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Archive for the ‘Spirituality’ Category

Finding Meaning in Suffering is Difficult — But Can be Done

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Why do terminally ill patients choose to end their lives early?

As I have done for the last 25 years, I quickly opened the most recent annual “Oregon Death with Dignity Act: 2022 Data Summary.” Yes, it has been 25 years since Oregon made “medical aid in dying” (MAID) legal. At the time, this was often referred to as “physician assisted suicide” (PAS). In Oregon, and other jurisdictions, a physician can prescribe a lethal medication for terminally ill patients who request it and who appear to be within six months of dying. There are safeguards to assure patient safety and to address other concerns.

For 25 years this list has been part of my lectures

My interest, each year, is drawn to the list of “End-of-life concerns.” I added this list to my lectures and writings as I went about the country speaking on making end-of-life decisions. These responses are the answers to the question, “Why did the patient want MAID?”

Photo by Claudia Wolff on Unsplash

Of the seven “concerns” listed, “Losing autonomy” is mentioned by 90.3% and “Less able to engage in activities making life enjoyable” is second at 90.0%. Next to last is “Inadequate pain control, or concern about it” (28%). You would think that pain would be one of the main reasons people want to end their lives sooner — to avoid pain. (See below for the whole list.)

The piece that has made it into my lectures and writings is the concern about “losing autonomy.” Understandably, people want to be in control. I am all in for controlling the things that can be controlled like physical pain. We often think about “pain and suffering” as two related issues as in, “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” Suffering is the emotional and spiritual struggle that can accompany pain.

Seeking autonomy and avoiding suffering

At the risk of over simplifying, these patients are choosing an early exit to avoid suffering. Their greatest fear is losing the ability to make autonomous choices. I honestly do not know what I will do when I face my last days, so I have no judgement of these patients who hasten their deaths.

I have never lived in nor worked in a jurisdiction that allows for MAID. A few times, I ministered to a patient who was considering suicide. We asked, “What is it that makes you want to end your life?” We found that once we addressed their concern, be it pain or care of the family, the patient no longer wanted an early exit.

I write this on Good Friday, as Christians remember the sufferings of Jesus. Over the centuries Christians have found meaning in His death. Reducing pain and suffering in dying patients can be pursued while, at the same time, looking for ways to find meaning in the midst of suffering.

Here are some quotes I have gathered to share with you to make sense of suffering, and hopefully prepare both you and me for own future suffering.

  • “Suffering is the state of severe distress associated with events that threaten the intactness of person.” Eric Cassell, MD. The Nature of Suffering and the Goals of Medicine
  • “If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.… Suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.” Viktor E. Frankl (1905-1997) Holocaust survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning
  • “Our avoidance instinct is also due to the fact that our culture has decided that suffering has no value.” Frank Ostaseski, Buddhist teacher and founder of the Zen Hospice Project
  • “You must remember that no one lives a life free from pain and suffering.” Sophocles (497-406 BCE)
  • “Whoever got this idea that we could have pleasure without pain? It’s promoted rather widely in this world, and we buy it.” Pema Chödrön, Tibetan-Buddhist teacher and author.
  • Flannery O’Connor

    “I have never been anywhere but sick. In a sense, sickness is a place, more instructive than a long trip to Europe, and it’s always a place where there’s no company; where nobody can follow. Sickness before death is a very appropriate thing and I think those who don’t have it miss one of God’s mercies.” Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) died after living 13 years with Lupus.

  • “The idol of control holds out to us the hope that suffering and death can be eliminated. If we just get smart enough, we will gain control of pain and even of death. That false hope, in turn, has the effect of setting suffering up as an enemy to be avoided at all costs. We can choose never to suffer!” Elaine M. Prevallet, S.L., Benedictine Nun
  • “Terry, dying doesn’t cause suffering. Resistance to dying causes suffering.”  Terry Tempest Williams quoting her dying mother in the book Refuge.


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 or on Amazon.


