When All is Said and Done: Death and “Magic Words”

Your average hospice chaplain. Probably had 3 units of Level II CPE.

Recently I had a family whose mother was on hospice with us. When Isabel* had a sudden decline and became active her family gathered around the bedside and all started to say the things that families and caregivers – including hospice staff – feel that they need to say in order for the dying person to “let go”. They all said that they loved her and that they would be OK. They had out of town family come in and say good-bye in person and on the phone. They told her over and over again that it was OK for her to go. The priest gave last rites. This went on for well over a week.

Needless to say it was rough. The family came and went, said what they needed to say, and still Isabel seemed to hang on. There were a lot of thoughts and questions: “What haven’t we said? Is there someone that hasn’t said goodbye yet? Is she waiting to hear from someone? What are we missing? Why is she still here?

My best response was, “I don’t know.”

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Why Roy Focker’s Dead and Wolverine Isn’t (At Least Really): Death in Anime and American comic culture

Marvel Comics’ cash cow Wolverine has been dead now since 2014. At least until he isn’t dead anymore.

Yes, Wolvie died when his healing factor was turned off and, in an epic fight with a mad scientist, he’s now entombed in the unbreakable metal adamantium. It’s a poetic tragedy in that adamantium was what originally coated his bones and trademark claws making him basically unbreakable. Now the metal is on the outside and Wolverine has suffocated to death.

Probably.

I’m actually impressed that Marvel has kept him dead this long. He’s died on at least 40 occasions after all. Granted, many of those are in alternate timelines and “What if?” titles, so you can’t really count them. But the 2014 Death of Wolverine story seems to be the first time Wolverine has died and stayed dead. Continue reading

“What do these stones mean to you?” Reflections on Joshua 4

The following is from a remembrance service I did at a facility some years ago. At the end of the service we passed out stones to the families and staff in attendance. I hope you enjoy it.

…Joshua said to them: “Cross over before the ark of the LORD your God into the midst of the Jordan, and each one of you take up a stone on his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the children of Israel, that this may be a sign among you when your children ask in time to come, saying, ‘What do these stones mean to you?’ Then you shall answer them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD; when it crossed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. And these stones shall be for a memorial to the children of Israel forever.” Continue reading

Kelsey Dallas: “What caretakers can do when their patient believes God has abandoned them”

Deseret News National reported a study in which the health outcomes of those with positive beliefs about God were compared to those with more negative beliefs and found some striking differences. Reporter Kelsey Dallas wrote:

Researchers behind the study, published this past summer, concluded that caretakers should try to intervene to help patients gain a more positive spiritual outlook to guard them against harmful physical and mental health consequences. However, experts who have studied how people cope with negative spiritual beliefs said shifting someone’s spirituality is a difficult process, which can’t be undertaken lightly.

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So Many Straws: Reflections on Self Care, and the Lack Thereof

“You’d better be careful, Sam. You’re going to burn out like this.”

These were words from my CPE supervisor several years ago. At the time I was a bit taken aback. After all my schedule certainly seemed manageable, and I felt I was doing OK at work and at home. Sure I had my struggles, but found a way to pick up and keep going every time. This March I realized he was right. Continue reading

Love Does Strange Things, or How I Got a Cup of Cremated Remains From Pittsburgh, PA to Newfoundland, Canada

The following is an essay I wrote for a friend of mine, Shane Blackshear, who hosts the podcast Seminary Dropout. I highly encourage you to check out his page and podcast. Oh – and upgrade your book budget as the authors and speakers he interviews will undoubtedly make you want to fill your shelves with their insights.

view of Fox Island, Newfoundland, Canada

view of Fox Island, Newfoundland, Canada

As anyone who is – or has been – on love will tell you, love isn’t just an emotion you feel for someone else. It sometimes captures you to the point where you will do just about anything for that person. It’s not always romance that produces this feeling, but it’s instead the kind of love that comes from losing yourself, which is what true love is and does. Sometimes it looks like spending hours crafting a poem or writing a song for that person. In this case it looked like smuggling a dead man’s ashes across international boundaries on a passenger jet. Continue reading

Too Close to Home: Hospice workers and personal loss

Within the past 6 months two of the nurses I work with lost their mothers. In both of these cases, they chose to have their mothers on our hospice.

This is a very hard thing to do. It was awkward for a while for all of us at team especially to be referring to and discussing someone in a very clinical manner, yet knowing that this was a team member’s mother. Yet it was also a good reminder for all of us that all of our patients are someone’s mother, father, brother, sister, or even child.

The awkwardness goes away after a brief time. However when that loss finally happens it can be devastating, not only to the family member but to the whole team. Continue reading

Why I’m a Chaplain – II: Connecticut Hospice

Last time I talked about how my dad’s illness and death helped guide me toward hospice. What I hadn’t mentioned was that he was never on hospice – we didn’t even have time to consider that. My first experience in hospice care came while I was in seminary at Yale Divinity, where for a time I volunteered at Connecticut Hospice.

This was my first experience with any kind of hospice. My responsibilities were pretty light – empty the garbage cans by the bedside, make sure the water pitchers were full. But it was quite an interesting experience and one that, along with many others, pointed me in the direction where I am headed now.  Continue reading

Why I’m a Chaplain – I: My Dad

I thought I’d start a series talking less about the practicalities of hospice and chaplaincy and share a bit about what got me to this place in life. Even these are going to be numbered don’t think of them being in any particular order.

So first is my dad.

I grew up in rural western Pennsylvania on a 50 acre farm with my three sisters, mom and dad. My dad, besides running the farm, worked in a sintering plant. The steel industry in the area was on the decline, and I remember my dad alternately being laid off, then working odd shift hours, then being laid off again and so on. But something significant happened when I was in about middle school: my dad was diagnosed with Acute Lymphocitic Leukemia (if I remember all that correctly). Initially this came as a huge blow to our family, but our doctor said that if you were going to get Leukemia this is the type to get. It was not itself fatal, and could be managed fairly well. Continue reading

We need to rethink grief

Artist Motol Yamamoto, who created labyrinths of salt to help express his own grief at the loss of his sister due to brain cancer. Click on the image for more information.

In my hospice, as well as in many others, when someone dies we consider the family members involved and rate their grief as low, medium or high. The thought being that if someone is on the low end, they will generally be fine. On the medium and high end though, we need to be more involved as this person may not cope well.

And I’m starting to think this is really missing the point.

There has been research recently in regards to complicated grief – grief that becomes debilitating to the point of becoming a chronic, life-limiting condition. This is the kind of grief that we in hospice are trying to identify, monitor and assist with. It differs from normal grief in that it is much more of a clinical condition, however it has many of the same characteristics as normal grief. The main determinants between the two, putting it simply, are duration of symptoms and the severity of them. Normal grief can involve impulsive crying, sleeplessness, rapid weight loss or gain, and even auditory or visual hallucinations. But they tend to subside over time and generally do not interfere with daily functioning. Complicated grief resembles PTSD, in that it can have these same symptoms but amplified and intrusive to the point where they cannot function normally. Continue reading