Tag: chaplain

You will never find closure

The vet school where I work when I’m not writing the Mount Moriah Mysteries runs a Pet Loss Hotline, and I sometimes volunteer there. Many of the callers use the hotline to support them through the acute, initial phases of grief. The sympathetic ear we provide can be particularly helpful if the pet’s death has been traumatic or sudden, or if the owner’s friends, coworkers, and family are the kind of people who think they’re being helpful when they offer suggestions like, “Let’s go to the Humane Society this weekend and pick out another cat for you.”**

**Note to those inclined to give such advice — For many people, their pets mean as much to them as your human relatives mean to you. So unless you’d feel comforted by someone saying, “Let’s run down to the assisted living facility this weekend and pick you out a new grandma,” maybe keep that particular bit of advice to yourself.

Grandma shopping aside, there’s an aspect of these calls that reminded me of some of the struggles the protagonist of my Mount Moriah mysteries, Lindsay Harding, has faced. Many of the callers are haunted–often for months or even years after their pet’s passing–by unanswered questions. “Did I euthanize Fluffy too soon? Would the cancer really have killed her, or should I have tried another round of chemo?” “What did Max actually die of? Was it really unavoidable, or did my vet just make a mistake and cover it up?” A variation on these calls comes when the pet has simply gone missing. “Where is Bailey? Is he happily living with a new family, or was he hit by a car and killed?” In all these cases, the callers’ brains drive them around the same rutted track, night after night.

My books, too, contain some unresolved mysteries. I don’t want to be accused of dropping spoilers of my own work, so suffice it to say that book two, A Death in Duck, ends with the fate of a major character unresolved. In book three, The Burnt Island Burial Ground, there is still no resolution, and the tension that comes with not knowing impacts many of Lindsay’s actions in that book. I have the luxury of being able to decide if, when, and how the mystery of that character’s fate will be resolved, but my poor protagonist still doesn’t know. One thing I’ve been at pains to have her avoid, though, is seeking closure.

As a hospital chaplain, Lindsay will have heard many variations on the themes of the Pet Loss Hotline’s callers. And I’m sure that she, like me, will have quickly picked up on the idea that it would be counterproductive to offer answers to the person’s questions. Saying something like, “I’m sure Bailey is fine. He was a smart dog, and I bet he’s living a really happy life on a farm,” may fool a five-year-old, but it’s certainly not going to help someone struggling with profound grief. (And if any of you have ever been told the “Bailey went to live on a farm” story as kids, you know how well that worked out!)

So how, then can we find closure when we are confronted by unanswerable questions? Well, we can’t. And I think it’s silly to try.

That may sound harsh, but one thing that has seemed to help callers to the hotline is for me to suggest that humans are hardwired to try to fill in gaps. We are creatures of meaning. We may complain that it’s unrealistic when our favorite TV series ends with a series of perfect weddings and happily-ever-afters, but we roar in agony when they end in cliffhangers, à la The Sopranos. Unanswered questions sit on our brains like itchy scabs, refusing to heal, demanding our attention.

So if we accept that such rumination is normal, what are we to do about it? My belief, which I’ve planted in Lindsay’s head, is to focus on living. Little by little, allow yourself to smile, breathe, and love again. Congratulate yourself when you do. When the unanswered questions start to poke their little fingers into our thoughts, remind yourself that they will always be there, but that you don’t have to let them drag you back to that same mental rut right now. You can choose instead to use those thoughts as reminders to take an action that would honor your loved one or pet. Bailey loved walks? Well, when you start to think about his disappearance, might it honor him if you took a walk and remembered the good times you had? Thinking about Fluffy’s tumor? What is something that might channel that question into something life-affirming? Perhaps putting a dollar in a jar each time you think about her diagnosis, and then donating that money to an animal charity?

As for Lindsay, she struggles to put this into practice, but I’m confident that she’ll keep trying. Sometimes it’s good to know that you’re in control of someone else’s happy endings, because in real life, closure is elusive.

Writers Who Kill Interview

If you’ve never checked out the wonderful Writers Who Kill blog, might I suggest that today would be an excellent day to do so? Coincidentally, they have kindly featured an interview about my Lindsay Harding series. 🙂 I’ve posted an excerpt below.

An Interview with Mindy Quigley

Mindy Quigley writes a mystery series featuring a most unusual sleuth, one with a profession I never contemplated before. Main character, Lindsay Harding is an ordained minister who serves as a hospital chaplain. Her profession brings her in contact with victims, but her personal life and history connects her to criminals as well. She’s not your parents’ minister.

Lindsay Harding Mystery, No. 1

How did you concoct Lindsay Harding? Was anyone you knew a hospital chaplain?