End-of-life concerns                                                                                 Number (%)

  • Losing autonomy                                                                     2,216 (90.3)
  • Less able to engage in activities making life enjoyable    2,208 (90.0)
  • Loss of dignity                                                                           1,666 (71.7)
  • Burden on family, friends/caregivers                                   1,179 (48.0)
  • Losing control of bodily functions                                         1,077 (43.9)
  • Inadequate pain control, or concern about it                         686 (28.0)
  • Financial implications of treatment                                           125 (5.1)

Don’t Tell Me, “God protected you!”

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Morning paddle the day before the disaster.

I had a nearly fatal accident last week. In the end, I just got soaked from a capsize of my kayak and lost some items. I thank God I am alive. After reading my story, some very well-meaning people may say, “God protected you!” Being a very devout man and former healthcare chaplain…that is the LAST thing I’d want to hear.

Setting the stage for disaster

Access to take-out through high water

I took advantage of a break in my schedule, and several good weather days ahead, to go camping, kayaking, and biking. I was off to a new place for me, Bogue Chitto State Park in Louisiana, not far from the Gulf Coast. The park stretches out over several miles of the Bogue Chitto River.

The river was at flood stage, and moving very fast. I scouted it out for two days and estimated that it would take me an hour to paddle from the put-in to the take-out. The only unknown was what exactly the take-out would look like.

I took two trips there to assess it, by car and by bike. I could see the river, but I couldn’t see the riverbank where I had to take out because of the high water. So, I dropped a pin on the map on my phone so I’d know when to look for it and set off to start the paddle.

Disaster strikes

Pleasant, sunny break on sandbar on Bogue Chitto River, LA

It was a sunny but cool day. I had no problem navigating the high, swift water, and even took a pleasant break on a sandbar.

As I approached the take-out and got closer to the bank, the strong current slammed me sideways into a downed tree and I flipped over and went totally under. I was in my sit-on-top kayak so there was no popping back upright. There was also no righting the kayak because I have no idea how to do an Eskimo roll. Once I came above water again, I found my boat and paddle.

The next task was to get out of the fast-moving water. Swimming with considerable effort, I found a fallen tree near the bank and was able to hold onto it. I spent several

At this place on the bank I made my self-rescue.

minutes, still in the water, just catching my breath. Was it two minutes or five minutes? Those few minutes also gave me time to think, “This is not a good situation.” When I left, I had told no one I was paddling and when to expect me back.

Again, with much effort, I swam in water that was mostly over my head, pulling my boat from tree to tree until I found solid ground. I knew I was close to the take-out, so I walked through the woods dragging my boat until I got to the road and eventually to the take-out. I had left my bike there earlier, and was able to ride the several miles back to my car.

Some things went right…

Fortunately, I did a lot of things right. I had on my life jacket, cinched up tight. It literally saved my life. I have always worn a fanny pack attached to my body for things I did not want to lose. In it was my car key.

I also had secured my phone in my life jacket. I had it out moments before to check for the take-out and set it on the floor of the kayak. Then I thought, “Maybe I ought to secure this puppy.” I am so glad I did.

Journal was baptized after the capsize.

Because of the cool temperature, I wore wet suit pants and socks. My t-shirt and turtleneck were synthetic material, which retains some warmth even when wet. I never felt cold, partly because I was working so hard.

My biggest regret, besides getting too close to that fallen tree, was I did not secure my cochlear implant processor. I lost it in the tumble. Fortunately, I had my old processor in the car as a backup. I lost my hat and a bottle of water, too.

I never had a fear that I would die. I could have, but my life jacket saved me. There was a moment when I got separated from my boat that I feared I would not be able to get back to it and be dragged down river to who knows where. Thankfully, I was able to use my paddle to pull the boat back toward me.

It’s “No problem”

Sitting at camp that night, I was glad to be alive and warm by the fire before me. I reviewed the events of the day. I thought about my friend, Wayne, who once reframed life’s challenges for me simply using the phrase, “No problem.”

For a situation in which you have no control: “No problem, there is nothing you can do about it.” For a situation in which you CAN do something about it: “No problem, take steps to figure it out.”

For me, this mishap was the latter, and I got through it with a series of “no problems.” Submerged in the water? No problem, get above water. Lost my boat? No problem, pull it back with my paddle. Need to avoid being swept downstream? No problem, swim to shore, relax, catch my breath. Got to get back to the car? No problem, get into the woods and find the road.

