Tag: humor and death

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?

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.