Film Review: OWN TV’s “Serving Life”

An inmate-staffed hospice program in one of the roughest prisons in the U.S.

A still shot from "Serving Life"Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana has a long held and justly deserved reputation as one of the roughest prisons in the United States. With over 5,000 inmates and 1,000 prison employees, it is the largest maximum security correctional facility in the nation. Seventy-one percent of inmates are serving life sentences. According to Louisiana’s draconian justice system, there is hardly any hope at all that any of them will see freedom again. They will grow old, and they will die in Angola.

So it’s strange yet undeniably heart-warming to see that this troubled place has instituted the nation’s most successful prison hospice program, staffed almost entirely by inmate volunteers.

“Serving Life,” an 87-minute documentary directed by Lisa R. Cohen and narrated by Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker, aired on July,28, 2011, on Oprah’s OWN TV Network, and was the first original documentary produced by the network. The film focuses on the experiences of four inmates who volunteered and were accepted as caregivers in Angola’s hospice program. They passed a rigorous screening test to do so, and were then subject to a provisional period where they were watched closely by a mentor to see whether or not they could cope with their charges. Not all of them succeeded.

These are not your typical hospice workers. Says Warden Burl Cain, “This is the worst of the worst inmates,” a fact the film elucidates constantly. Each time an inmate speaks to the camera, his name is underscored by his crime and sentence. They are hard men, to be sure — murderers, armed robbers and rapists, nearly all of them. It’s all the more touching, then, to see them working with their patients with such care and feeling. There’s real empathy in their actions. The viewer can sense the hospice volunteer seeing and appreciating their own mortality. When one of his charges breathes his last breath, one of the prisoners comments reverentially, “It could be me lying in that same bed. Me and him are serving the same sentence.”

Dying inmate at Angola State Prison, from "Serving Life"

An inmate comforts a dying friend

The most compelling subject, to this viewer’s mind, was Charles “Boston” Rodgers, an armed robber with a 35-year sentence and the hard eyes of a man who might well have done a whole lot more than that which he was arrested for. In the film’s beginning, he carries himself with something like an air of insolence. He’s become a prison minister, but so have many other Angola prisoners, encouraged by Warden Cain’s enthusiastic religiosity. But Boston breaks down when faced with his first “vigil” at the bedside of a dying man. He’s visibly shaking, and has to remove himself to the prison yard. “I’m not a robot, I can’t just turn off my feelings,” he admits.

He does better with his next one. And when his wife and 9-year-old son, who Boston hasn’t seen since he was 10 months old, come to visit him, she seems honestly surprised to see him shrugging off her attempts to share the blame for his actions. “He’s lost the attitude,” she says with disbelief.

“Serving Life” is not a particularly well-made film. Its quasi-religious, one-note message of redemption and change from within, begins to feel like a public service announcement after a while. Sometimes the prisoners come off as disingenuous, perhaps shining it on for the camera and scoring points for good behavior. But at the same time, some of them really do seem to be changing due to their work, really becoming better people. “Something within you gonna open up, or else, you’re not human,” one of the volunteers says. It is nearly impossible not to believe him.

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Secular Funerals and Rituals Are Becoming More Common

Rituals help atheists, agnostics and the otherwise religiously unaffiliated move through grief
A beautiful secular funerals can have a casket and twinkle lights

Beautiful funeral of Joshua Amos Harris Edmonds
Credit: beyond goodbye.co.uk

As global projections predict a rise in religious affiliation among people worldwide, the percentage of religiously affiliated Americans continues to drop. The Pew Research Center has found that a growing minority of Americans, particularly Millennials, are religious “nones” — atheists, agnostics and those who don’t identify with any organized faith. The Center’s study, “The Changing Global Religious Landscape” revealed that in 2014 the “nones” rose to 23 percent of the adult population, up from 16 percent in 2007. 

As the group of “nones” grows in number, secular funerals are becoming more common, as atheists and agnostics use non-religious rituals to memorialize their loved ones who have died. Rituals help us grieve, and lack of religion does not have to mean lack of ritual. 

Secular Funerals More Flexible

Atheist or Humanist funerals avoid references to the after-life, on which many religious funerals center. They also tend to be very personal. In the absence of scripted prayers or religious protocols, secular funerals are generally devoted to sharing memories and celebrating the life of the person who died. Loved ones often incorporate favorite songs and poems in much the same way that religious mourners incorporate hymns and prayers. Songs and readings may be pieces that reflect on the cycle of life. Or they may simply reflect the loved ones’ personal tastes. 