That’s not what I was thinking during the unfolding disaster, everything happened so fast I had no time to think of anything but the task at hand. But you know what they say about hindsight.

A real miracle

In my 45 years of paddling, I have never swamped. I always prepare for the possibility, thus the attached and secure fanny pack, the life jacket, and wet suit. But I also always thought it was a remote possibility, thus I did not secure my cochlear device. The next morning, I typed a long journal entry on my computer (my journal got soaked in the spill). Here is an excerpt:

“I have thought about what a disaster yesterday could have been. Had I been swept underwater and pinned in a sieve of the branches of the tree, I would have been dead in minutes. They might not have found my body for weeks as the flood waters receded. A similar accident took the life of a very skilled kayaker in Great Falls, Virginia in 2013. She got pinned under water and drowned.

“So many random, chance happenings prevented the capsize from becoming a disaster. When I first started paddling years ago I asked canoe guide, Ralph Shaw, why flood waters on whitewater rivers are so dangerous. After all, when the water rises all the rapids disappear. He said it is the volume of water that is the danger. That is what toppled me yesterday. Once the massive flood caught the edge of my boat, I was at the mercy of those waters….

“…I can hear some well-meaning people saying to me, ‘God protected you.’ I don’t want to hear that. The reason being is the terrible implication for all those who do drown in similar situations. Or what about hundreds of my patients who died while I was a nursing home and hospice chaplain? Following this reasoning, God did not protect them. It is a view that God picks winners and losers.

“I CAN say, ‘I thank God I am alive.’ But not that God saved me last week. I think of Cheryl Strayed, whom I wrote about in my blog, when she just said, ‘Thank you,’ at the end of her 1,000+ mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. I am simply glad to be alive every day.”

The miracle is not that I did not die last week — the real miracle it is that I am alive in the first place.


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 or on Amazon.

“To be wise is to be eternally curious.” — Buechner

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Frederick Buechner died recently at 96. There is a generation of ministers, myself included, who sought “the Buechner quote” to spice up a sermon. Here are some samples from my files (bold emphasis mine):

“There is a difference between a happy life and in living a meaningful life.… Living a meaningful life has to do with being a giver.… If you want to find meaning in your life you have to begin reaching out.… Happiness and unhappiness does not predict suicide but living a life without meaning does.”

The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

“If you don’t have doubts, you’re either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants-in-the-pants of faith. They keep it alive and moving.”

“It is as impossible for man to demonstrate the existence of God as it would be for even Sherlock Holmes to demonstrate the existence of Arthur Conan Doyle.”

“To be wise is to be eternally curious.”

“Thus, when you wake up in the morning, called by God to be a self again, if you want to know who you are, watch your feet. Because where your feet take you, that is who you are.”

Believing in him is not the same as believing things about him such as that he was born of a virgin and raised Lazarus from the dead. Instead, it is a matter of giving our hearts to him, of come hell or high water putting our money on him, the way a child believes in a mother or a father, the way a mother or a father believes in a child.”

“God himself does not give answers. He gives himself.”

“Listen to your life. All moments are key moments.”

“Faith is stepping out into the unknown with nothing to guide us but a hand just beyond our grasp.

“When you remember me, it means you have carried something of who I am with you, that I have left some mark of who I am on who you are. It means that you can summon me back to your mind even though countless years and miles may stand between us. It means that if we meet again, you will know me. It means that even after I die, you can still see my face and hear my voice and speak to me in your heart.”


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 or on Amazon.

Canada vs. U.S.A. at the End of Life

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Me: “Hello, this is the chaplain, Hank. I would like to come by your home for a visit Tuesday, at 10. Would that work for you?”

Patient: “Oh, hi… (pause) No, not then. How ‘bout Thursday at 10?”

Me: “Great, see you then.”

I thought of this conversation as I was digging down into a Canadian governmental report.

Why are we so different than our Canadian neighbors? We share a 5,525-mile-long border yet, in response to one question, we are miles apart. Do we really live and die that differently?

