Category Archives: Spirituality

Discerning Chickens from Ducks. A taxonomy.

Republished with permission from the Companions of St Silouan Athonite


Those of us in the vocation of teaching or preaching sometimes find that no matter how we attempt to describe something, we fall short of the mark, that is, we just don’t have the wherewithal to communicate complex situations in terms our audience can fully embrace.


As I lay in bed one early morning unable to sleep, and immersed in reflection, I began musing and imagined the various Christian faith communities as chicken farms, and I created a taxonomy of about 4 categories of chickens. I reached for my journal and jotted down some key thoughts in order not to lose them. Once I found peace having jotted down the necessary mnemonics, I was able to doze off. I rose early that morning to reconstruct my dozy thoughts. Here they are:

There are Ducks among the Chickens

On the one hand we have the factory farms where the chickens are confined in large coops and fed a prescribed diet doped with various enhancers. These are the Roman or Western Rite Christians. They are kept in parochial coops, fed a diet of dogma, doctrine, catechesis, and Canon rules and regulations; they are under the chief keeper, the bishop, whose minions, the priests are the farm hands. The corporation headquarters calls all of the important shots for these chickens. It’s “systematic.” The lights in the coop go on timer-controlled, stay on for a set period of time, and then go off. Feeding is done automatically, mechanically by the hopper method — homiletics or liturgical preaching —, in the process of delivering  a premixed formula — a so-called liturgy —, which the clucks devour at set times, and then go on with their lackluster, routine lives until it’s time to make the trip to the processing plant. That’s category 1.

Factory farmed, raised systematically, kept in line by protocol.

Category 2, took shape when I turned my thoughts then turned to the chicken-metaphorical Eastern Orthodox Rites. Here I have free-range, cageless chickens, who roam about within a perimeter of dogma and doctrine. These chickens have relative freedom and autonomy, although the head farmer makes all of the major decisions affecting their lives and his farmhands live among the chickens, ensuring that they stay healthy, and keep the foxes and weasels at their distance. These chickens rise with the sun and roost when the sun sets. They have relative variety and color in their diets and it’s natural, no artificial additives; organic. These clucks are out there digging around and experience the mystery that is their life and the beauty that is their world. They live their live with relatively few rules and regulations, and finish their lives plump and clean.

Wandering and feeding in the beauty and mystery of creation.

There’s a third category of chicken in the chicken world I’ve conjured up. It’s the chicken kept by the guy down the road who wants his eggs fresh and his Sunday dinner just outside his door. Nice and convenient. This chicken is kept in a rather pedestrian, vulgar way, allowed to roam about, kept in a makeshift hutch or in a coop. Their keeper is not particularly well educated in chicken-care nor in what chickens need out of life so their diet and care is a bit haphazard and generally subject to their keeper’s idiosyncrasies and whims. Their keeper gets his chicken knowledge out of a popular magazine or off the Internet. No real plan, no real structure, each chicken has a personal relationship with its owner. Neighbors see these chickens and refer to them by the owner’s name: “There’s Joe’s chickens in the road again. “ “Or Amy’s chickens are in our backyard again.” With little or no supervision or protection, these chickens sometimes become road-kill or are taken by a fox or a dog. But they can also be happy chickens because they don’t know anything else, and they can be healthy chickens, but they’re good only for soup because they’re very lean and underfed; a bit tough at times. These are the non-mainstreamerspopular religious movements, sects, cults and storefront “churches.”

Backyard chickens.

Getting near completion of our taxonomy of religious chickens, of course, we have some chickens who fall somewhere in between these three groups, or chickens who get “rescued” by one or the other categories. They’re still chickens but a bit confused.

Finally, we have the un-chickens. These are creatures that think they’re chickens, look like chickens, act like chickens but are definitely not chickens. Fortunately, these bizarre items are rare and they do make the tabloids or National Geographic. They even manage to attract vulnerable followers, who think that these un-chickens are the real thing. Most of these un-chickens are charlatans, some may actually believe they are chickens, but they are easy to identify and can’t easily hide their deception from the discerning observer.

The Un-chicken. They look like chickens, act like chickens, but don’t know they’re un-chickens.

I would be remiss if I didn’t include the un-chicken category. These are not chickens at all but ducks who want to be chickens. These ducks leave their aquatic environment for dry land among the chickens. These ducks have lost track of their special gift: mythologically they inhabited and belonged to three worlds: the world of water, the world of dry land, and the world of the ether. Some would say that these ducks, if they were aware and awake, would realize that they mediated between the sky, the earth and the water. They are special. They think they’re chickens but they still sound like ducks and walk like ducks. Some of the chickens don’t even know there are ducks among them; some of the ducks don’t know they’re ducks. But in reality, you can’t mistake the ducks among the chickens but no one seems to mention the fact and no one makes a peep…or a cluck.

Moving freely between worlds.

And then there are the ducks. Wild and free. Diving into the depths or flying invisible paths. No words or texts are needed to guide them. They find their food along their journey’s course. They quench their thirst in fresh, living water. They live in all three spheres but belong to none in particular. Unlike the chickens who are earthbound and know only a circumscribed tract, the ducks share three worlds; they know the world under the reflective surface of the pond in which they dive, they know the dry land where they walk, and they know the heights, which they share with eagles. We might call the ducks among us the mystics or the contemplatives, those among us whose keeper is the Spirit.

The Spirit is in our midst!

Br Silouan …
A chicken in discernment to be a duck!

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Rediscovering Spirituality. With or without religion.

Some General Information About
The Companions of St Silouan Athonite

First of all and from the outset: This is not a religious group nor a denominational outreach. It is not a cult-in-the-making.


One nagging question that I have frequently posed is this: Why do most people think of spiritual care at the last minute, when someone is at Death’s door or when you are facing the dying process of a loved one? It’s like exercising and eating a healthy diet after the heart attack, isn’t it? Why not get started now.


This is an ecumenical, interfaith, non-denominations, judgement-free community of persons who are solely interested in companioning each other on their spiritual pilgrimages.

The inspiration for forming a wider group of spiritual companions came from my association with a Russian Orthodox Monastery in Northeast New York. The monks decided to resurrect a concept of a group of lay persons who would live some of the monastic values while in the secular world. These so-called companions of the monastery would apply, be considered as aspirants and then admitted to the so-called companions. They would subscribe to a rule of life, establish for themselves a prayer discipline, support the monastery in time and treasure, and make regular pilgrimages, either to the parent monastery or to some other monastery or retreat venue. It was a great idea but poorly organized. It was open to all faiths and, while it had an insignia identifying the companions, a small stylized cross, it still had the flavor of a very distinct Christian denomination. I couldn’t imagine a Buddhist, a Jew or a Moslem wanting to become a companion and having a cross as their insignia.

My patron saint is St Silouan of Mount Athos, St Silouan Athonite for short. I chose Silouan because of his humility and simplicity, his dedication to love and forgiveness, his compassion. Although Silouan was highly advanced in monastic ascetic spirituality and reached the height of monastic hierarchy as a Staretz or elder, a schemamonk, his humility and simplicity were legendary. Silouan, a Russian Orthodox Christian elder monk, who lived on the exclusive Greek peninsula known as Hagios Oros, the “Holy Mountain”, or Mount Athos, he lived values that transcended the Christian model and are the common threads of all the great world spiritual traditions.

As a professional theologian and thanatologist, a scholar of religion and psychospiritual care, I find that the vast majority of persons who call themselves members of a particular faith or belief community don’t have a clue about what their denomination teaches. Most ministers have no clue about what’s going on in interreligious dialogue, much less about their particulars. Most institutionalized religion has been caught with their pants around their ankles when it comes to credibility.

In recent decades we have all too often heard the ambiguous and practically meaningless phrase, “I’m spiritual, not religious.” Even the “spiritual” professional literature from the healthcare, deathcare and spiritual care disciplines can’t even agree on an across-the-board commonly held definition of what spirituality is! In fact, one publication did a review of the literature and found more than 90 different “definitions” of  spirituality!

In my professional practice I deal with end-of-life, death, dying, and survivors. I know the value of religion and I know the value of spirituality; I think I know where the one stops and where the other starts. Every time I think I’m sure, a situation arises that sets me back to square one.

One thing is certain: every human being is spiritual. There’s no doubt about it. Once you can admit you recognize that there’s something greater than yourself, that transcends your understanding, you have become spiritual. Now how you use that evolutionary revelation to best advantage and how you ease into it to make meaning of difficult moments, suffering, challenges is another story. To get the most out of your spirituality, you need companioning, guidance, others willing to talk about their spirituality and to share their insights.