Because no religious edict dictates where secular funerals take place, people hold them in a variety of locales. Some mourners choose a “traditional” funeral home. Others hold the service in parks, backyards, theaters, community centers or crematoriums. And if the person who died opted for cremation rather than burial, there’s a lot of room to dream of unique places to hold a memorial.

Secular funerals can be held outdoors in a park like this one

Balloon release at a memorial service
Credit: funerals.com

Rituals Heal Grief

Rituals, whether religious and formal or informal and secular, are an important tool for helping mourners move through grief. They can also help restore a sense of control in the chaotic emotional environment that follows loss. Michael Norton and Francesca Gino published an article in the Journal of Experimental Psychology titled, “Rituals Alleviate Grieving for Loved Ones, Lovers, and Lotteries.” In it, they define a ritual as a “symbolic activity that is performed before, during or after a meaningful event in order to achieve some desired outcome — from alleviating grief to winning a competition to making it rain.”

The point is that rituals help people make meaning from the events of their lives. Since meaning-making is one of the most important pieces of developing and predicting resiliency, let’s embrace the tool of ritual. It can ease our suffering whether we’re religious or not. 

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Can a Palliative Care Team Help Families Cope?

Study examines the role of palliative care in the ICU
Woman sitting next to patient in the ICU

Credit: healthdirect.gov.au

Over the last several years, healthcare providers have used palliative care to treat pain and discomfort in patients with serious illnesses. Unlike curative care, which aims to make the person “well,” the goal of palliative care is to make patients and their loved ones more comfortable. Palliative care can also help families of seriously ill patients cope with difficult news and surrogate decision making.  This type of palliative care is usually delivered in a hospital, where the patient, family, and palliative care team only meet a few times.

Most healthcare professionals believe that palliative care can ease the stress of patients and their families. But that assumption is challenged in a recent study reported in Kaiser Health News.

For the study, researchers divided the families of ICU patients into two groups. One group met only with ICU staff. The other group met with both ICU staff and a palliative care team. The team consisted of a doctor, a nurse practitioner and, sometimes, a social worker or chaplain. The team offered families additional information and emotional support.

Symptoms of PTSD 

After three months, the researchers interviewed the families. They found no significant differences in the level of anxiety or depression in the two groups. However, some families who met with the palliative care team showed increased symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

When commenting on this result, the researchers said, “When informal support provided by the primary team is sufficient, additional focus on prognosis may not help and could further upset an emotional family.”

Distraught family member meets with palliative care team

Credit: RN.com

The researchers also suggested that families who were having trouble making decisions for their loved ones would benefit from the services of a palliative team with the skill and training to help.

Dr. Joe Rotella, the chief medical officer at the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine, echoes this sentiment. He believes those families who disagree about goals of care will benefit the most from the involvement of a palliative care team. Rotella also notes that providers can engage the help of a palliative care chaplain for families who are experiencing grave emotional or spiritual distress.

“If we’re there to take care of whole human beings and their loved ones, we have to recognize that suffering is more than just physical,” Rotella said.

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“Come back. Even as a shadow, even as a dream.”

- Euripides
A man standing in a pool of water that shows his shadow and reflection

Credit: maxpixel.com

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Movies Are an Unexpected Grief Healing Tool

More than entertainment, they offer the power to heal
Film with Harrison Ford's grief healing

Dutch traveling physically and metaphorically through his discovery process
Credit: “Random Hearts” trailer screen shot

We are all aware that movies can be incredibly powerful, but we rarely consider them to be a grief healing tool. Nevertheless, they often are.

I experienced this personally in 2009. In the midst of my deep anguish and feelings of loss after learning that my husband was gay, a movie offered me powerful grief healing. At the time, I filled my days with relentless, nonstop work — my way of escaping the pain. But the days were followed by sleepless nights when the pain caught up with me.

One night when I couldn’t sleep, I happened upon the film “Random Hearts.” I watched as Harrison Ford’s character, Dutch, stumbled through his own grief following the death of his wife in a plane crash. At the same time, he also discovered that his wife had been having an affair. While my personal circumstances were not identical, they existed in the same parallel universe.

