From the smoking granny who asks to die before the family arrives, to the ranting pedophile scared to death of the End: this and more when memory artist Nancy Gershman talks with Hollie Laudal, improv actor and chaplain by training since she was 26 years old. Today, Hollie teaches improv as a mindfulness practice in the Denver area. Read about Hollie here.Youngsters questioning death become chaplains, comedians or both Scheduling a death without an audience present Dealing with “I’ve ceased to exist” vs. “I’m ready to “let go” Let patients speak freely about their expiration date Telling the dying to let go is not bad manners Certain chaplains prefer the crowd at funerals vs. weddings How a chaplain can calm dying people driven mad by their sins If the clear voice in your head is not always your own Don’t dumb down dying to a dying child People with a dark side die differently from the rest of us Playful (private) rituals to help with rough patches of grief Your To Do List
“I always just felt a really strong pull working with the dying. Even when I was a kid for years I would talk about death, and ask my parents questions like, “What do you mean? Where will I go when I die?” They sent me to a shrink when I was 6, and then were told that “she’s fine; just curious.” I still always felt like an oddball in my family –but with friends, too. Whenever there’d be a sleepover, I’d be the kid, awake, asking “Is there a god?” and they’d be thinking, “What is wrong with Hollie?”
So naturally I majored in physics and philosophy where I could explore what is this place called “here,” and how transient and magical it is. Church (which was Lutheran at the time] I found pathetic. During services, I’d be thinking, Even God is yawning.
As far as my work in hospice goes, there’s something in those moments with my patients that are really tragic and huge, yet warrant some sort of laughter or cosmic comedy. That’s why after I quit hospice, I got into improv acting and then wrote a play. Comedic writing and acting are cathartic because they release all the emotional weight I’ve picked up from hospice work.”
“Around the time I was working for hospice I had a patient who was this little skinny smoker; a peanut of a lady, 60 years old. She had lung cancer, wouldn’t quit smoking and sung a lot of Johnny Cash. I’d bring my guitar and she’d wail away. One day I got a strong sense to go see her and there she was, sitting in her recliner, looking kind of grey. I said, “Hello” and she replies, without missing a beat, “I don’t want my family to see me die.” (I personally believe people probably have more control over this than they think.) So I ask when her family is coming. “At 10:00.” By this point , it’s already 9:20 a.m.
Now, the typical signs of imminent death are that the patient doesn’t eat anymore; their skin starts to mottle; blood pools into their hands … but this patient, I learn, has eaten breakfast that morning!
I look down at her holding that cigarette, and ask, “You want to die now?” and she nods. The craziest thing! Here we were; what normally happens over several days will happen in the next 20 minutes …
I run and get the nurse in the hallway and the two of us pick up her up and lay her in her bed. We sing to her and pray for her. As her breaths become more shallow, she just slips away. You could feel the room become so charged with her presence. I’ve noticed this with a lot of people – the room becomes like a vacuum; you can hear a pin drop. All your thoughts start to dissolve and it’s really easy to stay present. It reminds me of being on a meditation retreat. After a few days your mind kind of gives in to the pregnant silence. It happens by itself, when people are close to death.“
“Do people hang on? Women more than men, I find—or more specifically, the caregiving types. These patients just have the sense that they don’t want the people who love them to suffer. So they hang on until someone they feel especially close to tells them that it’s ok to go.
As far as how to tell them it’s ok “to go” – I don’t have any particular formulas. I think I said one time, “You know there’s nothing shameful about dying. God loves you. He knows your body is tired.” I can remember the patient’s somber face; he got tears in his eyes. I think he was feeling guilt of some sort. I could see he was a man who strongly identified with the work he did and when he no longer had a doing purpose and only a being purpose, he just felt he wasn’t deserving of life.
Another guy I cared for was a craftsman. When his hands started to shake, his whole purpose in life was gone, along with his sense of control. He completely identified with working with his hands. Basically, he felt he didn’t exist anymore.”
“I think the one thing that would help the letting go of a dying patient is if the people in the room would openly talk about death. It’s the elephant in the room. The adult children in the room are arguing about medication and painkillers, but there is the patient — wheezing, exhausted and only vaguely paying attention. I often jump in and ask the patient, “Is there anything you need to say?” and the patient will surprise the family completely with something like, “I’m dying, you know!”
After that, people in the room meet the patient at their level. The family gets over all those anxious worries; starts crying; and most everyone feels better after that.”
“After doing this work for a while, you get a sense for how people might die. Some will hold on till the end and die very quickly. Others have an easier time letting go and will let their family take care of them, no problem, even when their bodies are falling apart.
