When you get to be of a certain age, it’s likely you’ve crossed paths with a hospital or hospice chaplain. Maybe your parents are older or they’re already gone or you’ve met with one yourself. Rabbi Lori Shaller is the interfaith chaplain for Hospice of Martha’s Vineyard, a position she considers a privilege.
“I think that the process of dying is like the process of birthing — unique to each person,” Rabbi Shaller said while we had coffee at Waterside Market last Friday.
Not only does she support the person in the midst of the process of leaving friends and family behind, but she is also there to support those families and friends.
I asked her to sum up what she does in one sentence: “I create a safe space for people to be where they are in the moment, without judgment or expectations, so they can do the work of dying or grieving that they need to do.”
Rabbi Shaller explained that the people she serves could be at any stage in dealing with end-of-life issues. Some people haven’t thought a lot about what happens when they are dying, others, she said, have some pretty strong ideas about what happens.
“Some people are interested in exploring with me what happens. Sometimes they’re informed by their religious upbringing and other times by things they’ve come to later in their lives,” she said. “My job is to be with them where they are and support the work that they are interested in and willing to do at that point in their lives.”
Unburdening themselves about things they’ve felt bad about for years often comes up, she said. They may be in denial, angry, or depressed. And because there are a number of ‘washashores’ on the Island, many times their friends have become their family. In general, she said, most people find it a challenge to deal with those who are dying. They don’t know what to say or do.
In the Jewish tradition, Rabbi Shaller said, there’s something called “sitting Shiva,” where friends and family console the bereaved for the traditional seven days of mourning. They sit with the grieving, sometimes talking about the person who died, sharing stories and remembering the life of the deceased. And sometimes no words are spoken at all.
“As friends we don’t know what to say when we’re sitting with someone who is dying or who has suffered a loss,” Rabbi Shaller said. “Actually, we don’t need to say anything. The thing is to make space for what the mourner may want to say … sit next to the person and not necessarily speak, but wait for the mourner to speak.”
And even though her own faith tradition is Jewish, she doesn’t go into her role as chaplain with any specific religious affiliation in mind; only the opportunity to provide comfort on whatever level is needed.
Another thing we talked about was the fear that’s sometimes associated with chaplains. I remember when my own parents were sick and dying, whenever we spoke about a chaplain I automatically thought “This is it. This is the end.”
“A lot of people aren’t really sure what a chaplain does,” Rabbi Shaller told me. “Some people think ‘Oh my God, I must be dying.’ And they may have expectations — but religious or spiritually, I have no expectations.”
She’s on call for the families and the patients, and not all of them request a chaplain. For those who do, she sits with people and opens up a space for them to speak about what’s in their heart. Sometimes she may take a walk with someone, read to them, or talk about what they were like before they got sick.
Rabbi Shaller said that this loss they’re going through will likely touch upon other losses they’ve experienced.
“They’ll all come flooding back and the amount of grief may feel disproportionate because they’re still dealing with past grief,” she explained.
At Hospice of Martha’s Vineyard, executive director Tom Hallahan said that they’re fortunate to have Rabbi Shaller. ”She serves as chaplain to our patients, but she is also here for our staff as well, including myself!” Mr. Hallahan said. “Lori has such a calm and appreciative way about her. She is reflective and non-judgmental. In our daily hospice lives, we can find ourselves running here and there, trying to address emergencies as they present themselves. Lori has taught us to take a moment, to catch our breath and to acknowledge the good work that we do. We are so blessed to have her.”
Hospice of Martha’s Vineyard doesn’t bill its patients or insurance companies. While their hospice census grew by 50 percent last year, the bereavement services have increased by 100 percent over the last four years, Mr. Hallahan said. They’ve hired an extra nurse and they’d like to add another bereavement counselor, and any financial support would be accepted with appreciation. Visit hospiceofmv.org for more information and to find out how you can support their work.
Besides her obligations as a hospice chaplain, Rabbi Shaller also happens to be offering a series of classes on spiritual eldering beginning Oct. 19 at 6:30 pm at the Unitarian Universalist Society in Vineyard Haven. She’ll talk with you about the future you’d like to make for yourself and the legacy you’d like to leave behind, among other things. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 774-521-5717 to sign up for the series.
Grace Episcopal Church in Vineyard Haven will host a special remembrance service for Father Brian Murdoch on the one year anniversary of his death on Sunday, Oct. 15, at the 10 am service. To honor Father Brian, the St. Francis window that hangs in the parish hall will be dedicated to his memory. The window itself was much loved by Father Brian, who had it restored and framed for the blessing of the animals in 2016, just days before his unexpected passing. The window depicts the legend of St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio, a powerful story of coming to peace. The window will remain hanging in the parish hall where it will serve as a remembrance of Father Brian’s spirit, his simple joy for life, and his love for everyone.
“We will remember Brian in the midst of where many of the Grace community began their year of mourning — our service of holy Eucharist. The word Eucharist means thanksgiving, a great thanksgiving. And in the midst of it, we are taught by Jesus to remember deeply,” said the Rev. Susan Eibner, interim pastor at Grace Church.
She said the congregation will use the second of Matthew’s beatitudes, blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted, to gather together.
Children will lead a special walk to the church’s memorial garden where flowers will be placed and there will be an opportunity to tell stories about Father Brian’s life. Coffee and fellowship follow the service.
Also in keeping with St. Francis’ love of nature, the congregation of Grace Church invites all ages to a Prayer Hike at Cedar Tree Neck on Saturday, Oct. 14, at 9:30 am. For more information, call 508-693-0332.
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