One of my many jobs (and, as a project manager who moved every couple of years, I’ve had many!) was working with the chaplains in the Pastoral Services department of the Duke University Medical Center. The chaplains would come back from the wards with these unbelievable stories, full of drama, heartbreak, and humor. It was a very unique place to work. I often told them, “One of you has to write a book about this.” None of them ever took up the challenge, so I was obliged to do it myself.

I have another source of real-life inspiration in that two of my four college roommates became ministers. One is a very “high church” Episcopal minister who happens to also be lesbian, and the other is an agnostic-leaning Unitarian Universalist minister who was a complete party animal in college. They are both fantastically empathic, deeply spiritual women who help their congregants wrestle with the big questions. Knowing them definitely changed my perception of what kind of person makes a good minister. Read more…

Knock, knock. Who’s there? Death.

There’s a great quote in Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s book Americanah about blogging. She describes a blogger so eager to impress her followers with her wit and freshness that she begins to feel, over time, “like a vulture hacking into the carcasses of other people’s stories.” As I peck at the keyboard in my little corner of the Great Blogosphere, I can relate. I, too, suffer from the blergy, sinking feeling that everything interesting and meaningful that can be said, has been said a thousand times before by people way fancier than I am. Undaunted, I will blog on, because, like Allison Janda, I am a blogoholic. All of which is to say: consider yourself warned that Adiche’s quote is going to be especially true about this blog post, because not only am I going to talk about things that other people have written, but I’m going to talk about, well, carcasses. In this case, human ones.

I’ve written about death on this blog before, so you may already know that I have an interest in the subject. If you are very clever, the fact that I write murder mysteries about a hospital chaplain (whose job in large part involves providing pastoral care to those facing the end of their lives) might also have dropped a subtle hint.

Thus, I was heartened to learn that there are other young women who’ve given this topic some thought. [And, yes, I did just have a birthday. And, no, saying “young” and including myself in that age bracket wasn’t a typo.]

Caitlin Doughty isn’t like stuffed squirrels smoking pipes.

When I first heard about mortician and death scholar Caitlin Doughty’s new book, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, I thought it was going to be a piece of hipster shock art, like those weird taxidermy scenes of, say, chipmunks playing miniature banjos or stuffed squirrels smoking pipes. After all, the publicity photos showed Doughty, an attractive Morticia Addams type with black hair and red lipstick, holding a skull. This signaled to me a posture of somehow being “cooler” than death.

But you really can’t judge a book by its cover (or an author by her ability to look sexy wielding a skull). The glossy Betty Page pin-up image is only bait to pull readers into a thoughtful and engaging work about the modern American experience of life and death. There’s humor and humanity in her book, but she never comes across as flippant. If anything, she encourages us to think more deeply, and become more engaged in the essential fact of life that death is. Doughty doesn’t believe in an afterlife; she’s someone who has suffered from existential fears and has stared death in the face…literally. From all of this, she has, in my opinion, grown wise beyond her years.

Another young woman whose writing on this subject I greatly admire is Stacy N. Sergent, a.k.a. Chaplain Jesus Lady. You’ll have to trust me that the Lindsay Harding character who features in my murder mystery series is not based on Sergent, although they’re both funny, young, compassionate, Southern, single and have very curly hair. However, it’s been wonderful to discover Sergent’s blog, which so often expresses views that mirror my own and, by extension, Lindsay’s. As an ordained Christian minister, Sergent falls on the the opposite end of the theological spectrum from Doughty. However, the two women share a passion for advocating acceptance of the inevitability of death and compassion for those facing it. I can’t recommend her recent post “D is for Death” (in her ABCs of hospital chaplaincy series) highly enough. I’ll leave you with the words she closes with:

We are the same. I am with you, as far as I can go. God is with you all the way. You are not alone. Even in death, not one of us is alone.

Stop raging against the dying of the light.

As a writer of murder mysteries that feature a hospital chaplain, I’ve probably given death a lot more thought than most people.

Brief sidebar–my daughter seems to have inherited my fascination with the morbid. While most children play the License Plate Game on long car trips, my kid keeps a tally of the different roadkill animals we pass. I think we got up to 13 possums on our drive from Illinois to Virginia last summer.

Okay. Back to my fixation with death. When I was in college, I realized that there was no heaven, at least not in the sense that I’d been raised to regard it. When I say “realized” it genuinely was a moment of realization, like a reverse Road to Damascus moment.

