Karen Kaplan is an ordained rabbi and served as a hospice chaplain for seven years. Learn more about Encountering the Edge and read book excerpts on the publisher’s site or Amazon. You can also see Karen’s own blog, Offbeat Compassion.
Death with Dignity National Center’s Melissa Barber asked me as I prepared this post, “Why did you write this book?” This is something every author should keep in mind throughout the writing process. It implies, among many other things, that a solidly cogent answer must precede the genesis of any worthwhile book.
While writing my hospice chaplain memoir, I kept in mind how the author of Ecclesiastes admonished his son: “Of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” And I was acutely conscious of needing abundant justification for writing Encountering the Edge: What People Told Me Before They Died.
Melissa’s question is also an excellent tool for self-reflection. It’s one thing to explain what a reader might get out of it, and quite another for authors to delve into the spiritual reasons underlying their endeavors. (The psychological reason is yet another dimension, and this is dealt with in the book.) I’ll now endeavor to take on both challenges.
Particularly for Death with Dignity followers, I think Amy Glenn Wright, columnist and blogger for Philly.com, summed up the why-read-it question in her review most succinctly: It’s a “needed reminder to reflect upon mortality in a culture built upon marketing the latest stimulant and distraction. What meaning can be found when facing the end of life? What legacy does each individual leave behind?… [This book inspires] reflection upon the significance of death’s inevitability and the beauty of existence.” In other words, I delved into the meaning and spiritual importance of those facing the loss of themselves and of their loved ones.
In Encountering the Edge I give a fly-on-the-wall account of what some of my patients said to me during my visits. These true stories show what they cared about, laughed at, wanted to talk about and wanted to avoid. This account also shows what hospice is like from the chaplain’s perspective, including the tremendous travel time involved and how chaplains handle the misuse of religion in patient care.
The fact that the memoir carries no religious message and doesn’t leave the reader with conventional answers, speaks to the deeper spiritual reason I felt compelled to put myself out there with this book. I feel my purpose as a chaplain is to provide an open and sacred space for people to articulate whatever is on their minds unimpeded by hidden agendas—including religious ones.
I think this is what defines authentic interaction, particularly when the subject is crucial such as pondering the purpose of one’s life. I have aspired to make the book work for the reader in the same way: These vignettes of patients and their families show their values, struggles, memories and pleasures at the moment I am listening to them. The act of concentrated listening helps them articulate these concerns and consequently gain more self-awareness of the import of what they have expressed. I hope this book will give readers their own space to freely reflect upon how facing loss shapes the unfolding of their own life paths and their own final chapters.
Editor’s note: Blog posts on Living with Dying about arts and humanities aren’t endorsements of these books or movies.
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