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Archive for the ‘Grief’ Category

Alone into the Alone — “A Grief Observed” Revisited

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Why?

Why, late in his career, would an internationally famous Christian author publish a personal memoir under a pseudonym? He hid both his identity and that of his beloved wife. Why?

I was leaving on one of my daily bike rides recently and needed to pick a new book to listen to. I selected a reread — A Grief Observed (1961). But, the author was identified as N.W. Clerk in the original rendering. Only after his death in 1963, was it published as by C.S. Lewis.

So, I am peddling the hills of Oxford, Mississippi, and I am being reminded just how good this book is. Between 1940 and his marriage in 1956, this confirmed bachelor wrote his greatest works including The Screwtape Letters (1942), The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-56), and Mere Christianity (1952). His brief four-year marriage to the terminally ill Joy led to A Grief Observed.

Lewis traced his wife’s life with cancer, then death and then his grief in this very thin volume (my copy has 53 pages of text.) Only, she is not “Joy,” who became his wife when he was 57 and she 41. In A Grief she is “H.” Her full name was Helen Joy Davidman, thus the “H.” They were actually married in the hospital where she was receiving treatment.

Here is a sampling of this grief journal by one of the 20th century’s greatest writers and Christian apologists.

“No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid.”

Years ago, I had memorized this first line of the book. C.S. Lewis starts his journaling describing how grief feels to him. He keeps this up on every page.

“For in grief nothing ‘stays put.’ One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs.”… “Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.”

How many times have I heard this? I have to remind grievers “you never ‘get over’ grieving.” Lewis sees it as a series of emerging phases always recurring. He likens it to a hike through a valley.

“Meanwhile, where is God?… But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.” 

This might come as a surprise to those who found Lewis’ writings on Christianity so helpful. He had doubts. He didn’t doubt the existence of God but that his beliefs did not take away the pain of grief. He had no time for the “trust God and all will be good” line of thinking. Perhaps, this is why he wrote under a pseudonym. Doubt was so far from the assured Lewis.

“It is incredible how much happiness, even how much gaiety, we sometimes had together after all hope was gone.” 

Here seems to be a great contradiction. In the midst of no hope for cure, Lewis and his wife had great happiness. There is a scene in Shadowlands, the biopic about their life together and her death. Lewis tells Joy not to talk about her impending death. He doesn’t want to spoil their good time together. She says, “It doesn’t spoil it, it makes it real.… I’m going to die and I want to be with you.… The pain then is part of the happiness now. That’s the deal.”

“She said not to me but to the chaplain, ‘I am at peace with God.’ She smiled, but not at me. Poi si torno all’ eterna fontana.” 

These are the last words in A Grief Observed. He was able to witness the exchange between his dying wife and a chaplain. She was at peace. He closed with a Latin line from Dante’s Divine Comedy. In English, “Then she returned to the eternal source.”

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Cover Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash

Chaplain Hank Dunn is the author of Hard Choices for Loving People: CPR, Feeding Tubes, Palliative Care, Comfort Measures and the Patient with a Serious Illness and Light in the Shadows. Together they have sold over 4 million copies. You can purchase his books at hankdunn.com or on Amazon.

More Nothing than Something — True Solace is Finding None

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I was such a scaredy-cat at 8 years old. All I can remember of two particular movies in 1956 was that I kept my eyes closed during the entirety of each film. I have just discovered, through Wikipedia, that Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers and The Werewolf were released together as a double feature that summer. Who knew?

Bingo. Those were the two movies of my childhood fears. I was sitting through 160+ minutes of terror.

From my youth, outer space and the heavens brought a recuring sense of awe. Yes, the fear of flying saucers invading was real. But, there was also a sense of reverence as I gazed into the night sky. I was pretty small in the vastness of the stars above.

I just placed the latest “deep field” photo from the new James Webb Space Telescope to my home screen on my iPhone. This is a time exposure photo of a portion of the night sky the size of a grain of sand held at arms-length. Thousands of galaxies appear as we look back billions of years. Each galaxy has billions of stars — each star is not unlike our sun.

