Telling It Like It Was In Castro’s Cuba

In my last post I wrote that relating to others as a chaplain is like performing improvisational theater. I go into each encounter with a patient with no script in mind, and what they say shapes the give and take between us. But the flavor of interactions at hospice varies so much, I get to sample a number of careers, not just one. Sometimes I feel like a detective, following up hints my clients inadvertently drop which point to hidden deeper concerns that they feel too hesitant to express outright to a total stranger.  Other times I feel like a journalist, gathering stories of public interest. Besides “getting the story,” when I act like a reporter, I am giving the client in such cases the freedom to tell their story and fulfill their need to be heard and understood. Many of the anecdotes in Offbeatcompassion derive from this journalistic role.

Thinking back, there was a storyteller who was so anxious to have me listen in detail I think she wanted me to publicize her words so that more Americans would know what it was really like in the early years of Castro’s Cuba, in the early 60’s. I was genuinely surprised to hear such tales of woe and bravery. Like any reliable reporter, I “checked my sources” on the Internet and found that others have told similar stories.

I will call the narrator “Juana”, who spoke to me for over two hours while her loved one lay sleeping under a portrait of a friend who served in the Cuban Army prior to Castro. “My family was on the ‘losing side’, and they called the people on the losing side ‘worms,’” she explained.  As Juana spoke, these sorts of details reminded me of Nazi behavior. She went on, “The people did so-called volunteer work in the cane fields. Very hard labor they would ask people to do on their time off. But I did not do it.” Instead she went to study at a medical school, hoping to find a niche in Castro’s Cuba where she could do something productive and avoid some of the worst consequences of his regime.

But even there she felt society had become so warped that she could no longer find a viable place to fit in. She said, “the school had ‘cleansing meetings,’ where in front of all the students they would say which students they were going to expel. And then one time I heard a shot and later I found out a student had shot himself after learning that his girlfriend was expelled.” This gruesome story reminds me of the recent science fiction thriller movie The Thinning, whose equally gruesome premise is that those who fail a school aptitude test are executed in order to ensure population control.

One other significant anecdote she shared was about the U.S. Naval base in Guantanamo Bay. I have always thought of the part of Guantanamo Bay which serves as a prison, but Juana explained that Cubans would try to climb over the fence to be on U.S. soil and gain their freedom. Some Cubans eventually were allowed to go from there to the U.S. Juana told of one exploit where the escapees practiced going over a similar fence elsewhere before they went on a train that passed very close to the naval base fence. “The conductor had a plan in advance, these people went on the train on a particular day from all over Cuba; from many provinces. The conductor stopped the train real close to the fence. Not the usual stop. He opened the doors and the people all dashed out and rushed over to the fence. Many climbed up but the guards up on the towers shot at them and some were hit and killed. But a lot of the people made it. They made it to freedom.”

A Hippie’s Homily

Lucy, a patient not much older than myself, remarked to me last week, “I was at Woodstock, and tried every drug in the book…just like everyone else was doing.” Even on a cold day like that one, she was outside her home, seated by the back door, indulging now only in the drug of nicotine. She had unruly grey hair, except for a garish red clutching at the lower half of it. She had explained that she used to dye her hair red, but now found it was too tedious and tiring to sit long enough to have her hair dyed again, so she is just waiting for the rest of it to grow out. I gather you get the picture for why I then burst out, “So you are a hippie, right?” Lucy replied, “Oh yeah. Old hippies never die.”

She then turned her attention to her smoking habit after I mentioned further along in the conversation that I like to write. “I have a story for you to write about. And you don’t even have to attribute it to me.” I thanked her for that, as it can be a challenge to decide what to write about in Offbeatcompassion.  Oh boy! Fresh material dropping right into my lap! I settled in for the story, glad I had kept my pink button-down sweater on, not having anticipated the visit would be outdoors. She took one last puff on her current cigarette and began, “I’ve known Mr. Nicotine since I was ten. When I was ten, Mr. Nicotine was young, energetic, and cool. Handsome and cool. And a great talker. Everyone wanted to be with him, so we all joined in. But now, Mr. Nicotine is old and horrid and grumbles. He has a long grey beard and there’s food in it. He is very dirty, but now it’s too late for me to get away from him. So watch out you don’t get caught. That’s the story about Mr. Nicotine. He fooled me.”

