Tag: fear of death

Life, Death, and Ginger Tea

Recently I paid a visit to a dear friend of mine who’s been ill. I shared the news of my pregnancy and told her about the unrelenting nausea I’d been experiencing. She, too, had been dealing with nausea, so she whipped out some Saltines for me to munch on and gave me her husband’s recipe for fresh ginger tea. We commiserated about how physical illness colors your entire worldview and makes it hard to concentrate. We both expressed some relief in the knowledge that no matter how bad things got, our suffering would soon come to an end.

There was a lot of commonality to discuss, but one major point of divergence–while I knew that my suffering would end with the birth of my baby, if not sooner, my friend knew that her suffering would likely only end with her death. She’d been told a few months previously that her condition was worsening and her decline would soon become inexorable. Just a week or so before I visited her, she began the transition from managing her chronic condition to moving towards in-home hospice care. She’s now in the process of spending her remaining time revisiting moments in her life with friends and family and cementing her legacy. Because she is the friggin’ bomb, my wonderful, compassionate, witty, vibrant friend is confronting her death with what feels a whole lot like joie de vivre. I can’t tell you how much I will miss her.

It may seem odd that in this time when I should perhaps be focused on the new life thumping away inside my womb, I’m instead spending a lot of time thinking about death. If you’ve read my blog for a while maybe this comes as less of a surprise, as I’ve written before about the way humor and death sometimes intertwine and how my own spiritual development is very much bound up in my views of the afterlife. You may also have taken a hint from the fact that I write murder-centric books about a hospital chaplain, who is often confronted with life-and-death dilemmas.

It turns out that I’m not the only person who sees life’s beginning and life’s ending as inextricably linked. In fact, I’d put forth that they’re not even two sides of the same coin. They’re more like the tension in a tug-of-war rope–the animating forces of the rope itself. Without them both pulling on you at the same time, the rope (i.e. you) would just be lying on the ground like a wet noodle.

If this post has put you in a philosophical frame of mind (and/or stirred up an existential crisis), I’d suggest some further reading, a recent New York Times piece “Looking Death in the Face” that my living/dying friend posted on Facebook. Happy living. xx

 

 

Karen B. Kaplan dares you to read her book

Encountering the Edge_frontRabbi Karen B.Kaplan, former healthcare chaplain and author of Encountering The Edge: What People Told Me Before They Died, has kindly agreed to be the next victim, er, interviewee, in my chaplain series. I read her book, and I can certify that it’s minty fresh!

In 1992, Karen was ordained as one of the first 200 female rabbis worldwide, and she later became a hospice chaplain. Endorsed by a reporter for The Huffington Post, you can see stories and commentary about how people deal with death on her blog, offbeatcompassion.com.

Currently, her focus has shifted exclusively to writing. She teaches essay writing and grammar to speakers of English as a second language and heads The Angry Coffee Bean Writers’ Group. She’s currently working on a collection of compassionate science fiction short stories (no swords, no murderous robots).

Minty Fresh Mysteries (MFM): You’re Jewish, but as a hospice chaplain you often provided pastoral care to non-Jews or adherents to different “flavors” of Judaism from your own. How do you think your own religious beliefs played into the way you approached your work?

Karen B. Kaplan (KBK): Ideally, chaplains aim to keep their own agendas, including religious ones, out of the way, so they can really listen carefully and take in what the patient is trying to express. Our job is to go where the patient goes, not have the patient follow us. In other words, a chaplain’s job is not so much to provide answers but to ask questions. So your question could become, “How do the religious or non-religious beliefs of a patient shape how you provide pastoral care to that patient? The answer is, if a patient is secular, we might discuss spiritual matters all humans face such as the meaning of life and how they want to be remembered. As for people of different faiths from my own, I simply listen to them express their beliefs and explore how those beliefs may be encouraging, strengthening, hindering or confusing them at that moment. I follow their lead; if they are distressed, I help them articulate their concerns.

Patients rarely know anything about my beliefs, unless they ask. And even then, I usually turn it around to ask about their own beliefs, which is what they really want to and need to talk about

MFM: Frankly, you’ve seen a lot of dying and death–your body count would put a mafia hitman to shame. What do you think happens when we die? Did your idea about the afterlife (or lack thereof) change in the course of your work?