We come out of childhood, hopefully, putting away childhood fears. We gain a sense of control of our own lives. I am somebody. That is, until….

That is, until something reminds of how small we really are — how we really are not in control. Serious illness ranks up there with things that shake us to our core.

The Deep Field photo brings so many thoughts to my mind. What is really amazing is that there is more of nothing than there is of something. More empty space than stars. Perhaps “nothingness” is more important than “something.”

Even down at the microscopic level, scientists tell us that the is more empty space in each atom than solid matter. Doesn’t make sense when you fall on asphalt after a spill off your bike, but, I have to take the experts at their word.

The point is that emptiness and nothingness are where we live. Yes, I am glad I have family, friends, community, and this beautiful earth to enjoy. But, I also feel at home in the vastness of empty space or the silence which is a space empty of sound.

It is the message of the mystics and the dying have been telling us since the dawn of time. I am reminded of Gretel Ehrlich’s comment, “True solace is finding none. Then, of course, it is everywhere.”

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Chaplain Hank Dunn is the author of Hard Choices for Loving People: CPR, Feeding Tubes, Palliative Care, Comfort Measures and the Patient with a Serious Illness and Light in the Shadows. Together they have sold over 4 million copies. You can purchase his books at hankdunn.com or on Amazon.

The Lonely, Difficult Journey of COVID Grievers

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“Oh my god, they are going to blame overweight people for their own deaths.” This was my first thought in the winter or spring of 2020 when I initially heard about the risk factors leading to death by COVID. The list included obesity, diabetes, old age, compromised immune systems, and being Black.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

My mind revisited those first weeks of the pandemic as I saw an interview with Ed Yong of The Atlantic on the PBS News Hour. For two years, he has been talking to COVID grievers. You can read his most recent article, “The Final Pandemic Betrayal,” here or watch the seven-minute PBS interview here.

I wrote blogs about the grief rituals after the death of my mother-in-law during COVID and public displays of remembrance of those who died. Now Ed Yong has written and talked in the most moving fashion about the more than 9 million fellow Americans who have lost a close relative to the virus.

COVID Grievers Face an Unprecedented Time to Grieve

Photo by Claudia Wolff on Unsplash

We who have NOT lost someone to COVID have little concept of the unique, profound, and enduring grief now being visited upon these grievers. Here is the story of a mother who watched her son die on her phone:

“Teresita Horne had spent more than a week on a breathing machine when her 13-year-old son, Donovan, died in a different hospital; she watched him die on her phone. ‘I remember screaming,’ she told me. ‘When your kids are sick, they need you, but I couldn’t be there to comfort him. I couldn’t hold his hand one last time.’”

Don’t ask, “Were they vaccinated?”

Then there was the tone in our questions to those who lost a loved one to COVID. “Did they get the vaccine?” What does that have to do with our attempt to reach out to someone caught up in grief? The mere question implies that there was something the dead person should have done or, worse yet, the griever should have done to prevent the death. Aside from appeasing our curiosity about if they got the vaccine, how does that question comfort the bereaved?

Photo by Pierre Bamin on Unsplash

Again, Yong writes, “Many grievers end up blaming themselves. Should I have pulled them out of that nursing home? Should I have pushed them harder to get vaccinated? And worst of all: Did I give them COVID?“

He concludes: In her book, The Myth of Closure, Pauline Boss, a therapist and pioneer in the study of ambiguous loss, offers some advice for pandemic grievers: ‘It is not closure you need but certainty that your loved one is gone, that they understood why you could not be there to comfort them, that they loved you and forgave you in their last moments of life,’ she wrote. Instead of waiting for a clean but mythical endpoint to one’s loss, it is better to search for ‘meaning and purpose in our lives after this horrific time in history,’” she said.

Do yourself a favor. Read Yong’s article or listen to the short interview. I was moved by the stories of these COVID grievers

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Chaplain Hank Dunn is the author of Hard Choices for Loving People: CPR, Feeding Tubes, Palliative Care, Comfort Measures and the Patient with a Serious Illness and Light in the Shadows. Together they have sold over 4 million copies. You can purchase his books at hankdunn.com or on Amazon.