I listened some more, and as the cold  penetrated past my sweater, I gave out some hints that I was about to put the brakes on the conversation. Her response as I left: “You’re givin’ up, huh?” I wish I had been quick enough on the draw to retort, “Certainly not. Chaplain visits never finish.”


We tend to think literature has an artificial structure that separates it from how real-life interactions go. But what happens during my visits as a hospice chaplain can have just as much of a “narrative thread” as any short story, with an arc that goes from building a connection with each other (the background), to pent-up emotion let free (the climax), to a peaceful aftermath (the resolution).

Why just yesterday I saw the patient Isabel (all names are aliases), relatively young in her mid-sixties, and her mother Gloria, fervently devout Christians originally from Cuba. Gloria and I began with greeting each other and some small talk, all tinged with a resigned air as we entered the bedroom and she gestured to her daughter lying in bed. Isabel dreamily opened her eyes, wanting the respite of prayer and song. Isabel encouraged me to keep going: “my eyes are closed, but I still am listening.” I had started with some traditional prayers, and some simple hymns. I felt the calmness in the bedroom, decorated with so many religious pictures they practically could count as wallpaper. The daughter was riding on the warm current of the comforting religious words and music. The mother was letting herself feel their message of peace. I paused, and Gloria let a memory rise out of her: “Even when Isabel was a child, she wanted to go to church. Every day she went to church. Both of us went. Every single day. When we were in [she names a place in the U.S.].” As she remarked on that, I pondered how her faith contrasted with  the Cuban government’s discouragement of religious expression. This much was, so to speak, Chapter One.

After a moment of quiet, I said I would offer some  “more modern” prayers, a shift to Chapter Two as it were. I recited a “prayer for caregivers” and “a prayer for the sick.”  It was then that Gloria’s emotions bloomed and she let her tears be released, the most intense moment of the visit. I said God was receiving her sacred tears. Perhaps for her these were tears of acceptance of Isabel’s fate, because during  my previous visit, anger was the emotion that took center stage. As I said goodbye to them, the mother asked me to bring copies of those modern prayers next time. Isabel acknowledged my departure with an opened eye, closing the third and last chapter of this human interest story.

On Not Being Afraid to Death of Death

A columnist with the Hudson Reporter interviewed me for an hour in December 2014 and captured the complexity of what hospice chaplains do, and why people are chary of reading about this subject. An excerpt of the interview follows:


Most people shy away from the subject of death. Not Karen Kaplan. She made a career out of it, serving for seven years as a hospice chaplain, tending to the spiritual and emotional needs of people as they approached the end.

“A lot of people look at my book and say, ‘No, I’m not going there,’” said Kaplan. “Most people are very uncomfortable talking about death or afraid to see a person close to death. It makes you confront your own mortality. But we have to be aware our lives are finite. What’s the legacy you want to leave? There are many healthy questions to ask to make our lives more meaningful and stronger, for people to overcome their fear and enrich their lives instead of shrinking away.”

That was the impetus for writing the book. Then she had to find a way to make it approachable. “I try to write in a strangely humorous way, handling a forbidding subject in a gentle manner,” she said. “It usually revolves around some kind of story.”

For example there’s the 28-year-old ex-policeman with ALS who craved a beer. Although she couldn’t grant that wish, Chaplain Kaplan, as she was known, instead sang songs to him about beer, which brought a smile to his face. “One time he talked about getting a tattoo that would show his police ID,” Kaplan recalled. “Like he wanted to have an obituary on his arm.”

