'Encountering the Edge: What People Told Me Before They Died'

For those of us who have lost loved ones, stories relating to the “aftercare” provided to the grieving are particularly moving.

In her new “career memoir,” rabbi and hospice chaplain Karen B. Kaplan shares vivid descriptions of her day-to-day experiences of serving the dying and the grieving. Drawing upon a remarkable capacity for listening, a deep appreciation for the human story, and a penchant for “comedy that flirts with sacrilege,” Kaplan navigates the waters of meaning and emotion as she supports those standing at “the edge of the beyond.” The result is a moving and beautiful account of what it means to listen, love, live, and die.

“When I visit patients for the first time, it is like skipping to the very last page of their autobiographies,” writes Kaplan.

During her seven years of service as a hospice chaplain in New York and New Jersey, Kaplan gathers quite a repertoire from which she skillfully draws in her memoir. While she changes identifying details of the people encountered, all of the stories are true.

Some of the stories Kaplan shares are remarkably sad. Often she enters a hospice patient’s room to find an unresponsive and listless being. Only the sounds of labored breathing fill the air. At times, she encounters patients who live in the clouded delusions of yesteryear. At one point, Kaplan describes an elderly woman who believes that the nursing home is her high school. She is completely oblivious to the reality of her surroundings, the identities of stunned loved ones, and her own imminent demise.

Gratefully, there are patients and families who engage with Kaplan in meaningful and inspiring reflections. In one remarkable encounter, Kaplan is able to provide a dying, elderly Jewish man with the bar mitzvah ritual he profoundly regrets wasn’t performed for him as a boy. Photos, songs, and joy follow the makeshift and spontaneous service. One week later, the man dies. Early in her memoir, Kaplan shares a moving account of meeting a woman who can only move one finger. “We are here to both receive and give love,” Kaplan intuitively tells her. The woman’s hand relaxes upon hearing these words and “her finger from the knuckle up painstakingly move[s] up and down as if nodding: ‘yes, yes, yes.’”

For those of us who have lost loved ones, stories relating to the “aftercare” provided to the grieving are particularly moving. For a year following a death, bereaved families and friends may seek out the professional support of hospice chaplains as they navigate the tumultuous waters of letting go. Kaplan tells the story of a woman who continues to call her own home phone number in order to hear her deceased husband’s voice on their answering machine. “Grief does not occur in a neatly packaged period of time with a clear beginning and a clear end,” Kaplan reminds us.

In reading through tragic, reflective, peaceful, and difficult endings, the reader can’t help but imagine what the conclusion to her or his own autobiography will entail. Will I be able to say a meaningful good-bye to those I love? How will I be remembered? Will I be able to make sense of my life as my body shuts down? And, if so, how will I grieve my own impending death?

As a scholar of comparative religion and a hospital chaplain, I found Kaplan’s reflections on the significance of God, spirituality, and religion to be particularly important. Hospital and hospice chaplains are trained to serve people regardless of spiritual or religious affiliation. Our work is not to project our own theology or understanding of life’s meaning onto a grieving family or dying person. Kaplan sees herself as “an amplifier” to affirm and highlight the treasured values and worldview of those she serves. Kaplan finds the presence of the sacred in an honest encounter between people, not in petitions for miraculous healing. “I feel prayer should be about coping with reality, not indulging a fantasy,” she writes. Kaplan reserves her only stern words in this gentle book for those who engage in efforts to convert the grieving or dying. She regards this as “the height of disrespect,” and a form of “spiritual scamming.”

“Extensive silence, not talk, is the hallmark of a professional spiritual caregiver,” Kaplan aptly notes.

While she spends a great deal of her time silently holding space for people to make sense of their earthly legacies, Kaplan also offers the gift of song. Throughout her memoir, Kaplan highlights how music in general, and singing in particular, touch the human heart as it moves closer and closer to its own final beat. Music provides a bridge between the past and present, the chaplain and patient, and the living and dying.

In reflecting upon the title of her memoir Encountering the Edge, Kaplan observes that she encounters “the edge” of both life and death as she “stands next to [her] clients as they totter at the boundary between the known and unknown.” Kaplan remains agnostic about whether an afterlife exists. Yet, there is one thing she knows for certain. “Even after all these years of occasionally being with persons within minutes or hours of their deaths, I still feel a sense of mystery in their presence,” she writes.

In Kaplan’s final chapter, she catapults the reader into the spring of 2049. By this time, Kaplan is 91-years-old and reflecting upon the meaning of her own autobiography. She imagines what it may be like to talk with a hospice chaplain herself. It is through this dialogue -- the only fictional portion of her book -- that readers are able to more fully come to understand the significance of writing and chaplaincy service in Kaplan’s own life story. We learn more about her remarkable resilience leading to the development of a “rich inner life” despite the brokenness of her mother and damaging childhood environment.

Encountering the Edge serves as a clear and needed reminder to reflect upon mortality in a culture built upon marketing the newest and latest stimulant and distraction. What meaning can be found when facing the end of life? What legacy does each individual leave behind? How can we live in a way that honors what matters most?

“Just as a magnifying glass intensifies the sun’s heat on any object beneath it, a funeral forces us into a highly concentrated examination of our mortality and its possible sequel,” Kaplan observes. Encountering the Edge is not only a must-read for those involved in serving the dying and grieving -- for all of us will one day stand at the threshold point between this existence and the mystery beyond. Kaplan’s work serves as its own magnifying glass focusing our attention, and inspiring reflection, upon the significance of death’s inevitability and the beauty of existence.

Encountering the Edge: What People Told Me Before They Died, Karen B. Kaplan, Pen-L Publishing, 2014. $12.99