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Cover Photo by Shane on Unsplash

The Rise of Cremations and Our Need to be with the Dead

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While we were planning a funeral for her 22-year-old son, Scott, she put down her beer, took the cigarette from her lips, and said, “So, I remind you of the Virgin Mary?” A lighter moment amid grief. Scott died from a long and debilitating illness. He may have weighed 80 pounds in the end.

I lived a few doors down from Scott and his family for four years. His sisters babysat my kids. I was Scott’s den leader in Cub Scouts. As disease ravaged his young body, Scott graduated from college in a wheelchair. I was so privileged to be a part of his care.

In Scott’s last days, one of my fellow chaplains called me as he was preparing to leave town on vacation. He was aware I was an old friend of Scott and his family. He asked if I could check in on Scott and even do the funeral if he died. I was glad to do it.

On my second visit to see Scott in our hospice in-patient unit, I could tell he was taking his last breaths. His mom and sisters were at his side. He had been in such great pain that he was totally sedated. His breathing stopped. The tears flowed after months of anticipating this moment.

I summoned the nurse. She asked Scott’s mother, “Would you like to hold him?” Of course, she would. It had been months since she could even touch him because of the pain.

The nurse gathered the sheet around Scott’s body and placed him in his mother’s lap. She held him tenderly, stroking his face, and telling him of her love. I later told a friend of the scene and he said it reminded him of Michelangelo’s Pietà. It was indeed a very similar scene, a mother cradling the body of her broken son.

A few days later, I told Scott’s mother about my friend’s comment. That’s when, beer and cigarette in hand, she said, “So, I remind you of the Virgin Mary?”

This experience came to mind as I read a Washington Post story about the stunning rise in the use of cremation. Now, 57% of our dead are cremated compared to 27% just two decades ago. Along with the traditional casket burials, Americans are having less to do with the dead. Many have no rituals at all surrounding the death of one they love.

Undertaker Author Thomas Lynch

Many want to avoid the greater expense of a traditional funeral and burial. But, perhaps, many want to avoid being around the dead body or the emotional strain of the rituals. Thomas Lynch, a Michigan poet and funeral director of 50 years said in the Post article, “People want the body disappeared, pretty much. I think it reminds us of what we lost.” In the United States, Lynch notes, “this is the first generation of our species that tries to deal with death without dealing with the dead.”

I will say, there is another trend that runs counter to this criticism that we Americans are avoiding the dead. More and more people are dying at home which gives the family the opportunity to be with the departed. A century ago, almost everyone died at home. This can provide that ritual lost with the demise of the traditional funeral.

Rest in peace.

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Chaplain Hank Dunn is the author of Hard Choices for Loving People: CPR, Feeding Tubes, Palliative Care, Comfort Measures and the Patient with a Serious Illness and Light in the Shadows. Together they have sold over 4 million copies. You can purchase his books at hankdunn.com or on Amazon.

The Brutal Truth of Growing Through Grief…It’s Normal

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Barbara Lazear Ascher’s husband gave her the news in the most straightforward way. “Looks like pancreatic cancer,” he told her matter-of-factly after the test results came back.

 She and their friends gave him a wonderful death. They had theme parties with matching drinks. “Dying was intimate, and I drew close,” Ascher writes in her moving memoir, “Ghosting,” “We were single-minded, welded together in the process of this long leave-taking.”

This is how David Brooks starts a recent piece in The New York Times, “Some People Turn Suffering Into Wisdom.” I might as well borrow from one of the best. Brooks often writes about living life — its goodness and the difficulties. In this one, he covers the landscape of grief and trauma and moving on.

 This kind of disorientation is brutal … and normal. Grief and suffering often shatter our assumptions about who we are and how life works. The social psychologist Ronnie Janoff-Bulman notes that many people assume that the world is benevolent, that life is controllable, and that we are basically good people who deserve good things. Suffering and loss can blast that to smithereens.

