Extremis: A Netflix documentary on end of life issues

extremisThis week, a short documentary premiered on Netflix. In less than half an hour, Extremis follows several different patients and their families facing end of life decisions, as well as the doctors caring for them. These people were very brave in allowing the film crew to capture such intimate and heart wrenching moments. Everybody dies. We all know that on an intellectual level, but for most of us it doesn’t become real until we are faced with the undeniable fact that we or someone we love is dying. And with the medical technology available in 21st century hospitals, death can often be postponed. The documentary raises many questions, but perhaps the most crucial one is, What counts as life for you? Continue reading “Extremis: A Netflix documentary on end of life issues”

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“I’m Sorry for Your Loss, and Congratulations.”

FullSizeRender 10On Tuesday morning, my boyfriend’s mother died. No warning, no easily determinable cause of death. She just up and died. He and his family were in shock. So I went with him to stay at his sister’s house, while the whole family tried to absorb this news and begin adjusting to their new normal. Time seemed to slow down. The grief in the house was palpable. On Wednesday morning, I sat with Will and his family around the kitchen table as his sister Ginny read us the obituary she was writing. And that evening, Will, his sisters, and their father spoke with the funeral director to plan their mother’s service. A few minutes later, Will invited me to take a walk with him down to the dock on Lake Murray, where he asked me to marry him.  Continue reading ““I’m Sorry for Your Loss, and Congratulations.””

“Why Did You Write a Book?”

booksigning16Recently my phone chimed with a message from a friend. It was one sentence: “Why did you write a book?” Such a seemingly simple question, but I thought about it all day before answering. There are so many reasons I wrote my first book, and few of them are simple to explain. I loved to read from a very young age, and loving books led me to want to be an author. That one’s pretty easy. But the whys of writing this particular book get more complicated. Continue reading ““Why Did You Write a Book?””

Looking for the Helpers

loveneverfailsIt’s been a week since Orlando. It’s been a year since Charleston. Anniversaries of tragedies can resurface all the feelings of shock, anger, and grief that we initially felt. The grief of public tragedies lately has been overwhelming for me. Through the combination of clinical depression, a deep sense of empathy, and a vivid imagination, I get stuck imagining myself over and over in the place of the victims when I hear the horror stories in the news. I had to stop listening for a while. But still again and again my mind returns to the Pulse nightclub a week ago, and Mother Emanuel AME church a year ago. The only thing that makes it bearable for me is to do what Fred Rogers said his mother taught him to do when he saw horrible things on the news: “Look for the helpers.”  Continue reading “Looking for the Helpers”

Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?

Like millions of other people, I’ve spent the past few months obsessed with the soundtrack to the Broadway musical Hamilton. If you’re not familiar with the play, it dramatizes the life of founding father Alexander Hamilton, telling the story through modern American musical styles. It is brilliant and funny and moving. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve listened to it, and I still cry every time. Before he puts young Hamilton in charge of a battalion of soldiers to fight a crucial Revolutionary War battle, General George Washington sings words of paternal wisdom and caution: Continue reading “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?”

Living in Imaginary Worlds

Recently I discovered and fell in love with a podcast called Imaginary Worlds. Host Eric Molinsky explores many of the fictional worlds we know from pop culture, but often with a unique and very intelligent spin. It was his five-part series on Star Wars that hooked me (which will come as no surprise to anyone who knows my lifelong devotion to that franchise), and made me think about the movies and expanded universe in new ways. In one episode, historians and Star Wars scholars discussed the cultural/political factors in 1977 that led to the original movie becoming such a phenomenon. Subsequent episodes delved into the “Han shot first” controversy from an ethical standpoint, asked whether the Empire saw itself as evil or was taking what it saw as reasonable steps to bring order to a chaotic galaxy, featured a rabbi who compared the Star Wars expanded universe to the rabbinic commentary on the Torah called midrash, and debated whether “Slave Leia” could be seen as a symbol of female empowerment or was a misogynistic wrong turn in the character’s journey best left forgotten. I listened to those episodes multiple times, then went back and listened to every episode since the podcast began in 2014. It got me thinking about how much of my time is spent in imaginary worlds, not just when I lose myself in fiction, but when I do my job as a chaplain. Continue reading “Living in Imaginary Worlds”

What to Say to Someone Who’s Grieving (If You Have to Say Something)

Recently I shared on Facebook a great piece from BuzzFeed, “What You Say to Someone Who’s Grieving vs. What They Hear.” While I liked what it had to say about how our well-intentioned platitudes can actually be hurtful, some of my friends found it discouraging. Their (very valid) point was that there were no positive alternatives offered, nothing like, “Say this instead.” One friend suggested that, since I work with grieving people every day as a hospital chaplain, I should write a list of better things to say to them. I hesitated, because every situation and every grieving person is different, and I don’t want to give anyone the impression that there are magic words that will make the hurt go away. There just aren’t. But as I thought about it, I did come up with at least a few guidelines and suggestions for words that, in most cases, I believe will help more than they hurt. With a subject as messy as grief, that’s the best I can do. So, here we go. Continue reading “What to Say to Someone Who’s Grieving (If You Have to Say Something)”

Writing Blindly and Remembering DEG

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This is the dedication page of my new book, Being Called Chaplain: How I Lost My Name and (Eventually) Found My Faith. It was an easy decision whose names should go on that page. I wish I could tell you about Sam. God, I loved Sam. But because I met Sam through my work at the hospital, confidentiality has to be protected. DEG, on the other hand, I can tell you a lot about him. He is never far from my thoughts, and today especially, he’s on my mind and in my heart. Dr. Daniel E. Goodman, my friend and divinity school professor, died on January 13, 2009, six years ago today. Continue reading “Writing Blindly and Remembering DEG”

D is for Death

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(This is the fourth in my series, ABCs of Hospital Chaplaincy. Read other posts in the series here.)

“He then greeted Death as an old friend and went with him gladly, departing this life as equals.”

Sometimes I forget how different my perspective is from that of most “normal” people. Then my roommate asks me, “How was work last night?” I reply, “Not too bad. Just two deaths and a trauma.” She laughs and I look at her quizzically. “Sorry,” she says, “but you’re the only person I know who would call two deaths in one shift ‘not too bad.’ Your job is so weird.” I guess she has a point. Working in a hospital, encountering death on such a routine basis, is more than a little weird. Continue reading “D is for Death”

The Last Thing I Expected

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Last week was pretty terrible. It started with a death that was particularly tragic even by the standards of someone who works as a hospital chaplain, and it would have ended with a funeral, except that I could not bring myself to go. So much of my own emotional baggage resurfaced in the wake of this situation that I knew I would be no good as a caregiver if I went. The sadness weighed so heavy on me that I could hardly get out of bed. And then, mercifully, there was the weekend, and a friend’s birthday to celebrate, and unexpected moments of grace. Yesterday morning was good, in real and simple ways that I don’t want to lose. Continue reading “The Last Thing I Expected”