September 16, 2019

Unwelcome Guests

Perhaps the most unwanted guests in the world are Disease, Death, and Other Losses. According to some researchers, that is one of several metaphors that people use to cope with the inevitable. An unwelcome guest does not sound like a very palatable way to deal with disease, but that metaphor makes some patients consider how to live with it without letting it usurp all his or her joys. Put that guest in the smallest and ugliest and most remote room in the house!

For most people, the two most common metaphors for coping with death are: heading into battle or going on a journey. Your first reaction to those may be that the second one is so much better. I used to think so, too, because I had read online about how negative a military image is, especially because if death “wins” then the patient is defeated. I think too for members of a Jewish caring committee or a chevrah kadisha (burial society whose work includes comforting the mourners), we think in terms of being gentle to the sick and bereaved. Going on a journey also fits in with our concept of a loving God Who will welcome us with an embrace when we return to our “eternal home.” I know many times as a hospice chaplain I used that image when a patient or relative asked me to pray from the heart. It comforts many to think that many people are sharing the same journey at the same time.

But the researchers were quick to nix such an idea. Dr. Zsófia Demjén tells us to make no mistake about it when she says, “No single metaphor is objectively superior to another; different metaphors may be more or less appropriate for different people, or for the same person at different times. When people describe their experiences or when others describe these for them, it is crucial that there are a variety of options so that vulnerable people don’t have unsuitable framings imposed on them.” [From her article, So, what’s the downside of the journey? If you think about it, it is certainly involuntary. For some, this lack of control spells frustration and fear. I remember reading about a version of the journey where a griever felt like she was on an endless and scary carnival ride. Maybe for her, feeling engaged in a battle might have made her feel more in charge. She could have seen herself engaged in a fight against depression or other negative symptoms of grieving that could have given more point to her struggle. The lesson for us is not to judge metaphors, but find out what they are or if none, suggest what may be a helpful image at a given time.

As I went over Dr. Demjen’s article, I thought about the image I used for my own imaginary death in my hospice career memoir, Rabbi and board certified Chaplain Karen B. Kaplan is author of Encountering the Edge: What People Told Me Before They Died  (Pen-L Publishing, 2014) a series of true anecdotes capped with the deeper reasons she chose her vocation. For more details including reviews, you can go to the publisher’s page or to Comments to the author are welcome by email or via her blog, Offbeat Compassion. Just days before this post came to press, the author announced the release of the audio version of  




Starting in October:

Chevrah Kadisha: History, Origins, & Evolution (HOE). Tuesdays, 12 online sessions (orientation session Monday October 12th, classes Tuesdays from October 13th to December 29th, 8-9:30 pm EST/5-6:30 pm PST. An examination of the modern Chevrah Kadisha from 1626 in Prague, through history and geography, as imported to Europe and the rest of the world, and brought to the US; with a specific contemporary focus on North America, and how the Chevrah has developed and changed over time up to the present. Studies include text study, and emphasize history, sociology, politics, government, and many other factors.

Winter 2016:  

During the coming Winter semester, the Gamliel Insitute will be offering two courses. Chevrah Kadisha: Taharah & Shmirah (T&S), and Chevrah Kadisha: Ritual, Practices, & Liturgy [Other than Taharah] (RPL). These courses will begin in January, and will each run for 12 sessions. More information to come, or visit the Gamliel Institute section of the Kavod v’Nichum website.


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