I have this nerdy side of myself. I read through medical journal articles and government reports looking for insights into all things end-of-life. The government of Canada and the State of Oregon recently released their annual reports on Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID) or, in Oregon, Death with Dignity. These are the rebranded names for what used to be called Physician Assisted Suicide.

One number jumped out

End-of-life concerns: U.S.A.

End-of-life concerns: CANADA

I’m reading through these reports and one number jumped out at me. Physicians who aided these terminally ill patients in hastening their deaths with medications were asked, “Why did the patient want to end their life by taking a lethal medication?”

In Oregon, the number one reason out of seven choices that patients gave was concern over “Losing Autonomy.” 93.3% of these patients listed that as one of their end-of-life concerns. In Canada, at the BOTTOM of a list of eleven possible concerns, “Loss of control / autonomy / independence” is only mentioned by 1.7% patients.

My interest was piqued by that “autonomy” difference. So, I contacted my friend, Tim Ward, who is now writing about his travels in Europe. He and his wife are taking “senior gap year” as in “senior citizen gap year” traveling. Tim is a Canadian by birth and has recently become a U.S. citizen.

He emailed back from Paris, “It might be that in Canada, autonomy is less of a value than, say, meaningful social connection” and “the rugged individualism of the West is part of eastern Oregon’s make up.”

Individualism/Autonomy vs. social connection

I think he is on to something here. For example, the social connection vs. autonomy shows up in how we provide healthcare. In the U.S. we do not provide universal healthcare, Canada does. There is no for-profit health insurance industry in Canada, yet everyone has access to healthcare. The U.S. system is built upon a for-profit system that leaves 8.6% (28 million) of our fellow citizens without health insurance. How we provide healthcare is just the most glaring example of how we value individual choices over the common good. Also, the social safety net is very weak for the poorest among us in the U.S. — as we witnessed in the pandemic.

I got curious about where in the world people are the happiest. Turns out, Canada (#15) and the U.S. (#16) show up next to each other in a recent ranking of the happiest countries. The top countries are in northern Europe.

From the Gallup World Poll report, “[Finland] and its neighbors Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Iceland all score very well on the measures the report uses to explain its findings: healthy life expectancy, GDP per capita, social support in times of trouble, low corruption and high social trust, generosity in a community where people look after each other and freedom to make key life decisions.”

Critics would say that’s true, they may be happier, but they pay very high taxes. The countries highest on the “Happiest” list are often labeled as “socialist” by those same critics. That’s a discussion for another time and place. The point here is that the autonomy cherished by U.S. citizens shows up in less “social support.”

The myth of the cowboy

Photo by Taylor Brandon on Unsplash

Tim’s other point, about “rugged individualism,” caught my eye because of another nerdy side of me — I read books about the American South and how we got the way we are down here. Currently, I am into How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America by Heather Cox Richardson.

Richardson is a historian with 1.6 million followers on Facebook. She writes on that platform often and produces long videos discussing various history-related topics. In this current book she explains the growth of the “myth of the cowboy,” the ultimate “rugged individual.” According to her, since the late 19th century, Americans have bought into this idea that anybody can attain whatever they want, that this country was built by autonomous “rugged individualists.” This is a myth because wealth actually went to a few elites from the days of the Founders to today.

Our founding documents lay out this contradiction in spades. The same property-owning White men who wrote, “All men are created equal,” enslaved Black people and did not give women or poor Whites a vote. We, as a nation, have been struggling with this contradiction ever since. Although Canadians do not have the history of slavery we do, we both share shameful treatment of indigenous peoples. Also, a discussion for another time and place. The point here is lionizing the “rugged individual” can show up as valuing autonomy at the expense of social connection.

Pastoral care at the end of life and autonomy

The phone exchange with the patient was typical of many we had over the months I was his chaplain. He ALWAYS chose another time. As a chaplain for those at the end of their lives I am always looking for ways to enhance autonomy, because I know it is so important to most of us. I gladly changed my plans. I figured this was my little way of affirming his autonomy.


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 or on Amazon.

“How effective is chemotherapy?” — That is the Question

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Would you spend $100,000 on a cancer treatment with many painful side effects that might help you survive 6.24 months as opposed to 5.91? That is 10 days longer in greater pain and suffering?