KBK: You have a colorful way of putting things. I do answer these questions in detail in the book, so I don’t want my answer here to be a spoiler. However, I’ll give some hints: With a front row seat as it were between the edge of life and impending death, I have listened to many patients tell me their beliefs about the afterlife, everything from the traditional heaven/hell dichotomy to creative ideas of their own. I just hope that in my case, I don’t have to end up with my dysfunctional parents and that there will be an Option B for people like me.

MFM: I recently interviewed Stacy Sergent, who, like you, published a memoir about her work as a chaplain. I’m going to ask you the same question I asked her: If you could fictionalize your account, how would you change it? I’m guessing your fictionalized memoir would have at least one spaceship in it…

KBK: Funny you should ask. Fact is, I’m happy to report as I am not on hospice, the last chapter is fiction! In that chapter I imagine that at some nice ripe age in my nineties that I will be on hospice and thinking back on my life with the help of a chaplain. The reader will see a dialogue between me and that chaplain. You might think this is hokey or very risky to do, but like the rest of the book, it passed review after review with flying colors. One point of doing this exercise was to reveal how my own life story influenced me to take on such an admittedly peculiar career.

MFM: I liked your ending, too. In fact, I cried when “you” died. Still, I’m disappointed that you refuse to add vampires or spaceships to your memoir. If you’d like, I will spice it up for you–Fifty Shades of the Hospice, perhaps? No? Moving on then… Talking about death and dying can bring out strong reactions in people, so I’m wondering, did any of the reactions to your book (or the idea of you writing such a book) trouble you or upset you? Or were you able, to quote the great poet Taylor Swift, to shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, shake it (i.e. other people’s opinions) off?

KBK: No, no one’s strong reactions have upset me. I expected such reactions. Furthermore, as a chaplain visiting the sick the dying and the bereaved, I have had plenty of experience with strong emotions face to face, so anyone backing away from my book in horror is mild stuff in comparison. Besides, I have not heard too much negativity. I think people who dislike the subject keep that to themselves and solve the issue by not purchasing the book.

It is a bit amusing how close friends, even with their very own signed copies, have put off reading anything within besides my signed note to them. Shall I dare them?

Hospice chaplain Karen B. Kaplan sends a postcard from the edge

In her creative nonfiction work, Encountering the Edge: What People Told Me Before They Died, hospice chaplain Karen B. Kaplan shares her patients’ stories–some heart-breaking, some funny, some profound–and refuses to offer easy answers or sound-bite wisdom about what it means to face death. Excerpted below is Chapter One, entitled “You’re Too Nice Looking to Work for Hospice- -Being Made Welcome to My New Career.”  For more samples of Rabbi Kaplan’s writing and information about her book, check out her blog, offbeatcompassion.com.  She hastens to warn readers of my Lindsay Harding mystery series that her book has no detectives, murders, or blind dates with teenage Zoroastrian Civil War reenactors.

Karen B. Kaplan has some stories for you

Chaplain Karen B. Kaplan:

I started looking for hospice work in 2005 as I wrapped up a three-year contract with Progressive Temple Beth Ahavat Sholom in Brooklyn, New York. As my contract was drawing to a close, I interviewed for pulpit as well as hospice positions, being ambivalent about leaving congregational life. The congregation was unaware that I was considering serving at a hospice. As of yet unannounced to a soul, soon after I got the offer from United Hospice of Rockland, one of these fans said, “Rabbi, I don’t care how far away your next post is, I will follow you there.” I told him I was overwhelmed with his faithfulness and touching sentiments, but that he would not want to fulfill his vow as the only way he would be following me would be as a hospice patient! A portrait painter would have had a heyday capturing the motley crew of emotions all over his face.

And that was one of the more positive reactions to my announcement of my career plans. One person made such an expression of disgust you would think I had already ritually defiled myself from contact with the dead as described in the Book of Leviticus. He was afraid I would be contaminating him in no time. Sure enough, he backed away from our remaining opportunities to get together over coffee. Someone else, upon hearing the news, raised his arms as if to protect himself, emitted an “Oh!” looked away, and retreated a step or two. Mentioning my new career to my congregants definitely was a way to throw a curveball into a conversation. (Nowadays, there is a mischievous part of me that sometimes gets a kick out of springing this surprise upon unsuspecting listeners such as fellow Bed and Breakfast guests.) Yet another congregant gave me a knowing look, saying “That is just the kind of job that would suit you.” Maybe I was imagining it, having been stung by the premature end of my tenure, but it felt like the subtext of that remark was “A pulpit rabbi you should not or could not ever be.” So onward I went, with all these votes of confidence, to life at the edge.

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.