That’s what this group, the Companions of St Silouan Athonite, is all about.

It’s an open group meaning that anyone inclined to explore the group can freely do so. What you receive from the group and what you give to the group is purely a matter of what you have at any given time in your journey. The pilgrimmage is self-paced. The requirements are your own.

The only formal hierarchy is me, the self-styled “Principal Companion,” actually the monitor of the group and the main person doing most of the work on this site.

In the near future, once the group shows signs of stability and growth, I will offer two levels of formal membership: Aspirant and Companion. The Aspirant is a candidate who has identified a sincere calling to companion others in developing their spirituality. The Companion is the person who has achieved a certain level of competence in companioning through personal discipline and involvement.

Initially, there is no commitment other than the personal commitment you make to yourself and to those with whom you have a relationship to follow the Simple Rule of the Companions of St Silouan Athonite. As the Companion community matures, we may ask for volunteer support or offer specific products for generating funds. Those products will be subject to the Community’s approval, basically all full Companions will have a say in what is offered and what is done.

At some point in time, again as the Community grows and matures, it would be great if we could have a Companions retreat once a year at locations offering retreat accommodations and meeting facilities.

The organization will be very loosely structured: Most of the site will be public access. That means that announcements, reflections, etc. will be public access.

Anyone interested in more intense involvement will be asked to “Follow” the site by signing up with their real name and their email. This means only that the moderator, I, will see who you are and know our email. You will receive an email automatically notifying you whenever a new item is posted. You can do the same for comments.

At some time in the near future, I will post an application form on this site. If anyone wishes to become an Aspirant they will fill out the form and email it to me.

To become a full Companion, you will fill out the same form but only after 6 months of Aspirancy, include an essay about your spirituality and the importance of being a Companion, and you will document your spiritual activities, retreats, spiritual direction, etc.

A full Companion will receive a letter of good standing and a Certificate of Companionship, both of which will have only sentimental value.

Very soon I will create a suitable “habit” for Companions. The habit will be a small item identifying the wearer as a Companion. It will likely be a lapel pin or similar item. Cost will be kept low, since the value of the habit is to be kept intrinsic and the habit itself is to be kept very humble.

Since most everything will be done digitally and the material for reflections etc. will come directly from my own resources or from material I’m reviewing at the time and find suitable for the Companions, no real overheads will be generated. As for the habit, the Companion will purchase that directly from the manufacturer.

I may from time to time suggest certain devotional items such as prayer ropes and the like or items to enhance sensual aspects of the spiritual practice. If I do so, I will also provide links to suppliers of such items. I do not have any financial interest in any of these suppliers but if one were to come about, I would announce that fact publicly to the Community.

Aspirants and Companions are accountable to themselves. If you misrepresent something you do your conscience is your judge, no one else.

Finally, all I ask is if you are seriously interested in becoming a participating member of the group that you contribute to the reflections or to the feedback about reflections. The only requirements are that you remain on topic, leave egos outside, and don’t bring any personal baggage on board. No proselytizing and not judgmentalism.

In closing, I do sincerely welcome your comments, recommendations, suggestions, even criticisms of me and only me. Comments should be made using the comments form on each post; they will be moderated and then published. If you don’t want what you write to be public please email me your thoughts to st.silouan.companions@gmail.com. Your email communications will be confidential and I now notify anyone concerned that I invoke clergy privilege should any law enforcement agency request insight into the emails. When I say confidential, I mean confidential.

As always, I am available at st.silouan.companions@gmail.com should you have any questions or concerns.

To view the Simple Rule of the Companions of St Silouan click here.

Looking forward to exploring the beauty and mystery of spirituality with you,

Peace and joy!
Rev. Ch. Harold Vadney BA, [MA], MDiv.
Principal Companion

Death Bereavement and Be-ing

Republished with permission from Spirituality and Griefcare.


Death does not respect age; any death is a loss whether it be an 18-month old infant, an 18-year old youth, or an 81 year old matron. They are all significant losses to someone and each instance has its own pattern of grief responses and challenges to overcome. Regardless of age, gender, socioeconomic status or any other feature, each death is unique and special, like no other death ever or anywhere, because with each death we lose an entire world, an entire package of experiences that may have just been in the process of unwrapping.

We hardly ever speak of a beforelife but tend to be overly concerned with the afterlife. It may be comforting for some of us to reflect on who and where we were before we became who we are when we were born. It’s interesting to ponder that question because we can either trust that we were in fact somewhere, existing, before we were physically conceived. But where was that? The alternative is to believe that once a random sperm entered a waiting egg, a cascade of events was triggered that became the infant you and developed into the you you are today. Quite honestly, neither of the two hypotheses can really be resolved, because we have no real idea what constitutes “you.” Perhaps that’s why we prefer to occupy ourselves with an afterlife, since in that discussion we at least have a tangible quantity to work with: a physical person with all sorts of attributes has died, and we ask the many questions associated with a death, most often Why? and Where?

We are terribly uncomfortable with being so vulnerably human and can’t bear to think that we will someday, somewhere, somehow die. We will physically stop working and some rather disgusting changes will take place in our physical bodies. Like the proverbial ostrich, most of us wander aimlessly and with minimum purpose along the myriad possible paths through the time and space we call life. We greedily seek one diversion or entertainment after the other, never getting enough, and yet demanding and getting more and more distraction from the reality of ourselves and the world around us. We become a shell of what we potentially can be.

Shells of former selves.

When death finally arrives to claim a loved one or a friend, we are shocked, confused, angry, and demanding. How could this have happened? Why did it have to happen? If only…! Reality is really hard to take and when you are so arrogant that you think you can handle all the answers or can control what happens, reality gets even harder on you. You attempt to quench your anxiety with denial but it doesn’t seem to work for you – or anyone else. Death visits and seldom knocks. Death rarely makes an appointment to come around when it’s convenient. Death just drops by and takes what is his.

When a death occurs it almost always ushers in a psychospiritual process we commonly refer to as grief, and a psychosocial process we generally refer to as mourning. Both grief and mourning have their sociocultural patterns we call ritual on the “micro” level and ceremony on the “macro” or public arena. Within these we have social norms, including how grief is politicized, acknowledged, and cultural dictates, bundled together into what we call practice or on a more substantial scale, tradition. Religion / spirituality of one form or another, or one of the philosophies seeking religion, frequently provide a foundation upon which these behaviors can establish and legitimize themselves. The psychospiritual and the psychosocial environments provide the contexts in which the bereaved engage in their grief work, find meaning in their loss, incorporate the transformed deceased into their lives, continue their bonds with the deceased, and transcend the bereavement experience as transfigured persons. It’s a complex process that requires time and permission to proceed. Although the social / public process of mourning may have temporal waypoints and a particular culture may set an end time for the public display of bereavement, grief does not have such an amenity. In fact, grief may be experienced for many years after a loss even without being classified as “pathological,” or complicated, and grief is unique to each griever, it’s a personal experience and must be accommodated by each griever in his or her own way. Grief cannot be rushed nor can it be stereotyped.

Today, in the early 21st century, we are deluged with information and stimuli of indescribable variety and in asphyxiating volumes. Some of the deluge tends to shape our very physiology and repattern our nervous systems, especially our brains and the way we think. The information and stimuli enveloping us at every instant of every day is insidiously evil in that it is directed at transforming human beings endowed with free will into means to unhealthy ends. The media bombarding every single human being today is dehumanizing us and transforming our very existence from beings to doers. We are no longer mindful of the gift of the moment we are living in and we are unable to enjoy the moment in silent reflection We have no peace. Television, radio, emails invade every moment of our lives with commands to “Hurry!” “Don’t wait!” “Do it now!” “Last Chance.” Twitter, Facebook, instant messaging have all replaced real personal relationships with virtual personal relationships. The once sentient being we called human has become a mere reflection in a smartphone screen. We don’t even take the opportunity to speeddial a significant other and would rather spend the time texting rather than  talking. Even “chatting” which was once a form of informal oral communication and stimulus sharing has become realtime texting and responding but there’s nothing real about it.

All of these intrusions and incursions into our humanity and their tragic effects on who and what we are can be seen in our death practices. Digital death is a term that once described online practices centering on death-related communications; today, digital death is the counterpart of a person’s physical death. Our dehumanization is almost complete now because we have moved away from metaphysical, spiritual trust in an afterlife and are now even concerned about what happens to our Facebook page or our Twitter account after we physically die; we are now concerned with a digital afterlife! How pitiful can it get?