Another patient had parents who were going through a divorce and each visited separately. “There was a journal where they would each make an entry like, ‘I was here, this was what we talked about,’” said Kaplan. “Each parent would read what the other wrote. That’s why the job is so complicated. All the dynamics, the tension between people. All the complexities of life stirred together with this added layer of impending crisis. You have to be sensitive to all the dynamics, what people need, and when and why. That’s what’s intriguing. It’s not just about saying a prayer.”

The circuitous route to hospice

Sometimes, though, a prayer was called for. And when it was, Chaplain Kaplan was up to the task. Prior to becoming a hospice worker she was ordained as a rabbi and served congregations in New York and New Jersey. In fact, it was while serving as a rabbi that she discovered her affinity for hospice work and decided to make the career move.

“I found I was most helpful one-on-one, when they were in some kind of crisis or another,” she said. “Losing a job or bereaving a family member or having to be in a hospital. I was really there with them and felt very comfortable and effective.” Part of that she attributes to her own difficult childhood, with a challenging family dynamic. “Just surviving was kind of the goal at that point,” she said. “That’s partly what shaped my identity. I had so little nourishment of my own, which made me sensitive to the needs of others.”

As a young teenager Kaplan wrote stories and poems before putting aside the writing to concentrate on a career. Graduating from the University of Texas at Austin in 1984 with a PhD in linguistics, she first taught Spanish at Denison University before joining the ESL staff at Hudson County Community College in Union City about 15 years ago. Then came her rabbinical study, including a year in Jerusalem, and eventually hospice care.

Sharing secrets

Kaplan trained for a year in Clinical Pastoral Education to become certified as a health care chaplain. “There’s not only the practice, there’s theory,” she said. “We would meet with supervisors and other chaplain interns to discuss our role and what the climate is like and how to listen and keep our own personal baggage out of the way. We’re not supposed to preach. It’s all about learning how to listen in a nonjudgmental, open-ended manner and really be where the patient is.”

Encountering people on the brink of death wasn’t new to her, however. “I had visited plenty of people in the hospital and been around plenty of death and funerals,” she said. “Even back in my student rabbi days I felt very comfortable and not afraid with people close to the end. I was providing a calming presence. The difference was working with a whole interdisciplinary team.” That included nurses, therapists, social workers, and more, all tending to the needs of the dying.

Kaplan still remembers her first patient after taking a job with United Hospice of Rockland. He was completely nonresponsive. “A fair number of people are like that, sleeping or possibly in a coma or they don’t have the energy to talk,” she said. So how does one provide comfort to a patient when there’s zero response? “I try to get a sense of any energy or if they sense my presence,” she said. “I try singing. Maybe I’ll just stay and hold their hand. I try to find something they may find meaningful.”

The job requires a unique skill set, which Kaplan equates to a detective searching for clues. “You learn to observe and appreciate subtle things like someone opening an eye,” she said. “That means they were interested enough to look at me. They wanted to invest the energy to open their eye as opposed to just ignoring and keeping their eyes closed.”

More often, though, patients welcomed the personal interaction.

“It is part of the appeal of feeling that I’m doing something so meaningful for people, providing that sacred open space for them to bring up the most personal types of things, sharing so much of their personal life,” she said. “They’re telling me the most intimate things they may not even share with their own families.”

It can be an unburdening for the patient, a way of winding down, of letting go. “I might be one of the last people they’re going to see before they pass on,” said Kaplan.

Serving in another way

After seven years as a hospice chaplain, Kaplan decided it was time to take a break. “It’s draining,” she said, noting that the average length of time a chaplain remains in the profession is eight years…She began writing again. And what better subject than hospice care? For her first book she chose to craft “a safe, open place for people to explore these important issues on their own terms. I’m just serving in another way.”