It’s ironic, really, that people who work in hospice are often the ones that have the hardest time letting go, because we are the ones who help others let go, not ourselves. That’s our existential identity. Death is more about ego identity than the body. Especially when you’ve spent 99.9% of your professional life helping people with pain—how can you let others take care of you now? That’s not your ego’s way!
It’s tricky, but I think often the proper way to approach the topic is for the chaplain to talk with the whole family. Everybody may be on board to let the patient go, but once alone with the patient, they’re afraid to be the first ones to say it. But definitely, there is tremendous peace when a family member rouses up the courage to speak from the heart, telling their loved one that it’s ok for them to go. It’s your heart saying goodbye.”
“I’ve done a wedding before, and probably hundreds of funerals. And honestly, I’d rather officiate at a funeral than a wedding any day. I’m just not one to enjoy events where there is pretense going on. People at a funeral actually surrender to the moment, and let go. But in a wedding, there’s pressure, and often there’s unreasonable hope. Well, for one, that’s because it’s more future-oriented. There’s gossip about whether the marriage will really work, or whether So-and-So looks good enough to be the bride … Whereas at funerals, people just think I’m giving myself permission to be fully human and they go and grieve.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want everyone to just go and die so we can have more funerals. But for me, when I’m at a funeral, the world stops a bit, in a good way.
When I was eight, Tweety, my parakeet died. I came home from school one day and he was hanging upside down in his cage, like a pendulum. His talons had locked: rigor mortis. He must have died standing up, and then rotated 180 degrees, face down. That’s what I mean about the absurdity of this whole life-and-death thing—part of that experience was just plain comical; part of it was very sad for me.
I did a funeral for Tweety. I buried him in a Whitman’s chocolate sampler box with a rose and a napkin, and invited a bunch of neighbors over. I even had flyers. We had a nice service and we buried him in our backyard.”
“I once was ministering to a man dying of lung cancer who was a pedophile and very tormented by his past. He was only in his 40s. His sister warned me that he was a very erratic character. So I went and saw him, and he was on his bed, raving about how he didn’t want any drugs that might have made him more comfortable. I remember walking in that day, having been in a crummy mood myself but somehow I managed to put myself aside at that moment.
I began by introducing myself. “I’m Hollie, the chaplain, and I’m just going to sit here.” He continued raving. “I’m so scared, so scared,” he kept repeating. “I’m so bad, bad, bad” and then I saw he was starting to chill out a little. At that point, I put my hand on his hand and he looked up. I asked him, “Is there anywhere in your body that feels safe right now?” And he answered, “I feel God in the left side of my body.” I said, “Can you put your hands there?” and he put his hands there, on his ribs. I asked, “Is God saying anything to you?” But this time, he didn’t answer.
When he had calmed down completely I told him, “I think God loves you, no matter what.” That was my way of saying: you can forgive yourself. And so there was forgiveness, without us ever having to talk explicitly about his past. When someone is so scared about forgiving themselves for who they are – as in this case, a pedophile – I find that when they get past that, death doesn’t seem as scary anymore.”
“I saw my first ghost when I was 15. That was pretty scary. I can remember not wanting to relate to it. But today, I have a relationship with the unseen world, and whether or not the unseen world is “real” or not, I find that this connection helps me to do my work and to surrender, and it certainly isn’t harming anyone to have this connection. Sometimes there’s a message that needs to be communicated. It comes to me, behind the curtain; someplace I can’t see and I’ll do that. For example, I see one widow every two weeks to tell her anything new I’ve heard from her husband Ben, who comes and “visits” me.
I don’t have a belief system about the afterlife. My sense is that reincarnation is probably how things go, but I’m not attached to it and I wouldn’t adopt it as a dogma. I’m interested in the world behind this world. But I don’t actually know. What I do know is that every day, I hear someone else’s clear voice in my head. Is it “real”? Well, have you ever done a shamanic journey? It’s kind of like entering a dream state, except you’re awake. Visions come, and messages arrive, just as in a dream that you really feel is communicating something to you. In the case of Ben, he comes to me as a hawk. His wife is a birdwatcher so it seems to be a way he connects to her. His messages are something like, “Tell her this” and “Tell her that,” but it’s more me just sensing something.”
“A nurse I worked with, she had a new, 7 year-old hospice patient on her floor. While he was up in the room, the nurse was down in the lobby, talking to the child’s parents. Keep in mind, she hadn’t met either the parents or the child yet. And the parents say to her, “When you go up there, to our son, don’t talk about the fact he’s dying. Just talk about life.”