Materialist consumerism has decided that your death-related experience, your bereavement, your grief should be limited to three days and then you need to get back to work, get over your loss, and become productive again. It’s called bereavement leave. But it’s not leave to grieve; it’s merely time to get the necessary paperwork done to dispose of whoever it was who died. Three days, people! You’ve lived with an individual for decades, sharing almost every moment and you have three days to get over his death. You’ve raised a child to young man or womanhood, watched a helpless infant become a strapping happy young adult and you have 3 days to get over the car crash that killed him. What have we become?

On April 25, 2017, at 9:20 a.m. two young men, Logan Penzabene and Matthew Hamilton, each 18 years old, were traveling down a main road near their homes, a road they had probably traveled dozens if not hundreds of times on their way to school or once they qualified for their drivers licenses. But today was going to be different, very different. Today was going to be so different that at about 9:20, one would be dead and the other, Matthew Hamilton, in a coma, and hundreds of lives would be forever changed. One would be dead, Logan Penzabene, and the other in a coma. Two families would be plunged into the darkness of despairing grief; a whole community would be plunged into disbelief. An entire school district would be offered grief counseling. Why?

Well, on that fateful morning, the two young men were driving along and for some reason we may never know – perhaps they were texting, perhaps making a call, perhaps responding to some electronic notification – the driver crossed into the oncoming lane of traffic and hit a flatbed tractor trailer head-on, killing the young driver and causing critical head injuries to his passenger. Were they texting, making a call, responding to an electronic notification? Does it really matter? Yes, it does matter! One young man is DEAD, another is in a COMA, a whole community is thrown into disarray. Yes! It does matter!

The appalling part of the story is not that the event was preventable – I cannot support the belief that anything is truly preventable and must dispose of that notion of preventability as just more arrogance believing that we can control events. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is one of those arrogant, self-important political figures who believes that if he announces to a so-called program, “No Empty Chair”,  Teen Safe Driving Campaign, which is heralded on the Campaign website as: “Governor Andrew M. Cuomo today launched the “No Empty Chair” teen driving safety education and enforcement campaign to raise awareness of highway dangers during prom and graduation season.” Apparently, Cuomo believes that if he announces a campaign the problem is solved.  Cuomo’s campaign  was announced on April 15, 2017, the fatal accident occurred on April 25, 2017.

What we have to come to understand is that inflated programs and bombastic political rhetoric or police efforts during a so-called “campaign” do little or nothing to fundamentally change what government and corporations have worked so hard to create: producers to produce goods and services, consumers to consume goods and services, and sheeple to hear and obey (and to consume). The hypocrisy is conspicuous, it’s glaring, but if you’re constantly gazing into your smartphone screen, constantly receiving the indoctrination (in the past called “brainwashing”) and loving every digital minute of it, you won’t notice.

The churches and deathcare providers are elated. The churches because you may never have set foot in church for Sunday worship but they’ll wheel you in one last time and the church and pastor can get 30 minutes of exposure and a check. The deathcare industry doesn’t care one way or the other; the funeral director will get each and every one of us sooner or later, but sooner is better for the bottom line, and even better if it’s a sensational death that will attract multitudes of mourners! Visibility for both. Revenues for both. Rescue and paramedical personnel get to flaunt themselves and their equipment, which is good stuff for budget negotiations. Local political hacks, including everyone from the coroner / medical examiner, to law enforcement responders, to local elected stumpers ever eager for that special moment to appear and look devastated and share “Our prayers are with you today” canned expressions for the cameras. Even the public mourners and their makeshift shrines erected at the accident site. Everyone wants to be seen meditatively and reflectively, even prayerfully standing at the roadside memorial, “paying their respects,” showing solidarity for the momentary grief of a community. It’s really difficult to tell the real from the virtual.

The Penzabene Crash Site.

But the bottom-line, naked reality is that one young man is dead; another is critically injured. The bottom-line, naked reality is that one family is grieving the loss of a vibrant and vital part of that unit called family; a limb has been amputated and just like in the case of amputation of a physical limb, it is acutely painful, and there will be phantom pain even when the limb is no longer there.

Three days of bereavement leave is not going to work. Empty political actions like “No Empty Chair” or whatever they’re calling that stupidity is not going to work. Law enforcement “efforts” – as yet ineffectual and unrevealed – don’t seem to be doing very much. People are still killing each other, and people are getting dead regardless of whether the killing is intentional or unintentional. Sorry but dead is dead.

We can’t change what has happened and there’s no way we can justify any attempt to rationalize what has happened. That’s what makes Gov. Cuomo’s “No Empty Chair” campaign so political and so scurrilous. That’s what makes Bethlehem Police Commander Hornick’s statements like “it’s a tragic loss”  and “our feelings to out to the families” so pro forma and empty. Incidents like this one are not “tragic” and they’re probably not “preventable” by inaugurating campaigns with political undertones like “No Empty Chair.” Most people would probably disagree with what I just wrote. Not tragic!?! How heartless! Not, preventable? How fatalistic, how pessimistic! But those people would be wrong and misguided, victims of their own delusions, denial, and despair.

What I will say is that incidents like these, while not tragic and not preventable, are important teaching moments. Are important opportunities for everyone concerned to re-evaluate themselves and decide what they have become. It’s a time to become reflective and for self-examination. It’s a time to honestly admit that we are all contributing to our own psychospiritual demise, some of you willingly others inadvertently, but the vast majority are all part of the “preventable tragedies” of our post-modern, post-Christian, dehumanized world.

So what’s the final take-home message? Dead is dead. Loss is loss. Grief is unavoidable. The living will bury their dead and go on living. But is it that simple? Not really.

In my thinking, grief is a unique opportunity for personal and community growth. What you can’t change you have to take good advantage of. We do this by extending ourselves in compassion and love. We have to allow ourselves to stop for a moment so that we can catch up with ourselves. In other words, we have to take a moment and sit on a rock and become lost in time watching the brook flow around the obstacles. We need to shut out the white noise in our lives, and listen to the music of the brook and the birds. We need to raise our eyes from the illuminated screen and allow our souls to be illuminated by the sunlight playing off the ripples and the leaves. We need to stop feeling guilty about caring for ourselves and for others. We need to take time off from being busy to being just be-ing. This is essential to reclaiming our humanness, our spirituality.

I recall as a child the silent dying of a favorite apple tree. Of course, as a child I had the time for be-ing and for listening, for seeing; where there is no time for be-ing there’s no time for seeing or for listening. If we slow down we can hear what the Spirit is telling us about the dying of trees, the planet, of people, and what these deaths mean to us as beings capable of creating meaning and reflecting on love and how all of these things came into being, how a Spirit of love brought us into being.

The questions that we ask about death and dying are basically questions about the meaning of being, of be-ing. These are the questions that go into the stories once told around tribal campfires, and which now become part of the narratives that are told about our dead. These stories were the subject matter of the drawings on cave walls long ago, of the poetry of love and loss, and the emotions associated with the death of green in autumn. The Spirit is very generous in using any opportunity or event to make a point to us arrogant, uncertain, hesitant creatures.

We as educators, spiritual care providers, thanatologists, human beings, need to get back to basics and enter the world of the deep soul.

No condolences, no campaigns, no law enforcement efforts, no roadside memorials, no funeralization service will every have the desired, the needed effect unless we learn to appreciate silence. Our institutions from the family to church to government have taken a wrong turn. We live in an “increasingly mechanistic, fragmented, decontextualized world, marked by unwarranted optimism mixed with paranoia and a feeling of emptiness…” [McGilchrist, p. 6]

Our institutions cannot help but have a stake in blunting our maturity even if it means they must destroy the original versions and insights on which those very institutions were founded. We can easily identify that fragmentation in our education system, our government, our churches, and even in our families. [Aside: Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov is a fascinating work of literature in many ways, but the story about the Grand Inquisitor is probably the best illustration of the perverse change in institution over time. Here’s a link to a brilliant portrayal by Sir John Gielgud. The Grand Inquisitor ]

I’ll close with a quote taken from Maggie Ross’ fascinating book, Silence: A User’s Guide, in which she cites a passage from Richard Holloway’s Leaving Alexandria, noting that Holloway’s use of “religion” should be thought of in broad terms, in the sense of any pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance

Hear the flow. See the light. Enter the silence.

“All institutions overclaim for themselves and end up believing more in their own existence than in the vision that propelled them into existence in the first place. This is particularly true of religions. Religions may begin as vehicles of longing for mysteries beyond description, but they end up claiming exclusive descriptive rights in them. They seque from the ardour and uncertainty of seeking to the confidence and complacence of possession. They shift from poetry to packaging.” [italics mine]

Download the final article from Spirituality & GriefcareNo Empty Chair

Read a related article at Tragedy or Failure?