Art Schwartz did this interview. This reporter can be reached at

The preceding interview is reposted courtesy the Union City Reporter. For the full story in this regional weekly, see




The Pleasures of an Untasted Beer

“How can not drinking the beer be satisfying?” a member of my audience asked with irritation. She was reacting to another person at my book discussion in the local library who was a hospice volunteer. She had just told a story about one of her patients, who I’ll call Seth. He had described to the volunteer his urge to have a beer in such nostalgic terms, the advertising department of any brewery would have loved to get ahold of the words he poured out. On the next visit, the volunteer brought the longed-for beverage, presumably after getting medical clearance. It was in a thoroughly chilled can, its thin coating of moisture revealing its recent history of refrigeration. Seth’s hands reached out as the volunteer approached, her hands meeting his until the transfer was made complete. She could hardly wait to see the pleasure he would have as the prized liquid hit his tongue. But simply holding it and rolling it in his hands sufficed. He was too weak to drink it, or not thirsty. Yet he was contented as anyone who had had their fill of their favorite kind of beer at some pleasing backdrop such as an outing with their buddies to the playoffs or a school reunion picnic.

“How could just holding the can be enough?” the doubter kept persisting. This sufficed to get the discussion flowing liberally. “Of course,” someone else put in. “Don’t you see? Seth saw the beer and enjoyed the cool sensation of the can.”

“Yeah,” someone else added. “Seeing the beer probably brought back memories of all those good times he had when he could drink it. And you know, he must have liked the volunteer going to the trouble to bring it to him.”

I sealed up this discussion by remarking that when people get close to dying, more and more subtle things can please them. In the excerpt from Encountering the Edge that I had read to them prior to the volunteer’s story, the link between beer and its consumption was twice removed: With nary a can of beer in sight because Sam was not allowed to have it, I sang, In heaven there is no beer, that’s why we drink it here. The smile on his face reflected all the contentment of a beer connoisseur who had successfully demonstrated his own sensitivity to subtle variations in flavor.

Meeting High Standards: A Chaplain Reviews Encountering the Edge

What follows after the announcement is the first official review of Encountering the Edge. Even though Chaplain Kinzbrunner focuses on my final chapter as an especially elaborate death awareness exercise, no spoiler alerts are needed if you read this review. Kinzbrunner is a professional health care chaplain, whose point-of-view here and at his blog in general may be especially intriguing to others in the health care field. -Karen B. Kaplan


Annoucement: The Publisher, at is offering a 20% discount on all their books for the merry month of May for the U.S. and Canada. You can also get Encountering the Edge at Amazon at the link


The World of Pastoral and Spiritual care

Disclaimer: I received an advanced copy of the book, Encountering the Edge: What People Told Me Before They Died  by Hospice Chaplain Karen B. Kaplan.

Over the weekend, I took advantage of some quiet on Shabbat afternoon to begin reading a book sent to me for review.  I had skimmed it upon receipt and figured it would be an easy read, as it appeared to be a book of stories about the hospice experiences of a chaplain.  I have read books by hospice professionals describing their work in story form, offering readers an insider’s look at the process of death and dying.  So there I was, reading the book, and I suddenly realized halfway through that this book was more than merely anecdotal.

Encountering the Edge: What People Told Me Before They Died, describes hospice chaplaincy in an intimate, personal way.  The book allowed me, a hospice chaplain for 9…

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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.

World’s Most Politically Laden Hospice Visit

Almost always when I visit a hospice patient and possibly his or her family members, they and I are meeting for the very first time. That is one of the beauties as well as one of the challenges of hospice work: there is no existing prior relationship that will constrain what we want to say to each other; no built-in script of expectations. We offer each other the freedom that comes with speaking to strangers. Of course that has its own limitations; I do what I can to build trust within minutes or even seconds, because of the shortage of time at our disposal.

Once in a great while, the patient and family and I do have a prior connection. One time I had to minister to the spouse of one of the members of the committee that voted on chaplain salaries! But even touchier than that, I had to visit with my supervisor’s supervisor’s top echelon so-and-so [As you can imagine, I am purposely being vague.]  Ms. So and So was the patient’s daughter; the patient was her father. What was I going to say to them? Why did they want to see me? What if I said something either of them thought was insensitive or at least mediocre?  How was I going to put this in the medical records, which the daughter had easy access to? This was not my idea of a job evaluation.  But just think how much worse it must have been for the nurse: what if they saw her washing her hands a few seconds shy of the required amount? What if she fumbled with administering the medication and spilled some?

