosary And The Rabbi

It was not a promising start. I had left a voicemail in Spanish with a new patient on hospice and her family. The patient’s daughter sent me a text message in Spanish saying I could visit whenever I wished. I called back, and after I said in my obviously flawed Spanish who I was and that I could come now, she said, “I don’t understand English.” Yikes. Was my Spanish all that bad?

But when I replied that I was speaking in Spanish to her, she giggled and the conversation at last had a future, however fragile it might be. So I considered it a victorious leap past the communication barrier when she agreed that I could come over right away.

The patient, who I will call Margarita, was seated on the couch, and her daughter Gabriela sat next to her as she put my Spanish comprehension to the test with a complex story of woe. A couple of other family members were present as well. I then turned to her mother, who had not said anything or even looked at me much during this lament. Because Gabriela mentioned that Margarita went to Spanish Mass at a church around the corner, I asked her mother if she would like a prayer. It just so happens I come prepared with prayers written in Spanish for such visits, including a prayer for caregivers (which caregivers sometimes scan into their phones because they like it so much), and the prayer for the Rosary. Margarita found it worthwhile to tune in to me and take the energy to communicate since I brought out the magic word Rosary as one of the prayers I had on hand. At my request, the family found a set of white rosary beads for her to hold.

I felt comfortable enough saying the words themselves of this prayer in these circumstances, but as a rabbi I could not make the sign of the Cross or say “amen,” so I felt I first had to let on that  I was not Catholic, but not only that, I was–were they ready for this?– Jewish. This only added further spice to the spectacle of a gringa like me with fractured Spanish reciting a prayer of utmost sanctity alien to her own beliefs. But they were alright with this, grateful for a spiritual presence that could cut through their linguistic isolation at this time of acute need. As I started to say the words, “En el nombre del Padre, del Hijo, y del Espiritu Santo…” I saw that Margarita could say much of the Rosary by herself by heart. I only had to resume here and there to prompt her along. She teared up at the emotion of expressing this prayer, and I saw the others brushing off their own tears. And as I was engaged with this task, I thought about how odd and how glorious it was that we could transcend language and religion and nationality and race to provide this salvation of release and of God’s comforting closeness.

The Zen of a Chaplain’s Sacrilegious Remarks


Shutterstock image.

 

Being a chaplain is a great career for people who like to skip the small talk and get straight to what is on a person’s mind. I was meeting Kenneth for the first time last week, one of the newly admitted patients in the hospice residence. He was in bed, a thin white beard vainly trying to obscure his gaunt face. After I explained who I was, he said, “I’m pretty old. But my buddies did not get to be old. Why would God let my buddies in the Second World War die and then let me live so many years?” He could not dismiss this theological quandary easily, because, “Anyhow me and God are on the same page.” The unfairness of some people dying young while others like him do not troubled him greatly, because he kept turning this over and over in his mind. Then he talked about the senselessness of war, and pondered why God would let that go on. Finally, as I listened to his litany of complaints, I asked,

“Do you think God should be fired?”

I did not say that to be cute or contrary. I asked that unlikely question to jostle him into being more aware of the religious conflict that was haunting him, and to help him articulate his unresolved spiritual issues. For the moment, he came up with saying he felt God’s care despite the Supreme Commander’s inscrutable behavior. He could live with ambiguity, as we all must to some extent.

Even curse words can have a curative effect. Some years ago, I recall helping a patient express his anger. I validated it by chiming in with some strong language about the Lord our God. This made him feel that I was not making excuses for God, and so he felt free to continue venting his spiritual pain.

Resisting the temptation to put oneself squarely in God’s corner may be especially challenging to volunteers helping mourners, because  such volunteers are drawn to it in the main for deeply spiritual reasons. They may be primed to see religion as a great comfort and as a source of wisdom. They may feel passionately that it is a resource they must let mourners know about. That may be the best path for some mourners, but there will be times when it is what the mourners themselves know about and want to impress upon the volunteer that will lay the groundwork for a truly spiritual encounter

This article was adapted and reprinted with permission from the blog,”Expired and Inspired,” published in the Jewish Journal on February 10th, 2016. The link is here: http://www.jewishjournal.com/expiredandinspired/item/the_zen_of_a_chaplains_sacrilegious_remarks

My Fractured Spanish and Patient Power

Power gets in the way of compassionate care. The very words, “compassionate care,” smack of a power differential between the caregiver and the patient: Me Tarzan: healthy and something to give you. You Jane: weak, vulnerable, dependent. I cast about for ways to make the patient and me more equal, partly because that is what I wish in order to honor them as a sojourner on the path of life, and partly to put them at ease. Bad enough I am ordained clergy, authority figure par excellence and sometimes viewed with suspicion or distaste.

What I tend to do to level the playing field is at least offer choices. Does the patient even want a visit in the first place? If so, do they prefer conversation to prayer, or just quiet? Hold hands or not? I take note of my physical presence and minimize any implied superiority by sitting rather than hover over the bed. Most importantly, I let them set the agenda for our interaction. It is their choice whether to talk about Trump or trauma, stock tips or taking stock.

I recently got hired by Center for Hope Hospice in New Jersey because I can speak Spanish, among other reasons. I do not speak like a native or anywhere close, for sure, but enough to relieve the suffering of those who need to pour out their hearts. So here I am, a Jewish chaplain, hired to speak Spanish with Catholics! During some of these visits, clients sometimes step in and help me with my Spanish skills. I then joke and praise them for being my “profesor de español.” They laugh and are pleased to help, often continuing to offer other tidbits such as a grammatical correction. This is great for both of us: I get a Spanish lesson, and they get to take the lead in at least one respect.

In general, when I speak my fractured Spanish, I am deferring to the client, giving them the home team advantage. Perhaps too, English may have the connotation for them as “impersonal,” “cold,” “official,” “uncaring” or even “threatening.” As I put myself at a linguistic disadvantage, I may be receiving intimate and profound stories clients share that otherwise would have gone unheard and their unexpressed pain left in solitary confinement.

 

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:

Name

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