My few (and relatively small) hard knocks in life taught me years ago about the lesson of impermanence. That is — all things change. The grief that follows loss bumps up to this piece of wisdom. This is normal. I have written before about my habit of journaling. I didn’t say then that I tend to journal more and with more passion when things are not going so well in my life. Brooks introduced an exercise to use journaling to tell our stories differently.

 Gradually the process of re-storying begins. This is taking a now fragmented life and slowly cohering it into a new narrative. The social psychologist James Pennebaker has people do free expressive writing, sometimes for just 20 minutes a day for four days. Don’t worry about spelling and grammar, he advises; just let it flow — for yourself. In the beginning, people who take part in expressive writing exercises sometimes have different voices and handwriting styles. Their stories are raw and disjointed. But their narratives grow more coherent and self-aware as the days go by. They try on different perspectives. Some studies show that people who go through this process emerge with lower blood pressure and healthier immune systems.

I never took my blood pressure and can’t quantify how much, if at all, journaling helped me. I would have to go back through the losses in my life and do it over WITHOUT journaling — no, thank you. But I do agree with Brooks. Some people take grief and loss and make a new life.

Gradually, for some people, a new core narrative emerges answering the question, “What am I to do with this unexpected life?” It’s not that the facts are different, but a person can step back and see them differently. New frameworks are imposed, which reorganize the relationship between the events of a life. Spatial metaphors are helpful here: I was in a dark wood. This train is not turning around. I’m climbing a second mountain.

David Brooks’ most recent book is The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life.

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Chaplain Hank Dunn is the author of Hard Choices for Loving People: CPR, Feeding Tubes, Palliative Care, Comfort Measures and the Patient with a Serious Illness and Light in the Shadows. Together they have sold over 4 million copies. You can purchase his books at hankdunn.com or on Amazon.

My Problem with “Happiness is a choice”

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I am tempted to say that the cliché, “Happiness is a choice,” is wrong on the surface. But, over and over again we see people endure great hardships and they choose not to be overwhelmed. I am reminded of Viktor Frankl and his “last of the human freedoms.” The following appears in my book Light in the Shadows:

“This idea that we have a choice in our happiness is not original with me. Viktor Frankl is the one who told us this is the ‘last of the human freedoms’—the freedom to choose how we will respond in any given set of circumstances. He was a Jew and a psychiatrist who learned about this freedom as a prisoner in several concentration camps during the Second World War. Hear his words:

“The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action.… Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.… We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

“[I]n the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone.… I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost.… It is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful. (Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, New York: Washington Square Press, 1984, pp. 86-87.)

“The sort of person we become is the result of an inner decision and not the result of the influences of… cancer… the illness of a child… divorce… disability.

“A thought for this day: When the circumstances seem to be overwhelming, I will know I have a choice in how I am going to respond. I will not blame my illness, or other people, for how I feel inside.”

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Chaplain Hank Dunn is the author of Hard Choices for Loving People: CPR, Feeding Tubes, Palliative Care, Comfort Measures and the Patient with a Serious Illness and Light in the Shadows. Together they have sold over 4 million copies. You can purchase his books at hankdunn.com or on Amazon.

“God has a lot of explaining to do.”

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The daughter started her eulogy, “I am so angry. God has a lot of explaining to do….” I sat there, stunned, now wondering how in the world I could follow such a performance.

I’ve had the opportunity to officiate many funerals over the years. This was supposed to be one of the “easy” ones. The dead man’s family had a relative who once was a member of my church in Vienna, Virginia, back in the day. None of the family attended that church now — or any church. So, when the man died suddenly of a heart attack at 64, they turned to us for a minister to conduct the service — kind of a rent-a-preacher.

Our pastor was out of town, and it fell to me to fill in. It sounded straightforward enough. They just needed me to be an emcee, so to speak. The daughter would do a eulogy, and we would open the floor for others to give tribute to the recently departed.

As I met with the daughter and granddaughter to plan the funeral, they made it clear that this family was not religious and did not want a lot of God-talk. They agreed to a prayer and Psalm 23. That was that. No sermon. Little religion. I would just show up at the funeral home, conduct the service, get paid, and go home.