I made my way through this best I could by trying to be with them as I would with any others in our species suffering this universal crisis: I sat with them; I became acquainted with her father as I would with anyone new; I talked about this and that neutral subject with Ms. So and So. I took an interest in everything they said. The major difference between that visit and all my routine visits is that I did not attempt to give them permission to reveal their vulnerabilities or to pursue deep questions such as what mattered the most to them now. I had to obey the constraints of our existing business relationship.

Years later, as I recall this mother of awkward visits, I wonder from their point of view what their underlying agenda was, assuming no sadism toward low-level staff was at play. (Yes, nurses, and even more so social workers and chaplains are low-level; we are always on the bottom of those hierarchy charts that hospice agencies hand out at new employee orientations.) I have the feeling that Ms. Top Brass and her dad felt some comfort by not choosing the care of an outside hospice. They felt more at home with “their own” hospice. Rather than consciously or even subconsciously trying to avoid death or issues surrounding it on the one hand, or trying to make employees squirm as a sort of retaliation for death’s reach of even the most powerful on the other, they wanted the familiar, the outwardly tame.

To my relief, there were no further visits, as her father died soon thereafter. The daughter returned to work; I was dutifully vague in my medical notes about the visit, estimating the amount of time spent with them and that I my goal was to offer attentive listening. The outcome I listed was that calm pervaded the household. Perhaps she read the note, pausing over it just long enough to register the distance she had sometimes kept between herself and her own capacity for outwardly demonstrated compassion.

An Occupational Secret

If you were to happen upon a picture in a magazine of a broadly smiling face whose caption read, “I’m so miserable,” or see a companion picture of a frowning tear-speckled face with the caption, “Things are going very well thank you,” you most likely would think, “Something is wrong with this picture.” Or maybe, to avoid the cliche, you’d declare, “Off with the editor’s head! They  must have reversed the captions by mistake.”

Not so fast. The widow Shirley would have been a fit subject of the first picture. Upon my arrival, she would joyously usher me into her stylish home.There she was, lively as could be, with her favorite kind of music purring from the living room and a batch of homemade “very very healthy granola” cookies ready to bask in the warmth of her oven. After her husband died, I visited her once a month for about a year, the maximum time that hospice workers offer to stay in touch with the bereaved. Shirley had a very complicated story, but her way of telling it did not go with the meaning of her words. She would talk of how terribly she missed Elliott and how devastated and lonely she was, but she smiled and smiled at me as if drinking me into her digestive system, her mascara-bedecked eyes dressed to kill, her arms migrating from the table to her cheeks to her forehead to the air and back round again as she pointed out photos of “the most wonderful man there ever was.” He truly was. Who else would take stopping at a red traffic light as an opportunity to get in yet another kiss during their day? Who else arrived at breakfast as if it were a date? Whew! Shirley really raised the bar on attentive spouses alright. What made her story truly poignant is that this perfect man was her second husband, who she was married to for a scant 6 years, but not until his predecessor obligingly got out of the way for him after 50 uninspiring years by leaving this earth.

The incongruity between what she was expressing and how she was behaving tipped me off to a much deeper story. How could someone so depressed flash around like she was hosting a surprise birthday party? How could a mourner so devastated be practically singing as she spoke? Picking up on this sort of thing is one of my occupational secrets. When something does not match, I know there’s much more going on that the mourner might need to become aware of or talk about. One of the many deeper layers we touched on during all those visits was that my being there brought a little of Elliott back to her. As I gave her the opportunity to speak about him at length, she got to feel close to him all over again as she passionately listed one marvelous quality of him after another.

Later in the year, I helped her to look at other layers that her cheerfulness might have held at bay, such as guilt she might have felt at being released from her less-than-ideal hubby Number One. Her demeanor and what she was saying started to match up more and more closely, Shirley was able to let her picture of Elliott become just faded and dusty enough to broaden her devotion to other people and other interests who were just then starting to come into focus.