Peace and blessings,
Rev.  Ch. Harold

Further reading:
Holloway, Richard. Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt.   Edinburgh: Canongate, 2013. Print.
L’Engle, Madeleine. Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith & Art,  2016. Print.
Ross, Maggie. Silence: A User’s Guide, 2014. Print.

Why it’s so important to have a bereavement chaplain at your side

The subject of clergy involvement in the funeral or memorial service comes up again and again. Most people feel that spiritual or religious content is very important in the funeral or memorial service, and I agree. I can’t even start to count the number of families who start off the conversation with me with something like, “He used to go to church but stopped going” or “She wasn’t a churchgoer but she did believe in God and prayed.” My question, sometimes asked aloud, is “Why is that important?” I ask that question because I do not feel that a person’s spirituality or sense of a transcendent God is determined by how often one sees the inside of a church, or whether the individual wears his or her faith on their sleeve, or quotes chapter and verse with every breath. In fact, I’m sometimes very suspicious of such people and smell hypocrisy in much of that behavior. Your essential and core spirituality is how you live your life, and that’s what I as a professional bereavement chaplain explore in my meetings with the bereaved when planning the funeral or memorial service.

I frequently get involved because the bereaved do not want “clergy” involved because they’ve been wounded by their “clergy” or the faith tradition represented by their clergy. The ineffectualism of mainstream clergy is a whole discussion on its own, however, but let’s just say a few words about it. “Clergy” as used in the non-clergy community means anyone who provides some sort of pastoral service, or anyone who has some sort of leadership role in a religious congregation. “Ordination” is a canonical or legal term that means that the particular person is approved by a particular denomination to provide pastoral care to that specific denomination. Regrettably, adhering to the rules of that denomination may not provide much relief of the suffering experienced by the bereaved; it may have just the opposite effect, leaving them with a sense of emptiness and loneliness, and asking the question, What was that all about?!? But it doesn’t have to be that way and shouldn’t be that way. Spirituality and meaning-making is quite different from religion and religious doctrines and notions of popular piety.

Don’t Let This Happen To You! Get Personal!

In all honesty and fairness, and in my personal experience, clergy is not really what it’s hyped up to be. In fact, clergy tend to deliver the most boring, impersonal, and unsatisfying services imaginable. While there are good reasons for the deficient performance, a lot of the blame should be placed on the funeral home’s hands-off spirituality attitudes, and their failure to provide reliable recommendations to the bereaved. Simply handing the bereaved a clergy list at the arrangements conference is a bit irresponsible. What’s worse still is if a funeral director or funeral home staffer attempts to play chaplain and deliver some insincere “words of comfort” or preside over a prayer vigil. It’s generally like the plumber doing the catering.

Where was I? What’s his name? Where am I?

Even considering the ignorance of many funeral services professionals regarding the psychospirituality of funeralization rites and ritual, calling an individual a clergyperson can be very misleading. First of all, only the mainstream denominations really have an “educated” clergy; that means attending a seminary or seminary college, assuring that the “seminarian” is properly indoctrinated. Most other non-mainstream, storefront or megachurch, clergy may have attended a so-called Bible college or something like that. Basically all that is is a glorified Sunday school for adults. There are many problems associated with both mainstream and non-mainstream clergy. First of all, most are poorly trained in handling existential crises like death and its sequellae grieving, mourning, healing, transformation, and will turn to their denomination’s religious teachings, their doctrines, first, since that’s all they have. Secondly, they don’t have the necessary training or education in death, dying, grief and mourning. Thirdly, they lack interfaith, intercultural training to be able to understand the cultural dynamics that occur in the particular family system. Fourthly, they very rarely take the time to get to know the deceased, much less the key mourners and the family in general. Fifthly, most clergy do not understand the importance of continuing bonds of the living with the dead. In fact, most have a rather antiquated Freudian approach of the need to cut any continuing bond with the dead and replace the bond with something else. That’s a very psychospiritually unhealthy attitude indeed. And last but certainly not least, since I could go on with this list, most clergy have parishes or congregations to run and can’t really provide the kind of service or care required for funeralization and aftercare. The result is what I call the cookie-cutter service with all of its failures and insincerity. The clergyperson, a priest, minister, deacon, or layperson – sometimes, embarrassingly, even the funeral director – steps up at the appointed time, opens a book or recites a formulaic prayer, and it’s all done and over.

Let’s do a prayer now. OK. We’re done.

Sometimes there’s the de rigueur church service that’s all but meaningless to most attendees and represents only an additional expense (can approach more than $600 in some cases). Practically and theologically, the dead are in God’s hands, there’s little the living can do to change things, despite what the minister or priest may preach. Most of these characters are mere sock-puppets anyway, ventriloquist’s dummies.

For all of the reasons given in the above, the best choice for the spiritual or religious care of the bereaved is, believe it or not, the experienced bereavement chaplain. An experienced bereavement chaplain is a specialist in dying, death, psychospiritual care, and aftercare. The experienced bereavement chaplain is not only trained in the disciplines relating to interfaith practices, rite and rituals associated with death, psychology and spirituality of dying, death, and survivors, technology of deathcare, and much, much more that is of essential benefit to the dying and to survivors. No funeral director and no denominational clergy can offer the scope and depth of services that the interfaith bereavement chaplain can offer.

It’s the scope and depth of expertise of the interfaith bereavement chaplain that make him or her the go-to when a family is faced with the dying process, death and deathcare, grief and survivor care. It’s that expertise that makes the interfaith bereavement chaplain an essential member of the care team at all phases of the bereavement process. The professional interfaith bereavement chaplain does what neither the funeral director nor the cookie-cutter clergyperson can do: the chaplain makes death a meaningful and survivable experience.

When a family considers spending $2000 to more than $10000 on a casket alone, or when the family opts for an economical funeral package of say on average $3,000-5,000 does it really make sense to do without an essential service costing a mere $200-300, in most cases less than 5 % of the total cost of the funeral? When survivors consider spending up to $800 on embalming which won’t last more than a couple or days or a maximum of a couple of weeks before decomposition sets in, and embalming is not even required by law in the majority of situations, even when there’s a viewing planned. Why would any family not request the services of a professional interfaith bereavement chaplain with all of the long-term benefits to the survivors socially, psychologically, politically, spiritually that are associated with dignified funeral rites and rituals, and aftercare by a deathcare specialist? You’ll consider several hundreds of dollars for unnecessary embalming, several thousands for a casket, a couple of thousand for a vault, but will go cheapo when it comes to dignified, personalized, meaningful spiritual care? Go figure!

I personally serve the Albany-Rensselaer-Schenectady-Greene counties region in New York state, and have been requested by families in the New York City area for special services, but this blog is read internationally. Given that this blog attracts an international audience, I would like to provide some very general recommendations taken from my local practice, which can be applied to most North American and European regions with little or no adjustment for local conditions. Here is how I practice and what I recommend for families, survivors, and others involved in deathcare:

  • As soon as it becomes obvious that a death is about to occur, whether hours or days, contact a professional interfaith bereavement chaplain. Please note that denominational clergy have their place if the dying person has had a personal relationship with the clergyperson or was active in a faith community. Please note further that hospital chaplains are OK for certain interventions but their competencies are mostly restricted to the hospital setting. Hospice chaplains, too, have their place but are agenda and program driven, and have limited effectiveness outside of the hospice setting.
  • If the person is in the process of dying, you may want to ask for presence or companionship during the dying process. This presence/ companioning can be for those around the dying person as well as for the dying person. If this presence / companioning is to be provided in an institution such as a nursing home, hospital, or hospice, an institutional chaplain may be available, and the interfaith bereavement chaplain will coordinate care visits with the institutional chaplain(s). Nevertheless, when death is imminent, it may be helpful to have your interfaith bereavement chaplain present for the dying person and for the family. Consider the options carefully.
  • Make an appointment to meet with the interfaith bereavement chaplain to discuss your situation. The chaplain will listen attentively and will hear what you need even before you know it. It’s important that you hear what the chaplain has to say, and to share your interpretations with him or her. You should be doing most of the talking during this initial meeting; if the chaplain does most of the talking or interrupts, he or she may not be the ideal choice. Try again. Only after you have explained your situation and the chaplain has had an opportunity to ask some important, brief questions seeking a better understanding, should he or she start making any recommendations.
  • Once the person has died, you may want the chaplain to remain with the body until the funeral home sends a care to take charge of the body. I do this out of respect for the family and to ensure that they know the body will be watched over. This is very important in the initial hours following a death. The bereavement chaplain is also an advocate for the family if the family wants to spend more time with the body.
  • Once you have established a rapport and trust with the chaplain, and if you haven’t already given your funeral director the chaplain’s name, contact details, and the information that you have spoken to the chaplain, you should do that when you make the initial call to the funeral home for removal of the body. Inform your funeral director that you’d like the funeral director to contact the chaplain to discuss the arrangements made and any details if the chaplain is going to do the funeral for you. You may want to ask the chaplain to be present during the arrangements meeting with the funeral director. I find that families are less stressed if I am present.
  • Be sure to discuss aftercare with the chaplain. You should ask about regular contacts with the chaplain for at least the first year after the death. He or she should be available on what are called trigger dates (birthdays, holidays, special dates) when grief may be particularly noticeable, or if you find you need some help in getting through a particular day. The chaplain will likely have discussed grief and grieving with you so that you know what to expect. That discussion is standard practice during my initial meeting with the family.
  • Remember always, that the interfaith bereavement chaplain may be your independent choice or you may receive a recommendation from the funeral home you choose. Do not accept a mere list of clergypersons. You want an interfaith bereavement chaplain. If the funeral home does not have one on call or on staff, maybe it’s time to find another funeral home that can provide a complete range of services.
  • Beware of the funeral home chains and factory funeral homes. Their sole interest is in their bottom line and their shareholders; you are just a consumer to them. You’ll find chain funeral homes and factory funeral homes almost everywhere. I call them Walmart-funerals, because they are there to sell you everything because that’s what they do; they sell funeral goods and services. What you need is deathcare services not a sales pitch and a huge bill.
  • The worst time to do any of the above is when a death occurs. I usually counsel my clients not to make any major decisions for at least 6 months to 1 year after the death but now you have to make some major decisions within hours of the death. It’s an incredibly confusing and draining experience. That’s why I unconditionally recommend that you really should seriously make pre-arrangements so that when a death occurs, you can deal with the grief you will experience, and will have everything else under control. We highly recommend advance directives and pre-arrangements. We also recommend having an interfaith bereavement chaplain present when discussing and finalizing both advance directives and pre-arrangements. You many know what you want but it’s always good to have an impartial presence who can do some impartial thinking.

In upcoming articles I will be discussing the importance of revival of traditional funeral rituals and why they are so important to the living. As a sequel to the discussion about traditional funeral and memorial rituals, I’ll share with you why the family’s participation is so very important, and how we can personalize the rituals and ceremony so that they have lasting psychospiritual benefit for you. I’ll also be writing about continuing our bonds with the dead and why it’s normal and healthy to do that.

But in the meantime, if you have any specific questions or would like more information, please contact me directly at compassionate.care.associates@gmail.com. I’ll be pleased to help in whatever way I can.

Peace and blessings,
Rev. Ch. Harold Vadney

 

 

 

Dropping the Ball…

Whether they deserve the criticism or not, funeral directors and funeral homes sometimes get some very bad press or we read some devastating review of a funeral service written by persons who expected, needed more than what they got on the price list. Why is that, you might ask yourselves, when you feel you covered very base in the funeralization services the family asked for and you provided.

Are you dropping the ball?

Did it ever occur to you that perhaps you might have exceeded your skill set? That what you may have started wasn’t really finished? That you left the bereaved at the end of a long pier with nowhere to go but off the deep end

I’m not just picking on the funeral director or the funeral home staff. I’m also talking about poorly trained clergy or clergy who accept a gig with a funeral home but who have no clue how to provide what the bereaved need. For any professional or paraprofessional to attempt to provide services for which they are not fully trained, competent, and experienced is almost criminal, and can have tragic circumstance in the short term and certainly over the longer term, particularly in the bereavement situation? But we still have funeral directors and funeral home staff who try to be spiritual guides and psychospiritual facilitators, bereavement support providers, and they are not trained to do that. Worse still, we have clergy or ministers who have their eye on the honorarium and attempt to perform effective and complex funeralization rituals but have neither the training, the requisite knowledge, nor do they have the communications skills necessary to the task, and end up simply provided a lackluster service and a meaningless ceremony. Sometimes one really has to ask one’s self, don’t you have any self-awareness? Are you that arrogant or greedy to think you have the skills to do everything?

Is this where you’re leaving the bereaved?

Well that can happen when you attempt to do more than that for which you have been trained.

I’m writing from the vantage point of having witnessed some pretty awful and uninspiring attempts at memorialization and bereavement services that have sent me home almost sick to my stomach, wondering what in the world did that funeral director think when engaging that clown. Or doesn’t that funeral director realize how shallow his prayer delivery is? Don’t they have any sensitivity for the lack of depth they are exhibiting to persons in existential crisis? Obviously no one has bothered to point out their shortcomings to them. Doe they even care? Would they care?

Not only do many funeral homes simply ask if the family belongs to a faith community, and if they do, simply make a phone call to coordinate a funeral service with a minister who probably never even met the deceased or couldn’t pick out the family in a lineup. Some funeral directors simply hand the bereaved a clergy list at some time during the arrangements conference and leave it at that. Others couldn’t even care that much and simply offer to lead a graveside prayer, intoning a bland “Lord’s Prayer” or, if you’re really lucky, might even read a staid “The Lord is My Shepherd”, before flatly dismissing the family. And you wonder that you don’t have customer loyalty? Wake up!

Thanks! But where now….

“Would you like some time with our chaplain?” That might well be one of the most important and meaningful questions you might ask of the bereaved. It shows several things: First, it shows that you have an appreciation for the various levels of the bereavement experience. Secondly, it gives the bereaved permission to acknowledge that they are also experiencing a spiritual component to their bereavement. Thirdly, it gives permission for the bereaved to open up a discussion about a religious or spiritual component to the funeralization services you are offering. It also demonstrates that you offer complete care and are not only interested in selling tangible products and services. It all adds up to a statement that you actually care about the holistic wellbeing of the bereaved. But do you ask that simple question? Have you ever event thought of asking it? Or do you expect the bereaved to come in with a laundry list of services they expect you to provide?

Falling apart and no one to help!

It is a simple expression that shows you care. It’s a simple expression that shows you appreciate the complexity of bereavement. It’s a simple expression that shows you know your business.

One of the most satisfying things that I have heard recently is when, at the conclusion of the graveside service, the funeral director addressed the family and thanked me on behalf of the family. The funeral director, addressing the rather large group of mourners, said: “We’d like to thank Chaplain Harold for this beautiful service he created for S. I sat in on the family conference he had with M. & H., and I know he really cares.” The beautiful note I received from the family several days later was all the encouragement I ever needed to continue what some feel is a very difficult ministry. It is difficult, and draining at times. But it builds relationships and it brings healing. Sometimes it is incredibly uplifting when you know you really made a difference.

One of the universal characteristics of bereavement, loss of any kind, is suffering. Suffering may be physical or mental or spiritual or all of these. Suffering has been referred to in the professional literature as an illness that benefits from treatment on the path to healing. I’ve often referred to mortuary science as being an extension of medical science; they have so much in common. There’s suffering, illness, and the hope of healing, if not cure. If you think about the parallels for a moment and you’ll be awestruck.

So why is it that funeral homes and funeral directors don’t ask that very important question? Is it that their training doesn’t emphasize the fact of psychospiritual suffering and dumps it all into a big bucket called grief? Is it because funeral directors don’t have a complete understanding of the psychospiritual aspects of deathcare and the importance of spirituality in providing deathcare? Is it because they simply brush it off as the responsibility of the family to find spiritual support? Or is it because they feel, like most healthcare providers, that if it’s not physical, let the clergy have it (regardless of competence)? Or can it be that funeral directors simply don’t want to get involved in anything more than just a disposal service? Could be a little of all of the above, don’t you think so? (Those same questions could be asked of the healthcare professions, too, with similar outcomes!)

Caregivers at all stages in the dying, death and after-death experience should be providing this support up to and and at hand-off to the next caregiver team, including hand-off of the deceased and the bereaved to the funeralization professionals who will be providing deathcare services. The care should be seamless. But far from being seamless it all to frequently is simply non-existent.

In reality, you can’t do it all; if you try, you run the risk of mistake or even offending, and that can have disastrous repercussions. Professional wisdom and humility would require that you do what you do best and are best equipped to do, and leave the rest to those with the requisite expertise. Why should the psychospiritual care of your families be any different? After all, you don’t entrust embalming or reconstruction to the florist or the hearse driver, do you?

This is the whole purpose of what we do and why we do it.