A Process of Discovery

The fact that the movie was mediocre had no impact on how mesmerized I was by Dutch’s experience of shock, denial, disbelief and discovery. It was like witnessing myself going through the same thing. I completely related to Dutch’s need to understand his wife’s hidden life and track down who her lover was. For me, too, it was all about discovery. He sleuthed — traveling cross-country to visit the locations of their clandestine meetings.  This comforted me and validated that I was not as crazy as I thought I was when I went through my own process of discovery. Most movie reviews accuse “Random Hearts” of being too long and drawn out,  but so is shock and disbelief. At the time I was fully immersed in my own slow-motion shock, so the film aligned perfectly with my own pace.

Car she leapt from to spur grief healing

She suddenly opened the car door, leaping to her death
Credit: krausseautos.blogspot.com

I still remember how cathartic that film was. Did it magically heal me? No, it never happens that way. But it was pivotal in pulling me out from the depths of my grief and the burden of my process. It helped me grasp that my path was different, yet not uncommon when deceit intersects with loss.

A year later, I connected with an old boyfriend. He told me about a woman he dated who he realized was emotionally unstable — how she swallowed a whole bottle of pills from his medicine cabinet. He rushed her to the hospital, where she was treated and released. When he was driving her back home, he gently suggested that they not date anymore.

A Tragic Suicide

My friend was in first gear, driving through a quiet residential neighborhood. Suddenly, the woman opened the car door and leaped out exclaiming, “Have a nice life.” She died in the fall. My friend was devastated, but he says he now realizes she did not intend to die when she jumped from the car. He ends his story by mentioning how life is like an “Indiana Jones” film he saw years ago. In the film, the father makes the profound statement, “In life, the older you get the more life takes from you and the less it gives you.” I am struck now by the fact that his life was tragically altered by a suicide, and a movie was his catharsis too.

He ends his story by mentioning how life is like an Indiana Jones film he saw years ago. In the film, the father makes the profound statement, “In life, the older you get the more life takes from you and the less it gives you.” I am struck now by the fact that his life was tragically altered by a suicide, and a movie was his catharsis too.

Different Paths to Healing

Of course, this doesn’t mean that a movie will be cathartic for everyone who has suffered a loss. But it might help the grief healing process move forward a step. In fact, I witnessed this last week.

Still shot of boy in the movie, "A Monster Calls" about grief healing

A young boy imagines grief and pain as a living tree
Credit: fandango.com

Men are usually less willing to accept help or go for grief therapy following a loss. Larry, the man I live with, lost his son over four years ago to anaphylactic shock. He’s able to talk about his son’s death and has been able to move on with his life. But he doesn’t want to see a therapist.

I rented a wonderful movie, “A Monster Calls” about a young boy, Conor, whose mother is terminally ill. Conor uses his imagination to deal with his pain as his mother is dying. Larry watched the movie with me, and at the end, I left the room to take a shower. When I returned, he was sitting there staring at the final credits and listening to the lulling sound of the score playing in a continuous loop. He quickly turned off the TV just before I walked back in the room. Although Larry’s son did not die from a terminal illness, I could see that the truths the film explored were helping him with his own grief healing as well.

For those traveling a path through grief, I encourage you to watch some films. At the very least, it may help take your mind off your pain for a while. At best, it will get you thinking, comfort you, or offer an epiphany towards your grief healing too.

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Monday Hearts for Madalene

Page Hodel creates beautiful hearts as a tribute to enduring love
Handmade heart in bright pink, green, orange and white

The brilliance of summer speaks of my love for you

It’s an honor for SevenPonds to share with our readers the story of the Monday Hearts for Madalene project, a true account of the power of love in the midst of death.The project’s origins take us to 2005: the moment Page Hodel encountered Madalene Rodriguez and fell “instantly, dizzyingly in love with her.” The couple’s first meeting was electric, and Page felt inspired to do something unique for the woman who captured her heart. So, she began leaving handmade hearts – made from flowers, leaves, and other materials – on Madalene’s doorstep. The hearts became a ritual, and they were there to greet Madalene as she left for work every Monday.

“To start her week with a visual reminder of our beautiful love.” Page Hodel

Just seven months later, Madalene was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and passed away on June 20th, 2006. But Page’s love for her hasn’t ceased, and she continues to make a heart for her every Monday in celebration of her life.

If you would like, you can also receive Page’s “Monday Hearts for Madalene” by emailing her at page.hodel@gmail.com with “subscribe” written as the subject. Images of the hearts can also be purchased in her beautifully compiled book, Monday Hearts for Madelene. Please also visit her website and Facebook page. A portion of all sales will go to the Women’s Cancer Resource Center in Oakland, California (www.wcrc.org). See more Monday Hearts for Madalene here.

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