In November 2014, I wrote a review of Rabbi Karen B. Kaplan’s book Encountering The Edge: What People Told Me Before They Died.
I was able to meet Karen in person a year-or-so later, and we continue to stay in touch. I admire her wit, kindness, and keen observations regarding human nature. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to repost her most recent reflection date, first published this month (December 2018) in the Jewish Journal and republished here with permission and minor modifications.
Thank you for sharing dear Karen!
Ten Years and Three Hours
The closer a marathon runner gets to the finish line, the more the suspense builds up, with each mile covered taking on more and more significance. But as the distance to the end diminishes, the strange thing is that the chance of risk as well as reward increases. The runner is more likely to finish, yet more likely to become too weary to go on.
The girlfriend of one of my hospice patients found herself in this quandary. Jackie (all the names are changed) had lived with Saul for ten years. About a month before Saul was admitted to the hospice residence, they wanted to publicly validate their deep and abiding love with a formal marriage ceremony. But each time they wanted to set their plans in motion, Saul got a little bit sicker. Jackie kept putting it off hoping that he would feel a bit better and that they would wed then.
When Saul first joined the residence, he was still talking, but by the time I met the couple a couple of days later, Saul no longer could speak. Later that day I found out from a social worker that Jackie somehow wanted some kind of acknowledgment of their relationship, even if it was not technically a wedding. The social worker and I entered the room; Saul had his eyes open—sort of—and I explained to Jackie that I could do a “love ceremony,” so named to ward off any misunderstandings about legal implications. She and other family present agreed, so I softly sang an upbeat melody, read from The Song of Songs, directed the “bride” to plant a little kiss on Saul’s forehead, and offered congratulations to her and other family present. The “groom” let go of a deep breath and looked more relaxed. After a moment of taking this in, Jackie said, “He looks more peaceful now.” At the end of my shift I discovered that three hours after the ceremony, he had taken the last deep breath of all.
The opening moments right after reaching the finish line bear a heightened significance to the runner much as the ones immediately before do. There is completion, there is release, perhaps material consequences. There is an altered world. For the survivors of the death of a loved one, all the things people say and do will have a disproportionate impact on them compared with what they say and do as the finish line recedes and life reverts to its mundane schedules. For many of you readers of Amy’s blog, you are in a privileged position. With your sensitivity tuned more finely than the average person, when you are with survivors, you have the opportunity to skillfully and compassionately bring solace and insight to them during those rarefied moments that come right after, when all is taken so deep to heart.
Rabbi Karen B. Kaplan has been a hospice chaplain for over ten years. In addition to reading her book mentioned above “Encountering the Edge,” I encourage you to check out her blog Off Beat Compassion.