Here’s how it went down. My roommate, who is Jewish, had received a kosher care package from her mother in advance of the Passover holiday. She and I unscrewed a bottle of Manischewitz wine (which, if you’ve never had the pleasure of trying it, tastes like Kool-aid with a fistful of Jolly Ranchers melted into it). As we drank, she told me about all of the ancient traditions of Passover — the meanings behind the food that was eaten and the words that were spoken. I realized in that moment that my sweet roommate, who is still one of the nicest, most considerate people I’ve ever known, wasn’t going to hell. It kind of broke my brain. I mean, this thought was totally at odds with everything I’d been taught as a strict Baptist, i.e. all non-believers, including many Catholics!, would go to hell. Jesus was the Way, the Truth, and the Light and NO ONE was gonna get to the Father except through Him. But how could this be so? My roommate was following the religious teachings she’d been raised with. Was she really supposed to throw all that out and toss aside her family and thousands of years of history in order to score a ticket to the one and only (Baptist) Heaven?!

Once my belief in heaven and hell became unmoored, other long-held “truths” got caught up in this tsunami of doubt. I have never been able to get back to any kind of certainty about what happens after we die. All I know is that I don’t believe that anyone deserves eternal damnation, especially anyone as good as my Jewish roommate. This uncertainty has made life all the more precious to me. This life may well be all that there is. You might think that that would make me cling to it like some kind of stubborn, agnostic barnacle. On the contrary, it’s made me value quality over quantity. For me, fifty bright-burning years of wonder and joy, soaking in the warm light of consciousness is always going to be way better than 100 years of meh.

Along those philosophical lines, I encourage you to read this wonderful piece in the Washington Post about the American obsession with extending life. So many of us try to stretch out those last months and years like stingy people trying to spread our little pat of margarine across an endless piece of toast. I hope that, when my time comes, I’ll have the courage to face the unknown with bravery and with the hope that there is some kind of heaven. Perhaps the kind of place where my roommate and I can sit around together, sipping terrible wine on a Tuesday afternoon.

Why write murder mysteries? And why have a chaplain solve them?!

One of my writing heroes, the fabulous novelist Ann Patchett, was interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air recently. She said that all of her books are fundamentally about groups of strangers who are thrown together in unusual circumstances. Patchett reckons that all writers have a similar “thing”–the theme that underpins almost all of their writing. Jack London? Man against nature. Hemingway? Strength and the loss of strength.

My writing buddy, Charlotte Morgan, heard the Patchett interview, too, and asked me what my theme was. It may not be entirely obvious to those who’ve only read A Murder in Mount Moriah. In fact, it wasn’t something I’d ever thought about. Yet, I was able to answer Charlotte’s question immediately. My theme is death. Or perhaps more accurately, my own fear of death and my exploration of other people’s attitudes towards death. That may seem an odd answer given that most of what I write is (or tries to be!) funny. But I’ve never seen any incompatibility between humor and death. Indeed, one of my first literary ventures was writing an original comedy piece for my forensics team when I was a freshman in high school. The story I wrote began with the death of an old woman who was “rammed by a ewe”. All these years later, I’m still pretty proud of that pun.

So death is my theme. But why have a main character who is a hospital chaplain? I suppose that my protagonist, Lindsay Harding, is my shield. Her wisdom and humor protect me from the aspects of death that I would otherwise find too scary to confront. Because hospital chaplains see death so often and in so many forms, they are often able to find moments of levity, beauty, poignancy, and transcendence within the processes of dying and grieving. I think a lot of us feel, or want to feel, this way about death–that it would be better to treat it as another part of life rather than as “that which cannot be named”. To that end, I commend to you the heartbreaking and hilarious series of tweets recently put out by comedy writer Laurie Kilmartin, whose father passed away a few days ago. Check it out. If you don’t laugh AND cry, I will eat my hat.

p.s. This post is dedicated to my friend, Ida Jarron, who passed away late last week. I went to visit her recently in the nursing home she moved to after her condition took a turn for the worse. As ever, she offered me a gin and tonic, which (as ever) she poured with a very heavy hand and almost no mixer. I suspect that I am one of the few people who can say that they’ve walked out of a nursing home at 4 o’clock in the afternoon steaming drunk. RIP, Miss Ida.

Why write books about chaplains?

I came across an inspiring blog post today: Life as a queer chaplain by Laura Arnold. I’m at a particularly thorny stage of writing the next Reverend Lindsay Harding book, and I’ve been a bit discouraged. This post really helped reconnect me with my “mission”–to entertain and engage, while reminding people that we are all children of God*. We all need love. We all seek truth. We all crave meaning and connection. Chaplains, whatever their personal stories, come into our lives at critical moments and do their best to help us walk through to the other side. But chaplains are just like the rest of us–struggling with their own inner turmoil and trying to make their own way in this world.

*Note: Please substitute The Universe or Humanity if the idea of God doesn’t speak to you.