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Writer explores how we approach death

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By Ron Leir
Observer Correspondent

KEARNY – 

A Kearny woman has selected a topic for her first book that, perhaps at first glance, a typical reader might find rather uninviting. Karen B. Kaplan’s work, “Encountering the Edge: What People Told Me Before They Died,” is a memoir recalling the seven years she spent as a hospice chaplain for United Hospice of Rockland in New York and Princeton Hospice in New Jersey. But, despite the heavy-sounding title, Kaplan says there’s no reason folks should be put off by it. “It’s a gentle, light touch on a serious subject,” she says.

And, yes, she notes, there’s even room for some humor.

Kaplan grew up in Erie, Pa., before moving further east and settling into life as an academic, completing a doctoral degree in linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin in 1984. She did her dissertation on “conversational analysis between speakers of different backgrounds.”

She then diverted from the path of the scholarly researcher to a more community- engaging direction, entering the Hebrew Union College Reform Seminary and was ordained a rabbi in 1992 and served congregations in Parsippany, Brooklyn, N.Y., and various part-time pulpits.

Then came another career shift. She came to feel that pastoral care for the seriously ill “was my calling.” And, after completing a one-year full-time program that trains clergy for health care chaplaincy (pastoral clinical education), she became a boardcertified health care chaplain in 2007.

In that capacity, Kaplan was typically part of a team of specialists, including a social worker, home health aide, nurse and therapist, sent out by the hospice center to check on the patient and/or patient’s family.

Trips were parceled out to nursing homes, hospitals, even some mobile homes, and some destinations could be as far as a 50 mile-drive from the home office, she said.

From her Princeton base, she made stops in Mercer, Monmouth and Union counties, on the average, seeing eight to nine patients weekly.

“Over the seven years, including some part-time stints, I probably saw more than 4,000 patients and their families,” she said.

As folks were drawing nearer to the end, what was on their minds? “Everyone was different,” Kaplan said. “People talked about everything from coping with death to asking ‘what’s the next movie coming out?’ ’’

Many, she said, likely “saw me as a break, a respite from what they were going through.”

Among the more odd cases she dealt with was the countercultural drifter who, if he had any deep concern about his situation, didn’t show it as he drolly welcomed his guest with, “Hey, doll!”

Sometimes, Kaplan said, patients would find comfort in her singing to them: her repertory featured a variety of classic American folk tunes/patriotic songs, hymns from an ecumenical canon or homespun ditties. One patient, a 28-year-old ex-police officer, responded favorably to this particular musical offering:

“In Heaven there is no beer. 

That’s why we drink it here….” 

“The next time I visited, he asked me to repeat the song,” she remembered.

There was the World War II veteran who recovered his health sufficiently to leave his hospice care and lived for more than a year afterward.

Perhaps one of the more striking chaplain/patient relationships Kaplan recalls having is her encounter with an 85-year-old Jewish man. “The thing he most regretted,” she said, “was never getting a bar mitzvah [the ritual ceremony linked to a boy attaining the age of 13] like his older brother. When he was studying his Torah portion he would recite for his bar mitzvah, his father died,” Kaplan said.

At that point, sadly, the family’s survival became the priority and his bar mitzvah preparation was abandoned.

Recognizing the dying man’s keen sense of loss over never having gone through the traditional ritual of his faith, Kaplan said she suggested that he consider “doing it now.” As a Reform rabbi, Kaplan took steps to simplify the ceremony and the family invited the man’s remaining close friends to attend.

The man, whose spirits were lifted by the momentous occasion, died about a week later, she said.

Easily the most impactful patient Kaplan dealt was a devout Christian woman who was in the latter stages of ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease). She’d tell Kaplan that every time she felt she was losing mobility in another part of her anatomy, she’d “hold a funeral” for that body part.

And, very much aware of the chaplain’s Judaic roots, the patient offered this touching confession: “I want to die on your High [Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur] Holidays, so you’ll remember me.”

Sometimes, Kaplan said, a patient’s silences or non-verbal reactions to statements revealed the subtext of his/ her emotional state.

“Healthcare chaplains are something like detectives,” she elaborated. “When we visit a patient or family member, we have to take in their choice of words, tone of voice, facial expressions, what the room looks like, etc., to deduce their most pressing spiritual concerns. Once I read ‘between the lines,’ then I can make my best judgment whether to offer prayer, hold hands, provide counseling, listen, or simply sit with them in a shared silence.”

Every patient responded differently to the approach of death, the chaplain said. “Some patients are angry all the time, all the way; others are resigned to it, at peace – they’re happy they’re going to heaven, going to be reunited with their loved ones. Others don’t want to think about it, the enormity of it.”

Among the family mourners, Kaplan said, there are also, of course, individual variations but “there is a commonality you find in certain patterns in the way people face loss. Grieving is a back and forth kind of thing – a roller coaster ride, all over the place – in which all ranges of emotions are experienced — guilt, regret, relief, sadness, some joy from good memories. This all takes from six to 18 months to reintegrate. It is, after all, one of hardest tasks we go through and we try to manage it the best we can.”

Asked what lessons she took away from her experiences, Kaplan said it was learning about “living in the moment – finding my sense of what God is about, meeting part of God’s presence” in dealing with “getting to know what the families I got to meet through bereavement care are going through.”

If there is a message to share with her readers in her memoir, Kaplan said, it is this: “Be open to all aspects of life. Be open with people. Be aware we all face death in the end.”

Kaplan, who lived in Weehawken before moving to Kearny 15 years ago, has made secular connections with the outlying community, particularly through her writing. She teaches essay writing to English as a Second Language (ESL) students at Hudson County Community College’s North Hudson Center in Union City and she directs a writers’ group based at The Angry Bean Café in North Arlington. Having published a novella and many short stories, Kaplan also maintains a personal blog on her website – http://OffbeatCompassion.com – and she’s currently working on a collection of “Compassionate Science Fiction” short stories (meaning there is no exploitative violence).

“Encountering the Edge: What People Told Me Before They Died” (154 pages) may be purchased through the book’s publisher, Pen-L Publishing, Fayetteville, Ark., via Pen-L.com, or through Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble and other retailers for $15.97. It is also available as an eBook.

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