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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
The preceding interview is reposted courtesy the Union City Reporter. For the full story in this regional weekly, see http://hudsonreporter.com/view/full_story/26232227/article-Last-words-UC-teacher-s-book-details-her-experiences-caring-for-the-dying-?instance=latest_story