Grief Support

From Dying Patients, Advice On How To Live

Heather Lende |   -

By Kerry Egan
208 pp. Riverhead Books. $24.

Hospice care is rooted in the belief that death is a natural part of life, that dying can be managed so that people may remain alert and as pain-free as possible until the end, and that a good death is as much a spiritual experience as it is a physical one, for all involved.

Here is where my mother would have said: “You must be joking.”

The Harvard Divinity School-educated hospice chaplain Kerry Egan would appreciate that sentiment. After Egan’s 5-year-old says he believes her job is to “make people die so they can go to heaven,” she writes, “He seemed remarkably calm that his mother was a Grim Reaper in clogs.” When a friend quizzes Egan on how she spends her days as a counselor to the dying and their families, Egan explains that she sits at bedsides, tries to be a peaceful presence, listens, sometimes speaks, or sings, or holds a hand, all with as much courage and kindness as she can muster. “I imagine a giant bubble of love encompassing the patient and me,” Egan says. Her friend’s response: “You consider this work?”

Yes, Egan is funny, honest and self-deprecating; however, there is nothing silly at all about her assertion that “the spiritual work of being human is learning how to love and how to forgive.”

“On Living” is part memoir, part spiritual reflection and part narration of tales told to Egan by her patients. Her transitions between other people’s stories and her own personal and professional observations can be disconcerting, but she is such good company that you will forgive her.

Chaplains traditionally hear deathbed confessions. Usually these remain secret. Many of Egan’s patients apparently want her to share theirs, and she honors those requests.

“Promise me you’ll tell my stories,” the elderly Gloria pleads. “Maybe someone else can get wise from them.” Gloria recounts the shame she inflicted on her family with a baby born out of wedlock when she was 19. (Her father “was the strictest father in the world,” who wouldn’t let her “wear skirts above the knee or a smudge of lipstick.”) She chose to keep her son in spite of strong pressure to give him up for adoption. Gloria tells Egan that the man she married, who her son believes is his father, “didn’t love him right.” She wants her son to know the truth, but is afraid to tell him. Gloria’s question — “What if he doesn’t think the best thing I ever did was a good thing at all?” — resonates after the details of the story fade.

Some of Egan’s patients have dementia and terminal cancer. One young man is left a quadriplegic after being shot during a robbery. They rave or mutely clench fists. They lie, they weep, they laugh, they swear, and they tell their stories over and over again. Egan listens, learns and writes it all down. “On Living” adds to the understanding of end-of-life issues in an important and accessible way, because Egan’s patients and caregivers could be you and me, and no doubt will be sooner than we expect. How are we to live in the meantime? Chaplain Egan offers this humble suggestion:

“If there is any great difference between the people who know they are dying and the rest of us, it’s this: They know they’re running out of time. They have more motivation to do the things they want to do, and to become the person they want to become. .?.?. There’s nothing stopping you from acting with the same urgency the dying feel.” If there is one thing death teaches us, it’s how to live.

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