As a professional interfaith bereavement chaplain, I have spent years studying spirituality. I have covered the literature across cultures and belief traditions. I have established networks of colleagues through retreats, conferences, and continuing education. But more than that, I have assisted hundreds of families in getting through the grief and mourning associated with bereavement, and have helped in the closure and healing through well orchestrated, compassionate, and personalized funeral rituals.

Does your organization offer a holistic funeralization team that provide your families that expertise, and can you provide the whole range of psychospiritual facilitation services either on an on-call or p.r.n. basis, or on a part-time basis on site, at your location. The cost is very reasonable and the benefits to your organization and to your families are immeasurably enduring.

Why not take steps to discuss with a trained bereavement chaplain how you can collaborate and how you can provide professional spiritual care to both your staff and to the families you serve? Why not do that today, now?

If have any questions, please don’t wait another minute before contacting me or a bereavement chaplain near you for ideas on how to establish a partnership to provide your families with the best deathcare and follow-up care possible.

Author Contact:
Rev. Ch. Harold W. Vadney B.A., [MA], MDiv
Interfaith Chaplain / Thanatologist
pastoral.care.harold @ gmail.com
Telephone: (518) 810-2700

 

Like a Wounded Beast…

beast

The Bereaved can be Serenely Grateful or Vicious as a Wounded Beast.

The vast majority of bereaved persons and families, whom I have been blessed and privileged to serve over the years, are serenely grateful for the authenticity, openness, genuine compassion, and care that go into the personalized services I create for them. I consider my professional activities to be more of a vocation, a special calling, than simply a way to make money. A living would be impossible given the time and resources that must go into an effective funeral or memorial service.

Now there’s the new fad, so-called board certification; If all else fails, a certificate will fix it!

I am a professional caregiver. As a professional, I figure that a professional chaplain would have at least a bachelor’s degree, preferably a master’s degree, in a subject like psychology, comparative religion, sociology. The coursework alone for a four-year degree today would probably run something like $40-60,000 at an “average” 4-year college. Unless the chaplain has done studies in religion, comparative religion, psychology of religion, or some theology studies, s/he would be well advised to find a program in religious studies, pastoral studies or theology. Ideally, a master’s degree in one of the study tracks mentioned above would be followed by a couple of units of clinical pastoral education (CPE) in a healthcare facility. Even more ideally, a degree in psychology or sociology plus a degree in theology or divinity would be desirable. Then there’s the continuing professional education in the form of courses, seminars, workshops, webinars, and conferences. None of this comes cheaply; it all costs money. (The final tab for my 3-year graduate studies for the M.Div. was $60,000! And I commuted from home!) Of course, American’s can create a demand ex nihilo: now there’s the new fad, so-called board certification. If all else fails, a certificate will fix it! It’s something the agenda-organizations have cooked up that appeal to the ego of some practitioners, and impresses small minds, like those of human resources departments and the like. My opinion is that if you feel you need to have some organization certify your skills, you’re probably not made of the stuff to be an effective chaplain; you’re too full of yourself and lack self-confidence. You simply don’t have the ‘right stuff.’

A chaplain… is obviously not in it for the money.

But I don’t want to distract you from the point of this article: A chaplain, no matter what his or her speciality, is obviously not in it for the money. And if you’re after kudos and compliments, forget it. Administrators couldn’t care less whether you’re there or you’re not, and would rather just refer you to the “volunteers coordinator” of the facility. Your “best” client may drop you like a hot potato if keeping you means standing up for ethics or principle.

Most of the institutions who really should have a professional chaplain on board don’t. I’m talking about healthcare facilities, nursing homes, rehabilitation facilities, first-responders, even government departments; you’ll likely find persons who would benefit from the presence and availability of a professional chaplain in most any organization. This is especially true of the funeral home and the funeral service business.

buy-the-bookThe biggest obstacle that the professional chaplain has to overcome when approaching any organization is, of course, ignorance and indifference. Even those institutions in which one would clearly expect to find a professional chaplain — not one of those pablum-puking, whispering, sad-faced, constantly half-grinning, hovering, sorrowful types –, and I don’t mean a social worker (God save us!) but a trained person who has a clear understanding of suffering and does not conflate compassion, empathy and understanding, one who has not been trained in the discipline of so-called “detached concern.” Any chaplain or wannabe chaplain reading this who is not competent in the subject matter of suffering or who cannot distinguish compassion from empathy from detached concern, STOP READING! this article and find a training course!

Ask if the funeral home is still family owned or run by a group.

If you’re looking for an ego boost, don’t look for it in a healthcare or nursing facility. Funeral homes are not much better. Most funeral directors will probably size you up for what you can afford and sell you a tad more. Beware of the corporate funeral homes, those funeral corporations that buy up once family-owned traditional funeral homes, keep the name but run the show. These corporate operations may include 5 or ten funeral homes in a local area, or may be interstate or even international. If your family’s been using a particular local family-owned funeral home,  my best advice is to ask if it’s still family owned or run by a group. Another unfortunate result of the American denial-of-death culture is the funeral factories, large operations with very low prices and running on volume of bodies they can process in a year. If it’s dignity you’re looking for, avoid these places like the plague.

All you have to do is die and they’ll do the rest.

Most of these operations will pick up, process, package, and plant or burn on a budget basis, all credit cards accepted, they’ll to the paperwork. All you have to do is die and they’ll do the rest. That’s how far much of the American funeral service has declined in the United States; the rest of the industrialized world isn’t far behind, either, though they’ve kept some of their self-respect and tradition for the most part.

We discard our sick, our old, and our dead…

But the American way of death hasn’t happened in a vacuum. Funeralization and memorialization of our dead kin has not descended to the present level of discarding dead human bodies as if they were household or hazardous waste. No, indeed. Our pitiable emphasis on the individual, “me” and to hell with you, our fascination with our toys and our aversion to anything that distracts us from our toys, especially death, our own or anyone else’s, has become our new morality. We discard our sick, our old, and our dead with the ease and care with which we discard an old phone or a melon past its prime. It’s a sad but true fact.

The majority of funeral service consumers are simply so deprived of any notion of reality or of tradition…

Who’s to blame for this deplorable state of affairs? Well, to be honest: You are! This is not an accusation intended to offend or to wound but it is true that the majority of funeral service consumers are simply so deprived of any notion of reality or of tradition, that they’ll do anything just to avoid the unpleasant business of facing reality, death, and making it disappear as quickly and cleanly as possible. If the pleasant things in life are to be done without thought or concern as dictated by the popular slogan, “Just do it!” Most bereaved today have their own slogan, “Just make it go away!”

Enter cremation, direct burial, and direct cremation. No fuss, no messy wakes, no distraction from the things you really want to be doing. After all, why be a human being today when you can have the memorial party tomorrow, or the next day, or whenever. No self-respect. How can we expect respect or reverence for the dead when there’s none for the living?

He discusses every detail with the family members and requests a maximum in family participation…

With that prologue, I’d like to launch into a contribution by a veteran bereavement chaplain, who is rather well known for his “beautiful” personalized services. This chaplain really goes over the top in establishing a relationship with the family of the person who has died, putting together a unique service for every case, carefully selecting music and readings, even designing a program or creating a memory token, such as a lapel ribbon, for the grieving family members. He discusses every detail with the family members and requests a maximum in family participation such as by reading, participation in ritual actions, etc. His credentials are outstanding. His motto is, “It’s not about me; it’s about you, the family.” So, you’d think this guy would be in such demand he’d be worn out. You’d think that the families and funeral homes he serves would swoon with gratitude. Well, think again.

Getting back to the featured topic…

I chose the title of this article for a very specific reason. The chaplain I described above recently did a rather exceptional job for an unusual family. The chaplain bent over backwards and went to almost extreme lengths to create a memorable service. He did even did this at extremely short notice, having just returned from a conference, because a very dear funeral director friend had recommended him so highly, and the family was in a very unusual situation. I’m going to give the lite version below using initials instead of names, in order to protect the innocent as well as the guilty.

I limit my practice to bereavement chaplaincy and came highly recommended to the family by the funeral director of a local funeral home client, with whom I have been working for several years. Because of the circumstances, which I’ll outline briefly below, the funeral director couldn’t give many details since the death had occurred suddenly on a Thursday, and, because of medicolegal/forensic formalities associated with the nature of the death, the funeral director would not be able to hold the arrangements conference with the family until that Saturday, but had already informed the family that I would be calling. This meant that the first opportunity for me to physically meet or talk to the family would be late on Saturday. It was really tight because the actual service was to take place on the Monday afternoon. This was further complicated by the fact that I was at a grief and loss conference in Boston when I received the request, and would be returning only on that Friday. Nevertheless, the situation was manageable, given the circumstances.