What if the doctor told you just that “this treatment will help you survive longer”? This is a true statement even though you might only survive 5.6% longer. That IS longer.

I have just discovered two great videos with Dr. Michael Greger discussing this very topic. Each video is less than seven minutes and worth every minute of your time. One is called “How Effective is Chemotherapy?” and the other is “How Much Does Chemotherapy Improve Survival?”

Let me be clear. I have no idea what I would do if I had a cancer diagnosis. I have close friends and family members who had advanced cancers and have been treated very successfully and are living active lives years after their treatments.

On the other hand, I have had patients, and, again, close friends and family members who received brutal chemotherapies and died. Many of those seemed to have received no benefit from their treatments and suffered great burdens. Many patients go bankrupt in order to pay for treatments.

Dr. Greger, in the first video says, “A large proportion of cancer patients reported their willingness to declare bankruptcy or sell their homes to pay for treatment. I mean, look, aren’t the high prices justified if new and innovative treatments offer significant benefits to patients? But you may be shocked to find out that many FDA-approved cancer drugs might lack clinical benefit.”

In his second video he referred to a study reported in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. “In fact, the most expensive drug they looked at, the one costing $169,836 a year, did not improve overall survival at all, and actually worsened quality of life. That’s $169,000 just to make you feel worse with no benefit. Why pay a penny for a treatment that doesn’t actually help?”

I am NOT giving medical advice here. I am encouraging all of us to ask questions of our physicians. If a recommended therapy is said to improve survival, ask, “How much improvement?” Is it just 10 days over six months while suffering uncomfortable side effects? Ask about cost. Would I be willing to spend my financial legacy for those 10 days?

This all reminds me of the importance of our own emotional and spiritual preparation for dying. When “our time” comes we will be ready to die… or be healed. Either way, we’re okay.


Cover Photo by Marcelo Leal 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 or on Amazon.

Alone into the Alone — “A Grief Observed” Revisited

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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.”


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 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.”


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 or on Amazon.

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.


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 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.


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 or on Amazon.

It’s Your Choice: You Can Change Your Views of Aging and Improve Your Life

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I seldom picture myself becoming a demented, incontinent, and disabled patient in a nursing home. My future may indeed look like that because both of my parents ended up in such a state. On top of that, I cared for hundreds of such patients as a chaplain. Many of them were my current age (74) or younger. Why not me?

I did prepare for such a future, having bought long-term care insurance twenty years ago. Again, my parents’ aging convinced me to get the policy. They both used every dollar from their nursing home insurance benefits.

Choosing more positive aging

An article I read recently prompted these thoughts. It was titled, “It’s Your Choice: You Can Change Your Views of Aging and Improve Your Life.” Here is how it starts:

Becca Levy, a professor at Yale University, studies the way our beliefs about aging affect physical and mental health.(JULIA GERACE)

“People’s beliefs about aging have a profound impact on their health, influencing everything from their memory and sensory perceptions to how well they walk, how fully they recover from disabling illness, and how long they live.

“When aging is seen as a negative experience (characterized by terms such as decrepit, incompetent, dependent, and senile), individuals tend to experience more stress in later life and engage less often in healthy behaviors such as exercise. When views are positive (signaled by words such as wise, alert, accomplished, and creative), people are more likely to be active and resilient and to have a stronger will to live.”

Being blind is “wonderful”

I remember asking an 80-something-old patient at the nursing home what it was like being blind. She said, “Wonderful. You learn so much being blind. I can tell who is coming into my room by the sound of their footsteps. I listen to talking books. It is just one learning experience after another.” That lady would be one of those resilient folks mentioned in the article.

Judith Graham of Kaiser Health News interviewed Yale professor Dr. Becca Levy about her newly-released book, Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long and Well You Live. The bottom line is that if we have a more positive and hopeful view of aging when we are younger, we will more successfully move through those years to the end.

In the interview, Dr. Levy gives several suggestions on assessing our attitudes and how to develop more positive ones. Maybe someday I, too, can say being blind is “wonderful.”




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 or on Amazon.

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