I walked into a whole new world

When I entered the funeral home before the service, I walked into a whole new world (for me, at least). At the front of the chapel, a NASCAR flag draped the casket. The deceased’s helmet sat on top — a tribute to his years as a driver on the small-town racing circuit. Scores of people milled around, some laughed, some cried.

Vince Gill

Overhead speakers pumped in country music. Vince Gill sang, “I know your life on earth was troubled / And only you could know the pain… Go rest high on that mountain / Son, your work on earth is done.”

People took their seats in the pews, and I started the service with a few opening remarks. Then it was the daughter’s turn. “I am so angry. God has a lot of explaining to do. My father was a good man. He had no enemies. He loved his children and grandkids. He worked hard and provided for us. God has a lot of explaining to do.”

This was no time for theological argument

As she spoke, I sat there running through my mind things to say to offer another view of her father’s sudden, unexpected death. I thought about referencing Rabbi Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Kushner believed some things, including some deaths of people we love, just happen at random — a belief I share. But obviously, this was not the time nor place to get in a theological argument.

Then the wisdom of Fr. Seamus O’Reilly came to mind. As he talked to his parishioners about the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, which some Catholics believed was punishment for sin, the wise priest said:

“God always forgives.
“Humans sometimes forgive.
“Nature never forgives.”

The man had died from a malfunction of his heart. Nature requires that our hearts pump life-giving blood in our veins. This man died of natural causes. “Nature never forgives”? No, that wouldn’t do.

Bless her heart — she was deeply grieving

The daughter’s angry tone did soften partway through her speech. It was clear she was an adoring daughter. She gave a touching and loving tribute to her father, as good a eulogy as I had ever heard from a family member. But she ended where she began, “God has a lot of explaining to do.”

When my turn came, I know I started with, “Death is always a mystery…” and kept it brief. I was speechless after witnessing this woman’s pain. I think everyone else was speechless, too, because few spoke when I opened the floor.

I’m always amazed when those who claim not to be religious will often blame God for tragedy. The funeral could have been a wonderful opportunity to be thankful for the great gift of the time she had with her father. But, bless her heart, she was deeply grieving the loss of her beloved father. I felt so sorry for her that her hurt had turned to anger.

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Chaplain Hank Dunn is the author of Hard Choices for Loving People: CPR, Feeding Tubes, Palliative Care, Comfort Measures and the Patient with a Serious Illness and Light in the Shadows. Together they have sold over 4 million copies. You can purchase his books at hankdunn.com or on Amazon.

When a Wartime Death Brings Complicated Grief

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FORT BLAKELEY, ALA. March 1, 2022: What if your teenage son went off to war — fought in one battle — died in that battle — and then you find out his death was actually after the war had ended — AND your side lost the war? Today, we would say parents of these dead soldiers would have complicated grief. Indeed.

Alabama built a state park surrounding the site of the Battle of Fort Blakeley. Tonight, while camping, I will be sleeping in that park on the earth that received the blood of hundreds of dead and wounded Americans. That was in April, 1865, and this fort was the last line of defense for the vital port city of Mobile.

“Boy Brigade”

Display at battlefield

Late in the war, the Confederate States expanded the draft to include younger and older men. So, men in their forties and fifties were conscripted next to teenagers. There were so many teens in two Alabama infantries that some referred to them as the “Boy Brigade.”

Outnumbered 16,000 to 4,000, the Southern troops, including the Boy Brigade, built breastworks still visible today. April 9th was the first – and last – day of combat many young soldiers faced.

The final assault of the U.S. Army on the fort began at 5:30 PM on April 9th. But the Civil War effectively ended about two hours earlier when Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox in Virginia. News traveled slower then, and those poor souls fought a battle that had nothing to do with the outcome of the Civil War.

Complicated Grief

Many factors can complicate grief. Even in today’s world, many ponder the meaning of the death of someone they loved. Deaths by suicide, murder, drunk driving, or other accidents complicate the grief process that is painful even in the most “normal” circumstances.

Then there are the deaths of people with whom we have a conflicted relationship. The passing of a physically abusive father, a sexually exploitive uncle, or a verbally abusive mother can make the grief process most difficult.