All things considered, the earliest I could interview the family would be on Sunday, after the arrangements conference. I called the family late on Saturday but the telephone interview wasn’t going very well so I offered to make a housecall that Sunday afternoon, and I met with the family. The young widow, MW, the deceased’s father GW, his aunt CW, and his uncle SM, as well as his young son were all present at the family conference. I asked permission to record the meeting so that I could capture all details without having to take distracting notes. The family agreed and for more almost two hours I collected memories, anecdotes, shared photos, and was able to form a reasonably accurate composite image of the deceased. I was very satisfied with the rapport established with the family and the outcome of the meeting.

Immediately upon returning to my office I set to work designing the program, selecting readings and music, etc. In the process, I provided the family contact person with ongoing inputs and copies of what was designed or selected. In other words, the family was kept very informed and updated throughout the process and was completely aware of what was going on. I received the family’s approvals for everything.

At the family meeting, the aunt, CM, a retired physician, and apparently the one running things, mentioned that the service was under time constraints because some persons had to “catch international flights”. I suggested 45-55 minutes for the entire memorial service, and CM thought that was reasonable and approved.

On the day of the service, I met with the family just before the service briefly describe what was going to be done, to answer any questions, and to give some short instructions to the family members participating in the service. Everything was on track, and the service itself went flawlessly. Even the music was on cue!

After the service, the father of the deceased, who, throughout the entire process was understandably emotional at the loss of his only son, approached me saying, “That was over the top. I want you to have this.” A bit taken by surprise, I didn’t really know what to think about the father’s words, “over the top”, and initially didn’t notice that the father was holding out his hand to me. The father continued, “That was over the top. It was very beautiful. Please take this.” The father was attempting to hand I something, apparently several bills, but I gently refused saying that I ‘had been paid by the funeral home,” and “that wasn’t necessary.” After several polite refusals, it was apparent the father really wanted to express his appreciation, and so I accepted the gift–and later shared it with the funeral home staff.

While preparing to leave, the uncle SM, approached I and handed me a check. Again I attempted to politely refuse the apparent “gift”, and — now with the funeral director at my side — saying that I had been paid by the funeral director, who nodded in agreement. Nevertheless, the uncle pressed the check into my hand saying, “Take this little extra, you must have spent a bundle on the food yesterday.” (On the way to the family’s home, I had stopped to pick up Danish and bagels as a gift for the family!). Again, I accepted the gift and was astonished at the uncle’s generosity — or so I thought — and again shared the gift with the funeral home staff.

The funeral home staff felt that I had earned the signs of appreciation, given the circumstances and short notice and the work that went into the service, but I felt that the success and the family’s satisfaction was the result of the “team’s” efforts, not just my contributions.

Leaving the funeral home, I was approached by several of the mourners who thanked me and complimented me on the service. The deceased’s best friend approached with hand extended and the words, “That was a brilliant service.”

I was overwhelmed by the response and exhausted by the effort but I was grateful that everything had gone so smoothly, and that the family and the funeral home were both very pleased.

That was the serenely grateful chapter of the story.

What happened next was the wounded beast chapter: The next day, I received a call from the uncle, SM, who started out by saying that the family was having some money problems. SM then launched into a diatribe saying “I can’t believe you accepted my check and cashed it! You took money from GW, too!” SM then accused I of “causing his wife, CW, hurt” and of having “left out important details from the service.” Dumbfounded and aghast, I explained that I had included everything requested by the family in the service and still kept it within the agreed time. I also noted that it was not my practice to accept gifts in addition to the honorarium paid by the funeral home but did so only because both the deceased’s father, GW, and he, SM, had pressed me to accept, and even recalled to SM the details of the moment. The conversation deteriorated into abuse by SM and I gently terminated the conversation, saying I would gladly return the gift made by SM.

Because of the bizarre and extraordinary nature of the call, I immediately called the funeral director to advise him of SM’s call. The funeral director was almost speechless and very, very apologetic. He was very supportive and told me that he had not heard from the family, and thought everything had gone excellently. The funeral director apologized profusely for the experience repeated that he had heard nothing from the family.

A day or two later I contacted the funeral director to follow up on SM’s call, and the funeral director confirmed that he had received a call from SM on the day after I reported the call from SM, and that SM was still rather unhappy.

I noted that the deceased’s next of kin was the father, GW, and the father’s sister, CW, apparently took control of the arrangements to take the burden off of the father. SM was aunt’s husband, an uncle by marriage to the deceased, and really had no standing whatsoever to get involved, since his relationship to the deceased was somewhat remote in kinship and legal terms. I and the funeral director had not heard from the widow, the father or even the aunt! I wondered if SM had gotten into trouble with his wife for being generous, and needed an excuse. Certainly, if he was having financial difficulties and had been honest and said so, the entire incident would have taken a different turn, but was he being dishonest and seeking a scapegoat? Whatever! It didn’t matter at this point.

The funeral director and I agreed that I would write a letter regretting SM’s reaction and offering to discuss the concerns privately. In addition, I requested the funeral director to respond to SM in a letter, and to return SM’s gift to him on my behalf. I expressly asked the funeral director not to mention the incident to the rest of the staff, with whom I had shared the gifts, in order not to embarrass them. For me, at least, it wasn’t a matter of money.

Some time later it was revealed that I had self-disclosed by way of simple conversation during one of the breaks in the family meeting that I, too, was involved in an earlier career in similar fields as the aunt, CM, a physician, and the father, GW, a medical device developer. The uncle, SM, was a non – medical department head in a hospital laboratory; all were retired. One of these had done a sort of background check on me and couldn’t verify my disclosures, scant and vague as they were, not to mention the fact that the events went back more than 25 years! SM even went so far as to impugn my religious affiliations (it was actually at this point the I had heard enough and had respectfully terminated the conversation). Enough was enough. The service was flawless and our conclusion was that SM, or his wife, CW, had reconsidered their “generosity” and needed some way to get their money back. Apparently, the best way to do that was to go after the service and me. So what if the grounds were insubstantial and had nothing to do with the service? They alleged having some “cash difficulties” and reconsidered their generosity. Had they simply said they couldn’t afford the gift and would appreciate it if I had returned it, there would have been no problem whatsoever. I did so even without having been asked.

So why all the pretense? Why, after having been so impressed and happy with the service did this family member make a 180 degree turnaround and attack me 24 hours later? Why was it so important to cook up something just to get $150 back that was initially apparently given in gratitude, despite my several refusals, and even when the funeral director was present and confirmed my affirmation that I had been paid? And Why? when handing I the gift, did SM make the remark about the “food” I had brought. That made the story SM had concocted in the attempt to justify his conduct even more bizarre.

I did not have much to say about this except that I was incredibly hurt by the entire incident. I did what was necessary and more, the family and other mourners were clearly delighted, the family participated, the family had shown their appreciation. So Why? I asked, did they feel they had to go to such lengths concocting such a fiction just to recover their gift. What’s more — and in line with my character — I was more concerned for the impression and effect that SM’s conduct would have on the young widow and her impressions. Overall, I felt that SM’s conduct was spurious and inconsiderate; it was insensitive and devoid of any compassion for the immediate family.

I concluded that this was a manifestation of a grief reaction, and chose to reflect on it, journal it, and let it go. At this time the residual effects are not clear, and time will tell whether SM’s conduct will adversely affect my relationship with this or other client funeral homes. The lessons learned are complex and compound, as will be the ramifications of the incident. What I can say is that neither the funeral director nor I have received a response to our letters. Is that the end of the matter?”

Editor’s Commentary

Those of us in pastoral care, and who invest a big part of ourselves in relieving suffering, can commiserate with this chaplain and with the funeral director as well. We can appreciate the chaplain’s concern not for himself but for the funeral director, who also put his heart and soul into serving this family, and most of all for the young widow and her son, now suddenly without a life-partner and without a father! Fortunate indeed are those of us who have not been made to suffer unjustly like this chaplain. But all things considered, we can reflect on the chaplain’s response to our inquiry:

“It had to happen some day. You can’t serve as many families as I do over time and not expect one to really knock your socks off. You can’t do this work and have your head in the clouds and expect to shine in everyone’s eyes. You have the gentle grateful lambs and you have the wounded beasts who lash out at anyone. That’s grief; that’s how some people are. You have to live in hope, not expectation.”

Bravo, Chaplain!

Internet ambush is not uncommon these days…Enter

cybersniper

Those are heroic words now but what if SM’s conduct adversely affects the chaplain’s relationships with client funeral homes or his reputation overall? What if SM went beyond just calling the chaplain and then calling the funeral director? Internet ambush is not uncommon these days and can have a devastating effect on one’s life’s work. But how would the chaplain know? What would he be able to do?

