The Art of Living (and Dying)
Updated: Aug 17
My sister sits daily at the bedsides of the dying.
She is a hospice chaplain.
On a recent visit to a private residence, my sister was greeted by the 80 year-old daughter of a 104 year-old dying woman. The daughter, white-haired and stooped, opened the door and in a sing-song drawl called over her shoulder, “Mama, the preacher’s here,” a pronouncement that had my sister rubber-necking over her own shoulder looking for “the preacher” who had snuck in behind her.
This geriatric announcement, “Mama, the preacher’s here,” while so funny on so many levels, is also so true. My sister is a preacher. She preaches from the slow, sacred texts of the dyings’ last days.
This is what she preaches.
We need to fearlessly affirm. The dying shed all inhibitions. My sister, middle-aged and of normal attractiveness, has been told she’s beautiful by more patients than she can count. The approach of death has not affected these people’s eyesight; it’s affected their inhibition, shattering the veneer of decorum that has kept them from voicing their true feelings and thoughts. The words come forth in childlike innocence and honesty and are therefore the furthest thing from flattery because they are offered by those with nothing to loose or gain. My sister receives these words like the benedictions they are.
We need to connect at all costs. On one particular visit, my sister entered a hospital room to find the patient’s children hunched, each in his or her own chair, paralyzed in isolation and anxiety at the decline of their mother. My sister sat with them, holding their mother’s hand. Gently, she suggested that the patient’s 60-year old daughter place her hand on her mother’s leg.
It was a simple act, but in touching her mother this grieving woman broke the spell that held her apart from the one she wanted to love. Soon she was massaging her mother’s feet as her siblings swapped stories from their childhood. One truly hilarious story involved a rabid squirrel, a garbage can, and a baseball bat. Soon they were weeping with laughter, the beauty of their connectedness restored by physical contact and their shared stories.
We need to name our emotions. “I’m so sad,” said a 90 year-old patient, tears welling in his eyes, when my sister asked he was doing. He went on to explain how his cancer had come back just when he was so enjoying life. Others have said, “I’m scared” or “I’m so grateful.”
While those patients who plant themselves in gratitude have faces that shine with a unique tranquility, my sister contends that the important thing is not trying to fake joy or thanksgiving, but voice emotions that are true. For it is in the naming of their feelings that space is opened for connection and transformation. Fear and sadness are not the enemy, avoidance is. The ones who can name their emotions go peacefully. The ones who respond with “I’m fine,” have a tougher time.
We need to stand as empathetic witnesses to each other’s pain. Hospice chaplaincy rule number one: Do not satisfy your own curiosity. Dying people and the relatives of dying people find diagnostic reporting of their medical conditions exhausting. If they are emotionally healthy what they want and need is someone to attend to their feelings, fears, regrets, hopes. Receiving and holding another’s fears and hopes without judgment or advice-giving is to stand as an empathetic witness, honouring the grieving one’s experience. It is a service we can give anyone in pain. All that is needed is a commitment to heed Rumi famous suggestion: “keep your eye on the bandaged place.”
We need to learn to be alone. In the year before he died, the late great psychologist and spiritual director, Gerald May, wrote The Wisdom of the Wilderness, a book that chronicles his experiences in a state park where he sojourned years before when he felt his life unraveling. During his days of wilderness solitude he came to experience God as “The Great Slowing,” a presence powerfully immediate, healing, re-orientating, and hospitable.
“Hospitality asks for the creation of an empty space, where the guests may find their own souls,” wrote Henri Nouwen.
This might be the key to all the lessons my sister has learned in her bedside vigils. It is this “empty space,” nurtured through solitude, that allows not only “the guest” but “the host” to find her own soul as well.
Solitude is like a little death, a death to the distractions and preoccupations of what we assume is giving us meaning, but is only bolstering the charade we are playing.
In solitude we open space for empathetic witness, connection, affirmation and non-judgmental companioning.
These are the lessons my sister has learned. I am grateful she has preached them with her life. I would like to do the same.