Tag: hospice chaplain

The Kindness of #alternativefacts, Part 1

Over the summer, I had the privilege of meeting Kerry Egan, a hospice chaplain who authored the acclaimed memoir On Living. Kerry is perhaps the most famous hospice chaplain in America, having been featured on NPR and in the pages of the New York Times. Obviously “famous hospice chaplain” is a bit of an oxymoron, like “tastiest lima bean in the school cafeteria.” Kerry’s book, though, stands on its own merits. The book’s cover states that it reflects on “the spiritual work of dying” as related through the experiences of her patients. That sounds awfully dreary, and indeed the book is literally existential, that is, concerned with existence and non-existence. The word “existential” is so often paired with “crisis,” but in Kerry’s stories, what emerges isn’t crisis or trauma, but a sense of calm reckoning, coupled with a profound sense of wonder.

One chapter that has stuck with me for several months describes the last weeks in the life of a Cherokee woman who was dying of brain cancer. The woman led a remarkable life, born as the illegitimate, ultimately estranged daughter of the famous Cherokee leader Wilma Mankiller, sustaining severe injuries while rescuing a young man from a burning car, and uprooting her life to be with a woman she met online. Perhaps more remarkable, however, was that according to the woman’s daughter, almost none of this amazing life story was actually true. The dying woman had been a serial liar and con artist, well-practiced in art of manipulation. She wasn’t Wilma Mankiller’s daughter. In fact, she wasn’t even Cherokee. Kerry only came to discover this alternate reality after she and her dying patient had taken part in a powerful Native American religious ritual together. How can we reconcile the profoundly transformative experiences the woman had in her final weeks with the likelihood that most of what she had shared with her own partner and with Kerry was false?

This divergence between the facts of our lives and the narratives we create about them is a conundrum nearly everyone has struggled with — hopefully in a less extreme, less unscrupulous form. Whenever we misremember a childhood incident, painting it with overly-rosy or overly-dark hues, we engage in an act wherein the meaning we create around an experience has more resonance than the nitty-gritty realities of that event. My mother and her sister have an amusing version of this that is perhaps common in families. They often substitute themselves for the other sister when telling a story. So often, in fact, that they sometimes forget which sister was the protagonist in the real story.

Kerry comes away from her encounter with the faux Cherokee woman choosing to hold onto the essence of their shared experience. That essence, that feeling, was the existential truth of the woman’s life.

That’s what’s really important, right? Well, not to me. Not anymore. I think this story has stuck with me because its tidy conclusion caused me to reevaluate my own understanding of truth versus truthiness. Stay tuned for more philosophical ponderings in the next installment of The Kindness of #alternativefacts…

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.