This incident drives home the unfortunate fact that grief can make beasts of even the most refined people. According to our information, the principal characters in this vignette are all professional, well-educated persons. True, they are retired, but given their backgrounds certainly are not impoverished. On further inquiry we learned that they live in a rather upscale suburban neighborhood, travel frequently to Europe, Turkey, where the young man lived with his wife and son. The deceased and his wife and son were here for a reunion of friends, when he unexpectedly died. The aunt had already allegedly announced we are “spiritual but not religious; we believe in God but not organized religion.” That’s a statement we often hear and it’s not a problem. What was important is that they wanted a spiritual service for the deceased. What we didn’t mention in the narrative above was that the wife is Turkish and culturally Muslim. There were, according to the chaplain, a variety of faith traditions in the assembly, including at lease one Orthodox Jew. According to the chaplain, he attempted to respect all faith traditions present, and even opened the service with a Muslim reading accompanied by traditional Turkish flute music. Noting the presence of the Orthodox Jew in the assembly, the chaplain remarked that he on-the-fly edited out of his prayers and homily any direct reference to Jesus Christ or the Trinity, and substituted “Lord” or “God” to keep it within acceptable parameters and inclusive.

We also agree that SM’s conduct was the ultimate in bad taste and totally insensitive. There were apparently a number of family system background issues that could have incited this unusual and unfortunate behavior, and we should all be on alert for any such red flags during the family meeting. Let’s not forget our training in human development and let’s keep in mind that what happens in childhood may have ramifications in adulthood. The chaplain mentioned SM’s childhood experiences in the RC tradition, and his wife, CW, actually referred to him as a “recovering Catholic.” Was there an element of anticlericalism at work? Let’s also not forget that some of our clients have lived a life in the culture of Cartesian dualities, like this family, and we, as helpers, have to recognize their limitations, while responding with biopsychocultural sensitivity and deep spirituality.

Given the information we have on the family system and the background of this family, we cannot discount the possibility of a fractured assumptive worldview, which may have arisen painfully to the conscious level simply in virtue of the narratives that were shared in the course of the family conference. That fractured assumptive worldview may have been aggravated by the composition of the memorial service and its liturgical elements, as well as by the content of the homily, which revisited some of the narratives of the family conference. The fractured assumptive world view compounded by the tangible and intangible (symbolic) losses may have taken SM over the edge, so to speak.

We are sometimes the authors of our own misfortune. This may be the case with the chaplain. First of all, self-disclosure is appropriate only when and if it is for the good of the client. Unless I missed something in the telling, the chaplain self-disclosed inappropriately. His past career had nothing to do with his role as chaplain to this family. In all fairness, though, and emphasizing that the chaplain’s past careers or history had nothing to do with his role as chaplain, the question does arise as to the truth or the motivation of the family in doing what is tantamount to a background check. That sort of behavior under the circumstances is plainly bizarre and certainly raises questions regarding the family’s priorities. If they were so bereaved under the circumstances and given the time constraints in this case, who on earth would have the time or the energy to do any checking? Why? What would be the motivation? How on earth did the focus move so acutely from the deceased to the chaplain? Such behavior is strange to say the least. But, again, the chaplain should have known better not to have self-disclosed. Period.

The chaplain played by the book in most of the encounter.

play_by_the_rulesAnother point I’d like to make regards the axiom that even otherwise rational people can behave irrationally in an irrational situation. We can all agree that the sudden loss of an only son in the prime of his life is traumatic and tragic in human terms. SM, the deceased’s uncle by marriage to  CM, the deceased’s paternal aunt, were childless and according to information provided by the chaplain, had doted on the deceased. With the death of their nephew, and under such conditions we are clearly dealing with an irrational situation and with a family that may not be playing with a full deck. We are constantly teaching that no big decisions should be made in an acute grief situation. Some people should even avoid making small decisions that may run counter to their day-to-day character. Obviously, the chaplain played by the book in most of the encounter. And it’s not uncommon for a family to offer a “little extra” to the officiant when they feel that the job was well done. Under the circumstances, I can’t fault the chaplain because he did refuse the gifts, until it likely became embarrassing to continue to do so. But it wasn’t out of greed, since he proceeded to share the gift with the other staff! While I am not one prone to making excuses, and the chaplain did handle the situation appropriately, whether he felt that the family was genuinely appreciative [and could afford it], that he had put in such an effort he appreciated the recognition, or he was simply too exhausted to put up a bigger fight all can play into the discussion. The bottom line is this: both the father GW and the uncle, SM, felt that the service was well done, even “over the top,” as the father said. The response of the mourners was also very positive. Accordingly, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that the chaplain’s performance or the service was unsatisfactory in any way whatsoever. Given the facts, the comments allegedly made by SM that the service failed in some way is, at best, a ruse.

Bereavement… is irrational and those affected by the death behave irrationally

shizoid1Again, bereavement, especially in an event of untimely death, is irrational and those affected by the death behave irrationally, that’s why our role as level-headed professionals is so important. But if we forget that the bereaved may be irrational in both their thinking and their actions, we are asking for trouble. If we don’t keep in mind that the bereaved can be thinking or acting one way now and do a complete 180 in a New York minute, we are asking for trouble. If we stop expecting the unexpected, we are asking for trouble. Again, the chaplain handled the situation appropriately prima faciae. He could have played tit-for-tat and the situation would have likely become inflammatory, even explosive. Everyone would have suffered. The chaplain responded appropriately. If SM chooses not to acknowledge that or to respond, that’s SM’s choice to burn bridges. If SM hasn’t yet responded it would be unfair to fault him; he may yet respond more sensitively when the time is right.

When a family member attempts to hand me a cash gift after a service…I will usually thank them very graciously for their generosity but decline it.

I personally feel very uncomfortable when a family member attempts to hand me a cash gift after a service. I do realize that they can be very insistent to the point of being embarrassing but I also recognize that it’s their only real way of expressing their gratitude. When it gets to that point I will usually thank them very graciously for their generosity but decline it; instead and in order not to appear arrogant or ungrateful, I tell them that I would really appreciate a card when things simmer down or a letter of appreciation to the funeral home for the service. That usually works, although sometimes the card or the letter never comes. But that’s all right, too. I’ll likely follow up with a card or a letter in a month’s time or at the holidays, anyway.

business-ethics-code-of-conductWe all should adopt a professional code of ethics…and stick to it.

Finally, we all should adopt a professional code of ethics. I use the ADEC code of conduct. As to self-disclosure, I use the APA guidelines. I also recommend that if you are providing services like the chaplain, that you have a personal policy regarding gratuities and either address that during the family conference or ensure that the funeral director mentions that you do not accept gratuities. And if you have a policy, stick to it.

We have to have the awareness and wherewithal to recognize the red flags

No matter how well or how badly the mourners behave, we are not there to judge. If we can’t handle the situation perhaps we shouldn’t be in it. Realistically, we find ourselves in infinitely complex situations, every one of which is unique, and we have to have the skills to cope with each and every one of them if we are to avoid doing ourselves and our clients a disservice. We have to have the awareness and wherewithal to recognize the red flags and to adjust our approach accordingly. We have to be constantly vigilant at all stages of the relationship; we need to identify and respond to very subtle verbal and non-verbal communications. We need to read the symbolic language accurately. My rule of thumb is to hear the question behind every statement and the statement being made with every question. But most of all, be authentic, sincere, gentle, and sensitively compassionate. Whatever you may be or have been in the past, you are in this moment the chaplain. That’s all. So in your chaplaincy be in the moment and make sure it’s all about the family and no one else.

May you all be passed by unnoticed and unwounded by the SM’s of the world; if you happen to cross the path of an SM, follow the example of our chaplain above. Your character will be your best response; SM will likely not be swayed by your wisdom; like a wounded beast he will strike out at the most vulnerable.

Good work, Chaplain, you did well. Learn from the experience and drive on.

Peace and blessings!
Rev. Ch. Harold Vadney
Interfaith Chaplain/Thanatologist

Post scriptum:
The chaplain wrote back to let us know that the funeral director was a true champion in the face of this crisis, and was very supportive of the chaplain. In fact, as a sign of solidarity, the funeral director sent the chaplain this short prayer, which we would like to share with our readers (with the chaplain’s consent):roys-prayer

 

 

 

 

New Blog Feature: Articles and Essays

Death Awareness & Education

Death Awareness & Education

Check out the new feature called Articles & Essays. I’m posting my articles and essays for readers who want to read them online or download them.

Try it out and let me know what you think!

Peace and blessings!
Rev. Ch. Harold