A great way to stop a conversation cold with someone I am meeting for the first time is to let out that I was a hospice chaplain for seven years. It’s good to know that most readers of this blog would take this as a sublime conversation-starter instead.
As I reflected with a funeral director after a graveside service recently, it is curious that even professionals and others involved with death, including hospice chaplains, funeral directors, Chevrah Kadisha members, bereavement counselors, and so on, vary in their comfort level with it. Thus even with the pros, our fear of death surfaces surrounding some aspect of it. I told that funeral director I would never want to trade places with her. She in turn responded that she would not want to work as a chaplain and to have to deal with the family’s emotions preceding the death. I returned that I would not like to be in her shoes because I would be squeamish about handling the bodies.
Although a Chevrah Kadisha member might never want to be a hospice chaplain, and vice versa, we can expand our envelope of comfort by reading about each other’s niches, thereby making ourselves more available to a wider spectrum of people’s needs. The core challenge of a hospice chaplain is to create a safe sacred space free of religious agendas for patients to process their experience as they approach their end. I strive to do this with open-ended questions and completely and profoundly focused listening. For a concrete illustration of what I mean, please see my August 6th blog post here
Perhaps many readers of this blog are passionately Jewish (or passionate believers in other faiths), so my point about being free of religious agendas is crucial to explain. Praying with vulnerable people can, in the worst case, become preying upon them. Even when I serve Jewish patients, my task is to see where they are spiritually, not to take them to my own spiritual place. They, not I, are dealing with the impending loss of everything: caresses from loved ones, exploration of ideas, upcoming simchas (joyous occasions ), the sum of their knowledge, every single memory, breathing…. Almost everyone we talk to has spiritual baggage of some sort. What the chaplain tries to do is remove any such pressures so that patients can think and feel for themselves and thereby get in touch with their authentic self, whether this is through reciting the Shema, crying about an estranged sister, naming what matters most, or taking God to task. When any of this happens, I feel the holiness of genuine interaction. For me, this is when God is most intimately present.
If you are in a profession more connected to the boundary of what happens after, rather than before a death, you might find it enriching and valuable to ponder what the deceased may have raged about, cared about, or discovered about God in the days preceding their leave-taking.
Rabbi and board certified Chaplain Karen B. Kaplan is author of Encountering the Edge: What People Told Me Before They Died , a series of true anecdotes capped with the deeper reasons she chose her vocation. Published in April 2014, this book opened to smash reviews. For more details and to see the reviews, you can go to the publisher’s page or to amazon.com. Comments to the author are welcome by email or via her blog, Offbeat Compassion.
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