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Hospice Book Reviews

The Summer of the Great-Grandmother by Madeleine L'Engle

At Crosswicks, L'Engle's home in rural Connecticut, four generations have come together as usual for stays of various lengths of time in summer.  The youngest are Madeleine's granddaughters, ages 4 and 2.  The oldest is Madeleine's mother who is deep into the absence of dementia.

In this memoir, Madeleine taps both her journal of reflections from that summer and her store of her own memories as well as those her mother has shared over the years.  How have the lives of these four generations been formed or influenced by the generations that preceded them?  Where is the essence, the ousia, of her vivacious, adventuresome mother?  How can she possibly pray for the death of this one who has been an unfailing source of support and love in her life?

L'Engle describes her story as one with a double helix.  She has tried to draw objectively on her mother's history, yet because of the biological connection she recognizes her subjectivity even in her choice of material.  This is a fascinating reflection on a light-filled life as the one who lived it slips deeper into darkness.

The final chapters are L'Engle's reflections on how we memorialize a life and mourn/mark death.  These were, for me, the most instructive chapters--a great reminder of how insensitive we can be in our funereal traditions. 

The End

(2004) HBO Cinemax Documentary Films, Produced by Kirby Dick

The documentary followed the end-of-life for five patients as they received terminal diagnoses and entered into Hospice Care.

The film chronicles the live of five patients (as young as age 19) as they enter Hospice Care. Family discussions, arguments, hopes, struggles, and dreams are captured on film. A very candid look into these peoples' lives as they grapple with their pending deaths. Family members honestly and openly share their feelings, stories, and perspectives throughout, including DNR decisions and other events on film. Hospice workers discuss their experiences with various patients and how they are affected.

The movie reinforced for me (Hospice Volunteer) that each individual and family are unique. Patients will have unique needs at the end-of-life and will (or won't) work through varied issues and concerns as they try to figure out how to let go or resist and try to hang on. Families will struggles, be unwilling to let go, or will try to do their best. This movie reinforced for me that what is best is that the dying patient really wants to have happen- not what anyone else thinks is best.

Benediction by Kent Haruf

"I would highly recommend this book to you and the Hospice Volunteers. It is about an elderly man in Colorado dying from caner who is on Hospice Care. It is a touching story about the importance of community and family ties. It deftly portrays his attempts to resolve conflicted relationships and unfinished business and to say his goodbyes."

Reviewed by a Hospice Volunteer

Conversations on the Edge (narratives of ethics and illness) by Richard M. Zaner

"At the edge of mortality there is a place where the seriously ill or dying wait - a place where they may often feel vulnerable or alone. For over forty years, bioethicist cum philosopher Richard Zaner has been at the side of many of those people offering his incalculable gift of listening, and helping to lighten their burdens - not only with his considerable skill, but with his humanity as well. The narratives Zaner shares are informed by his depth of knowledge in medicine and bioethics, but are never clinical. These stories are filled with pain and joy, loneliness and hope. They are about life and death, about what happens in hospital rooms - and that place at the edge - where we confort mortality.  It is the rarest of glimpses into the world of patients, their families, healers, and those who struggle to understand."

Reviewed by a Hospice Volunteer

The Understanding Your Grief - Support Group Guide

"This book is for caregivers who want to start and lead an effective grief support group for adults. It explains how to get a group started and how to keep it running smoothly once it's underway.  The group leader's roles and responsibilities are explored in detail, including communications skills, trust building, and handling problems."

Reviewed by a Hospice Volunteer

Remembering Well - Rituals for Celebrating Life and Mourning Death by Sarah York.

"For centuries, religious traditions have provided society with rituals for expressing such feelings and finding peace. But for many people today, those rituals have become empty, awkward, or irrelevant. 'Remembering Well' offers family members, clergy, funeral professionals, and hospice workers way to plan services and rituals that honor the spirit of the deceased and are faithful to that person's values and beliefs, while also respecting the needs and wishes of those who will attend the services.  It is an essential resource for anyone who yearns to put death in a spiritual context but is unsure how to do so - including both those who have broken with tradition and those who wish to give new meaning to the time-honored rituals of their faith."

Reviewed by a Hospice Volunteer

Here If You Need Me by Kate Braestrap. 