The nurse goes up to his room, and the boy, who finally sees he has time alone with the nurse, whispers in her ear, “Don’t tell my parents I’m dying.” Of course, he knew. It seems kids know that kind of stuff.”
“Sometimes I saw patients with a dark side to their personality, and there’s no witness to what they have done – except maybe their partner, or closest family. On the outside, they look like goodness incarnate, but then you discover that they have these skeletons in their closets.
There was a woman I ministered to once in hospice, who was very philanthropic. She started soup kitchens in Denver after seeing a man digging in a dumpster. She basically said “That ain’t right!” and then became famous locally doing something about it. Well, I got to know her only daughter and this young woman told me privately that her mother “used to beat the shit out of me.” Physically and emotionally. Was she projecting parts of her worthless self on her daughter? Who knows. I sensed how her daughter must have struggled so much making sense of it all, sitting with her mom as she lay dying, with visitors coming and going, saying stuff like “Isn’t she amazing? “ and “Look at all she did.” And this daughter never told anybody. I think I told her at the time, “It’s not your fault.” I encouraged her to go see a therapist.
What’s really interesting is that this woman knew her daughter wouldn’t talk about the abuse. By the time the mother was in hospice, the mother wasn’t talking anymore, and she also wasn’t eating or drinking anymore. We would say, “She gave so much of herself, maybe she doesn’t need any sustenance.” It was almost a joke. There would be all the signs of dying – with her skin looking mottled; the space between each of her breaths becoming sparser. But 28 days, nothing to eat or to drink!
We’d wonder: Is she going to die today?? Was it her way of punishing herself? Or was her metabolism just slowed down that much …?”
“Here are my favorites:
- Become a character as a playful way to deal with the hard time you’re having with something. It’s really fun and it works. I have this one Southern character I do with a very over-the-top accent. I’ll say out loud in my little orange-colored Honda hatchback things like: “Cain’t seem to let go! Cain’t seem to do it!”
I have another character who is more serious and represents my deepest feminine nature. I picture myself in this all-white flowy, flowy gown – and I tell myself (out loud) “You are so strong and gentle: be soft and keep your heart open. You will become stronger.“ I’m even smiling now while I say this.
- Light candles on your meditation shrine to honor people you want to remember. I’ll sometimes write a letter to the person, full of loving aspirations and memories, and then burn it. The hope is that by burning the letter, it’s passed on to this soul, so they will not be tormented on the Other Side.
I did this for my good friend, Adam, from high school in Philadelphia. He committed suicide in 2011. He was bi-polar and just having a really hard time. I was cleaning out my room last year, January or February. I came across a picture of him, and I knew I had to communicate with him. I put a photo of him on my shrine – he’s laughing and dancing at my brother’s wedding. And who did I run into later in the day? Adam’s brother. I told him about the letter and he was shocked. “OMG,” he told me. “I went and saw my therapist today, and she said I need to go and write him a letter!”
Maybe there is no “other side” where my friend is, but either way, again, it brings me peace and connection. And it certainly isn’t harming anyone.
- Pull that feeling of fear or negativity right out of your body. I’ll visualize these counter-productive feelings as snakes coming out of my throat and I’ll just throw those snakes out.
Basically what all these rituals do is give more credit to your inner life, and honor it.“
- Were you the sole witness of someone’s dark side? Like the verbally and physically abused young woman in Holly’s story, it can be impossible to feel grief for someone who has inflicted cruel and unusual punishment upon you for years — especially when that someone is viewed by everyone else as a saint.
Liberation rarely comes with their death and memorial service. Partial liberation can come from desensitizing the distressing memories with a therapist, or by journaling. But the final piece that still needs to be dealt with is the shame that you felt being incapable of summoning tears alongside the other mourners.
What you can do is re-envision the past entirely different from the one you actually lived. Ask a memory artist to help you conjure up this alternate reality. A skilled memory artist can create a plausible bonding experience you might have had with this person (if they were only good and kind in their relationship with you). The final deliverable is a photograph that looks as if someone just snapped the picture, created by digitally manipulating your existing photograph(s) on the computer – along with photos from the artist’s own image library.
- Recall movies with scenes of bonding that always made your tears flow. Why do you think those movies made you feel so sad? Often, those experiences of bonding with a difficult mother or harsh father simply “pass us by.” So the beauty of creating an alternate reality is that we are saying, it’s never too late to change things for the better. Imagine the two of you together looking as if you were bonding – maybe, rolling dough or having Mom do your make-up. Think of your memory picture as if you are creating a still from a movie you love.