I remember the daughter of a patient once said, “My mother never said, ‘I love you’ to me.” She told me that as we were making preparations for the mother’s funeral. Any chance of hearing, “I love you,” also died. We truly don’t know what goes into another’s grief.

All of a sudden, her story made sense

Another family comes to mind when I think about complicated grief. I was sitting vigil at a nursing home patient’s bedside with her daughter. The patient seemed like so many of these sweet old ladies who came to us with advanced dementia. Over the months that the patient was with us, I gathered her daughter’s story on her daily visits.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

At age 16, fifty years earlier, the daughter and her husband-to-be eloped under cover of darkness. She hid a packed suitcase under the front porch as she made her plans. Her younger brother happened upon the suitcase but kept the secret.

In the silence of our vigil, the daughter blurted out, “God. She was a hard woman.” Immediately, I thought to myself, “Now, I understand. The woman was abusive. THAT explains everything.”

When the daughter broke the silence as we sat by her mother, this story finally made sense. She was abused. The brother knew it. He conspired to help his sister make her escape. Yet fifty years later, here she was, sitting beside her mother as she lay dying. Complicated.

My mind comes back to those Confederate parents whose teenage sons went off to war, fought in one battle, and died in that battle after the war was over…and their side lost. Talk about complicated grief.

Grief can be complicated, indeed.

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Chaplain Hank Dunn is the author of Hard Choices for Loving People: CPR, Feeding Tubes, Palliative Care, Comfort Measures and the Patient with a Serious Illness and Light in the Shadows. Together they have sold over 4 million copies. You can purchase his books at hankdunn.com or on Amazon.

 

Curious After Seven Decades Above Ground

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Hank and his sister Janice with their brother Dennis two weeks before he died

My birthday passed last week. Number 74. Now, a bitter-sweet day.

Bitter-sweet because I miss my younger brother, Dennis. He died on my birthday five years ago. When his wife called my sister to tell her Dennis had died, she said, “Don’t tell Hank. It will ruin his birthday.” She was right. My sister immediately called me, and it ruined my birthday.

The day now brings the appropriate mix of gratitude for another year of life and grief that my brother is no longer here to call me with birthday wishes. Bitter-sweet.

I find I’m getting more curious about myself as I settle into over seven decades above ground.  What am I curious about? About me. My thinking. My spiritual beliefs. I’m curious how can I still find new ways of thinking about and experiencing things spiritual. Curious how I find new ways of verbalizing these experiences.

An old man listening to books

Hank’s 74-year-old self

Last week, I told the story of an old man at the nursing home where I was the chaplain. I was in my 30s and he was in his 90s. The story was about his loveless marriage (according to his wife), but I mentioned that he listened to recorded books.

Every day, he’d be bent over in his wheelchair, leaning down, straining to hear history books being read on a record player. As a young man, I thought, “What is he doing? What is this 90-year-old man going to do with this new knowledge?” He talked very little. He was years past teaching children, or anyone for that matter. He just sat in his room and listened as the day crept slowly by. Now, I think, “I am the old man!”

You start dying slowly

Late last year I was introduced to the poem “You Start Dying Slowly” by Martha Medeiros. In Portuguese it is A Morte Devagar — “A slow death”. This poem meant so much to me that I printed it out and glued it to the inside of the journal I just started in November.

Here are a few lines:

You start dying slowly…
If you do not risk what is safe for the uncertain,
If you do not go after a dream,
If you do not allow yourself,
At least once in your lifetime,
To run away from sensible advice…

Referring to the poem, I wrote in the journal on November 21, 2021, “I am profoundly moved by this piece. I still marvel that, at my age, I am still wanting to make something of my life. I still struggle with taking risks.” Weeks later, on January 4th I wrote, “‘Who are you God and who am I?’ St. Francis said and I BOTH say. I am almost 74 and have not settled this.”

