Disclaimer: I received an advanced copy of the book, Encountering the Edge: What People Told Me Before They Died by Hospice Chaplain Karen B. Kaplan.
Over the weekend, I took advantage of some quiet on Shabbat afternoon to begin reading a book sent to me for review. I had skimmed it upon receipt and figured it would be an easy read, as it appeared to be a book of stories about the hospice experiences of a chaplain. I have read books by hospice professionals describing their work in story form, offering readers an insider’s look at the process of death and dying. So there I was, reading the book, and I suddenly realized halfway through that this book was more than merely anecdotal.
Encountering the Edge: What People Told Me Before They Died, describes hospice chaplaincy in an intimate, personal way. The book allowed me, a hospice chaplain for 9 years, an opportunity to reflect on different aspects of this sacred profession. From the author’s description of being able to find humor in hospice care, to the deeply personal encounters we all face in the most unexpected ways, to the navigating of chaplaincy with other religious and spiritual perspectives, Chaplain Kaplan’s (which she described as humorous in its usage) work took me on a journey. Hospice chaplaincy is unique in certain ways. We often have to build trust with people under intense duress and emotional turmoil. At other times, we build long, deep relationships with patients and families we know will come to an end. We are challenged with seeing death almost daily, encountering the fragility of life without refuge.
Among the many fascinating elements in this book, I want to focus on the author’s most ambitious effort in her writing. In training to be counselors, chaplains and other psychosocial/spiritual professions, students will likely participate in some form of death awareness exercise, usually around the premise of losing all things we believe to be valuable and important. The exercise is designed to raise awareness around people’s loss of all ability to control the events in life. It is also described in the form of death awareness because the dying process is about more and more loss leading the end of life. Chaplain Kaplan attempts her own form of death awareness by creating a fictitious series of visits between her older self and a chaplain taking place many years after her publishing this book. As I read this last chapter, I began to wonder if this was a fair assessment. None of us know how our dying selves will respond to death. Yet, I came to realize that the value of the chapter was not in analyzing if her attempt was an exercise in futility. Rather, it was a glimpse inside the heads of all of us when we confront death. We all begin to imagine how we will be when we get older and face our lives coming to an end. It is something natural whenever we experience death. Those in the health care fields, especially working in settings were death is the normal mode of events, death awareness is something that cannot be avoided and must be confronted in order to provide the optimal support to the dying and their loved ones. Chaplain Kaplan affords her reader that glimpse, not just into her own sense of death awareness, but into the minds of the dying as she portrays throughout her book.
Encountering the Edge is a wonderful, necessary addition to the canon of material on hospice and end of life care. It is a human reading of the most serious and stressful time in people’s lives. We are most fortunate that Chaplain Karen Kaplan wrote this work and hopefully this will be only prod others to explore and perhaps share their own experiences as well.