"As a mother of four and wife to Maine state trooper Drew Griffith, Kate Braestrap was leading a happy life as a mother, wife, and writer. Drew's dream was to go to school to become a Unitarian minister when he retired.  Suddenly Kate becomes a widow, then decides to pursue his dream.  Ordained, she becomes the first chaplain for the Maine Warden Service.

Tough minded and tender hearted, she tells both the stories of her grief and that of her children as she builds a new life as a single parent. In pithy often wryly humorous prose, she shares her work with the wardens and the people they serve in crisis.

For the Hospice volunteer this book is several things: an insight into grieving, a spiritual memoire, and especially a lesson in skillful listening/being present to those in crisis. I shared it with my brother-in-law and sister (ordained ministers) who made it required reading for the seminary students they mentor."

Reviewed by a Hospice Volunteer

Learning to Fall The Blessings of an Imperfect Life by Philip Simmons

"Philip Simmons was associate Professor of English at Lake Forest College in Illinois, where he taught literature and creative writing for nine years before being disabled by Lou Gehrig's disease at age thirty-five. He returned then to his much loved boyhood Town in New Hampshire. There he, his wife, and very young children could be aided by his parents.

Simmons acknowledges that people bring their own contexts, their particular needs, gifts and sensibilities to the work of learning to live richly in the face of loss.  That work he names "learning to fall". In twelve beautifully crafted essays he charts a ten year search for peace and fullness of life.  His writing is earthy, amusing, tough, poetic. Whether he is describing chaos in his household, meditating on poetry, quoting mystics, or commenting on the foibles of a small New England town, he remains full of compassion for himself and others. Always, his is a joyful affirmation of life.

I read this book twice in a month, gave it as a gift to three friends, and now keep it by my reading chair to pick up from time to time. It calls me to be present to the daily "isness" of my life. It has encouraged me to delight in small things, to affirm the goodness of life - especially now that I am for a third time the primary Hospice person for a dearly loved family member. I am beginning to understand Simmons quote from Wallace Steven's poem "No Possum, No Sop, No Taters": It is here, in that bad, that we reach/The last purity of the knowledge of good."

**Note for Hospice Volunteers - There is a 77 minute documentary feature film available on VHS and DVD (Beiter/Lazar Productions, Inc. 2004) www.themanwholearnedtofall.com. It offers an intimate portrait of Phil and his family and the odyssey they shared over the final months of his life.

Reviewed by a Hospice Volunteer

Meetings at the Edge Dialogues with the Grieving and the Dying, the Healing and the Healed by Stephen Levine

"From 1979-82 Stephen Levine and his wife offered, through the Dying Project, a free phone consultation for the "terminally ill and those working closely with death". The couples twenty year training had been primarily in Buddhist psychology and meditation. They had also integrated many other forms into their work: use of mantras, visualizations, devotional practices of Christian, Sufi, and Hindu traditions. What they provided was basically spiritual counseling rather than therapy. Clients were largely self-referred, although some were recommended by their physicians or counselors. Most of Levine's book comes out of their recorded sharings on the "dying phone".

For the Levines ,this work was intuitive. Instead of specific techniques they depended on the "Braille method" of feeling their way along moment to moment with a trust in that shared moment. They shared investigations of the mind, but they emphasized encouraging the heart as the medium of communication. Frequently, meditations were used to get at the cause of suffering, to help people accept suffering in compassion and self-mercy.

I have read this book with profound admiration for the skillful, compassionate work of this couple. It is for all of us, not just the dying. It takes us to the edges of our own unexamined parts of our lives. I am often a head person, but the call to become more heart centered resonated with me. I have read this book within a week of learning my father is dying of cancer and has become a Hospice patient. Over and over, the Levine's meditations with and  encouragement of people to be gently compassionate with themselves has helped me to live into accepting that any way a person chooses to die reflects their own special being. Thank you Levines."

Reviewed by a Hospice Volunteer

The End of Your Life Book Club By Will Sahwalbe

This book is a very good story about a woman living for two years with pancreatic cancer while she is also preparing for her death.

It is an inspiring story of a son and his dying mother who form a "book club" which brings them together as her life comes to a close. It is a profoundly moving tale of loss but also a story that is joyful, often humorous and a celebration of life.

The book reminded me of the importance of showing compassion and respect for the dying.

Reviewed by a Hospice Volunteer


 
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