Ambivalence Par Excellence

“Of all possible subjects, why did you have to go and write a book about THAT?” Perplexed and repelled in equal measure, that was more than one person’s reaction to my writing a hospice career memoir. Another good fellow’s reaction along the same lines was, “Who would want to read stories about people who were about to drop dead?” He believes that Encountering the Edge would only interest chaplains and such. No doubt about it. Some people I know make dead sure I get their drift.

On the other extreme, before I started the book, I got comments like “You should write a book about that.” After I finished it, others said, “That title is sure a grabber.” And, “We need more books like that to get this subject out in the open.” Naturally these are more to my liking, but I think most people coming across the subject of hospice will experience elements of both reactions: Curious but wary. Intrigued but repulsed. And so it is with death in general. While it is the greatest mystery to ponder, the very consideration of it can evoke fear, dread, and other lovelies.

Ambivalence was the challenge before me: How to get a prospective reader to at least glance at the back cover and peer at the opening pages? If I could get him/her to do that, I would have it made… Well, at least I’d have a fighting chance they would not sprint away from the book. My solution was to address the ambivalence at the outset. Here is an excerpt of what I mean from the Introduction:

“Throughout my seven-year career of encountering people at death’s door, friends and family have puzzled over my offbeat choice of career. ‘Isn’t it depressing? Doesn’t it get you down?’ easily takes first place for most frequently asked questions. Other top contenders I get include, ‘What do people near the end want to talk about and what do you say to them? What wisdom do they share? Come crunch time, what do they really believe will happen to them? How do they cope with knowing their time is near?’ One of my own favorites, which even the patients themselves ask, is ‘Why do you want to do this kind of work?’ (Read: ’Why on earth would you want to? You must be a little strange.’)”

“…But then again, you may be curious about how my visits with people from all walks of life have shaped my beliefs about the meaning of life and the nature of the afterlife. You might wonder what you would witness if you could invisibly accompany me on my visits. You might wonder what it is like to constantly improvise how to respond depending on the patient’s personality, mood, presence of family or of medical professionals, ethnic and racial background, and even socioeconomic level.”

“…The aim of each anecdote in this book is to portray how the moments in question were adventurous, inspiring, meaningful, perplexing, or otherwise authentic to those present. As you peruse these tales, you may in turn have these reactions, or at least get a glimpse into a time of life that was a fertile ground for the patient’s search for meaning and for the affirmation of what each valued most.”


For another free excerpt from the book,  plus a view of a gorgeous cover to uh, “die for,” you can go to the publisher’s author page at this link:     Inquiries about reviewing the book are most welcome.


Not an April Fool’s Joke

If you can’t wait to see even these unpolished and brusquely edited posts I have been sending since last July, then you may very well be um, “dying” to get your hands on my book, Encountering The Edge: What People Told Me Before They Died. I lovingly polished and buffed everything in it from periods and commas to entire chapters (with the help of friends and editors). If you are so lucky as to have a U.S. or Canadian shipping address, [Dear Canada! I talked the publisher into including you as well in this offer.] then you can get a 15% discount by preordering the book through April 22nd. Due to the complexity of having various shipping charges, Pen-L unfortunately cannot extend this pre-ordering to anyone else.

Everyone can see my author page right at the publisher’s site, including a free excerpt. and picture of the cover. The site is,

I look forward to resuming my regular posts  reasonably soon. As always, I am  open to suggested topics and to written contributions, as well as to the insightful comments I have been receiving.  Inquiries for candid reviews of the book are welcome.

What is offbeat compassion?

When I told friends, family and Twitter followers I would be starting a blog, they wondered if my anecdotes about people in Act 3 Scene 3 of their lives would be comforting or inspiring. They wondered  (and either hoped or feared) whether I, a hospice chaplain, had a religious agenda.  Hospice after all is a heavy-duty subject. Chaplains after all are, well, chaplains. Despite this, I have foregone any such goal. There are plenty of other books and blogs that already perform that service. Rather, my purpose in all of my writing is to bring readers  close-at-hand to places they are ambivalent about approaching, yet respect their need for space. Rather than perform the distasteful task of selling you a message, I feel my task is to let you see for yourself what hospice patients think about, value, believe, and avoid.

My attitude towards the hospice patients and their families is similar. I am not there to promote anything, though my presence may be of comfort. As a quiet nonjudgmental presence, they have full leeway as to what they want out of my visits, whether it be a listening ear, song, prayer, touch, casual chatter, or even simply just sitting silently with them. So one of my definitions of “offbeat compassion” is making room for persons who call upon us for help and letting them freely sort out for themselves how we can be there for them.

In the coming months, I will blog about anecdotes about the dying and with grievers, or  tell you about my experiences with such groups as a threshold choir (they sing to the dying), my responses to others writing about similar topics to mine, give book reviews, and provide excerpts from my hospice memoir. As this evolves, I look forward to amplifying comments you make and answering questions you may have. I plan to ask you challenging questions too. Who knows, I may give a pop quiz.

Since this is my maiden post, above all I want to thank all of you for venturing with me into this sometimes soothing, sometimes strange, sometimes curious, and sometimes funny ride.