My 24-year-old self meets my 74-year-old self — it is not pretty

Hank’s 24-year-old self

Fifty years ago, if my 24-year-old self met my now 74-year-old self, he would have called me a heretic. I was so certain about things at 24. Now, being “right” is less important. Rather, following the teaching of Jesus, right action is more important that right theology.

Now, questions are more important than answers. Curiosity feels better than certainty. I am the old man listening to books. I listen not to know more but to be comfortable with not knowing. The mystics are my favorite guides. Thomas Merton summed up, for me, the mystery of knowing and not knowing God:

 

Thomas Merton

“Your brightness is my darkness. I know nothing of You and, by myself, I cannot even imagine how to go about knowing You. If I imagine You, I am mistaken. If I understand You, I am deluded. If I am conscious and certain I know You, I am crazy. The darkness is enough.”

 

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Chaplain Hank Dunn is the author of Hard Choices for Loving People: CPR, Feeding Tubes, Palliative Care, Comfort Measures and the Patient with a Serious Illness and Light in the Shadows. Together they have sold over 4 million copies. You can purchase his books at hankdunn.com or on Amazon.

Can a POW have a “Good Death” Hundreds of Miles from Home?

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A young soldier named William Gaston Barringer turned 18 on October 5, 1862. Less than three months later, he was wounded and died as a prisoner of war 200 miles from home. Yet, there is evidence he had a good death. How could this be?

Barringer’s marker caught my eye as I wandered around St. Peter’s Cemetery in Oxford, Mississippi. The epitaph, “I was not afraid to die; my Mother taught me to pray in early life,” got me thinking about what it means to have a good death. (See my “Hank’s Deep Thoughts” video at the monument.)

Let me clarify; a “good death” does not mean that it was good that William died. Death to the young is, of course, a tragedy. And, as a POW, he likely did not die in ideal conditions.

Being a prisoner of war was not mentioned on the monument. I did an internet search and found him on a list of soldiers who died in captivity, hundreds of miles away in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

A “good death” through the centuries

Plagues in the 1300s killed 40-60% of the European population. Such widespread death led to the release of a couple of books known as the Ars moriendi (“The Art of Dying”). These were Christian instructions on how to have a good death. There were accompanying woodcuts, like one showing demons tempting the dying man with crowns symbolizing earthly pride.

 

By the American Civil War (1861-65), the dying and their families knew what was expected. Drew Gilpin Faust identified four elements of a good death in her moving book, This Republic of Suffering: Death and The American Civil War. According to Faust, a good death in the 19th century was one where the dying person:

  1. Was conscious
  2. Was not afraid of dying
  3. Was prepared spiritually to meet their maker
  4. Left dying words for the family

 

Even the atheist Charles Darwin, who died in 1882 in England, kept to this script. He told his wife on his deathbed, “I am not the least afraid of death—Remember what a good wife you have been to me—Tell all my children to remember how good they have been to me.”

Though a reference to spiritual things was conspicuously absent, Darwin was conscious, was not afraid of dying, and left last words for his family. In my interpretation, he wanted to emphasize that even though he had no spiritual leanings, he was still “not the least afraid of death.”

Much has changed since the Civil War, including our expectations about our deaths. Today, medical literaturedescribes what many now consider a good death: being in control, being comfortable and free of pain, having a sense of closure, etc.

This sense of control has recently manifested itself through eleven U.S. jurisdictions adopting medical aid in dying. In those places, patients can ask a physician to give them medication to hasten their dying.

Back to Mr. Barringer

The words on Barringer’s marker were an assurance to his family that he died a good death: “I was not afraid to die; my Mother taught me to pray in early life.” These seem like the dying words of a conscious man.

And there it is. William was conscious, he was not afraid of dying, he was prepared spiritually (thanks to his mother), and these are the words he left for others. I can imagine his mother visiting this monument often in her grief and being consoled, “At least he had a good death.”

 

__________________________________________

Chaplain Hank Dunn is the author of Hard Choices for Loving People: CPR, Feeding Tubes, Palliative Care, Comfort Measures and the Patient with a Serious Illness and Light in the Shadows. Together they have sold over 4 million copies. You can purchase his books at hankdunn.com or on Amazon.

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