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The First Stage is “Denial”

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“Denial is a protective device, a shock absorber for the soul. It prevents us from acknowledging reality until we feel prepared to cope with that particular reality.…  We do not let go of our need to deny by beating ourselves into acceptance; we let go of our need to deny by allowing ourselves to become safe and strong enough to cope with the truth.”  Melody Beattie, The Language of Letting Go

“Denial is a sacred place. Denial allows us to stay in control. It is a ledge we sit on above a cliff. Sometimes we need to stay there a little longer.” Chaplain Rev. John, quoted in “Finding Faith Through Listening,” by Andrea L. Merrill, MD, JAMA Online, July 13, 2023

Denial can cut off meaningful conversations

We were told to take off our hospice name tags before entering the home because the wife didn’t want her husband to know he was dying. On my one and only visit into the home, the man appeared yellow because of the progression of liver cancer. Even his eyes were yellow, and it turned out he was within days of dying.

When I first walked into the home, I sat alone with the wife in the living room. She was very comfortable talking about her husband’s impending death. I asked her, “What is all this about not wearing our pins or talking about death? Does your husband know he is dying?” She said, “Oh, yes, he knows he is dying.” I asked, “How do you know he knows?” She responded, “Because he asked me.” I asked how she responded to him and she had told him, “Not while I’m around.”

I suggested, “What if you had said, ‘Yes, you are dying and I’m going to miss you. We have had a wonderful marriage and I love you.’” She said, “I couldn’t do that. That would be too painful.”

Living in the shadow of a life-threatening illness is difficult. Worse yet, when it becomes clear that there is going to be no recovery, we naturally resist any thought of what really lies ahead. Understandably, this wife wanted to avoid such a painful discussion. That is why we have such a strong urge to deny the reality of the incurable nature of the disease. We want to avoid the emotional pain of saying good-bye. The man died while his wife was at the grocery store—remember she said, “Not while I’m around.”

Denial is normal

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Denying the reality of the terminal phase of a disease is normal, expected, and perhaps even necessary. It gets us through the initial shock of such a fate. Acknowledging the truth may cause anger and depression, which are, again, normal responses.

The father of a twenty-nine-year-old son who died of leukemia told me, “I lived in denial of the certainty of my son’s death to the very end. I was completely surprised when he died. I feel so guilty about that denial.” I thought guilt was a strange feeling for such a natural response as denial, so I asked him about that. He said, “I felt guilty because if I had accepted that he was dying, there were so many other things I would have said to him, but I lost that opportunity.”

[This blog post was adapted from my Light in the Shadows: Meditations While Living with a Life-Threating Illness.]


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.

Words Matter: “Want” and “Need”

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The ethics committee turned to me, “Chaplain Dunn, we will have you talk to all the patients and families about ‘No CPR’ orders and advance directives.” I was just six months into a part-time chaplain’s position for which I had no training. The arc of my career was set for the next forty years in this one assignment.

Four decades later, I am still learning our words matter.

“Need” implies you have no choice

I read a recent JAMA Online article titled “Reconsidering the Language of Serious Illness,” which illustrates that when healthcare professionals use the word “need,” aggressive treatment is often the result. Example statements from the article:

  • “If her breathing gets any worse, she will need to be intubated.”
  • “He needs a central line, a special IV catheter in his neck, so we can give him blood pressure medicines.”
  • “If she doesn’t make any urine soon, she will need dialysis.”
  • “If she can’t be extubated soon, she will need a trach.”

The article’s authors argue that once you say the word “need,” it implies that the family has no choice but to proceed with the treatment. Who would deny their mother what she NEEDS?

“To need is to lack something essential”

From the article: To need is to lack something essential. As clinicians, we regularly use the word need to think about and describe the condition of patients with acute serious illness. These patients lack something essential for survival, and clinicians have the technologies and therapies to sustain their lives. So need rolls off our tongues as a shorthand to convey our clinical assessments of patients with acute life-threatening illness.”

Their suggestion for changing the language: When a patient is facing a life-threatening illness, instead of saying she ‘needs to be intubated,’ we suggest that clinicians say, ‘Her illness is getting worse. I would like to talk with you about what this means and what to do next.’”

This language change opens the conversation up to more options than just “the need to be intubated.” What does the patient think about their current situation? What are her preferences about being kept alive on a machine? What are her chances that she will ever get off the vent? Intubation is one possible choice, but others are equally possible, including shifting the focus from cure to comfort.

Changing “What does the patient WANT?” to “What does the patient THINK…”

Six years ago, I made a significant change in the language in one sentence in my Hard Choices for Loving People book. Once again, a medical journal article convinced me to change a question I had used for almost three decades. I wrote about this in a previous blog, “You Can’t Get What You Want.

Since the first edition of Hard Choices in 1990, I have included “What does the patient want?” as one of five questions to ask as an aid to making end-of-life decisions. In 2017, I changed it to: “What does the patient think about their current and probable future condition?”

A career using language to help with end-of-life decisions

Soon after I became a part-time nursing home chaplain in 1983, our administration formed an ethics committee. Virginia had just passed a “Natural Death Act,” which gave patients a right in the code to refuse treatment and provided a form (e.g., “living will”) to express their treatment preferences.

The committee included the director of nursing, the medical director, a lawyer, an administrator, and me. In response to the new law, our plan was to inform all patients and their families about advance directives and the option of a “No CPR” order. But who would deliver the information?

The committee turned to me, “Chaplain Dunn, we will have you talk to all the patients and families about ‘No CPR’ orders and advance directives.” I had no healthcare experience and had yet to take basic chaplain training. So, I learned how to talk to patients and families…by talking to patients and families

Over the next year, we went from less than 10% of our patients having an advance directive and/or “No CPR” order to over 80%. And I learned the importance of using my words to help the process along.

We published the first edition of Hard Choices for Loving People seven years later.

[Cover Photo by Kampus Production via Pexels]


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.

Thoughts on turning 75: Is it Leaving a Legacy or Denial of Death?

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“The [gentleman] doth protest too much, methinks.” Shakespeare

I just celebrated my 75th birthday with my children, their spouses, and grandchildren. Twelve of us gathered in Leesburg, Virginia. The highlight of the trip for me came on Friday night as I gave each of them a copy of my recently completed “Spiritual Autobiography.” It runs seventeen pages of 12-point type. But wait… there’s more.

A lifetime of writing left for “whoever”

In 2020, I completed the first phase of gathering my writings in a 3-inch binder called My Life as a Journey: Hank Dunn, 1948 – ____. I printed out every document I could find of my writings, 767 pages worth, going back to the 1970s. I will add a couple hundred more pages in the coming months.

The thought is to leave a paper copy of my thoughts and the experiences in my (so far) three-quarters of a century. One could say, “Oh, Hank must be afraid of dying because he is going to such lengths to make sure he is not forgotten.” Okay, maybe that is true. I have always said that I won’t know how I will handle my own impending death until I get that terminal diagnosis, which is still yet to be on the horizon.

But I have another motive for leaving such a significant paper trail. Here is an excerpt of the preface of my spiritual autobiography addressed to my kids and grands:

“You might not read this in the coming days. You don’t have to read it at all. I just want you to have it in case you are ever interested. I think back to how I was not curious about the lives of my parents and grandparents while they were still alive and of sound mind. Now, I can think of tons of questions like, ‘Dad, what was it like for you after your father died when you were ten years old?’ I never asked him. I wish I knew.”

I am just now reading The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life, written by three social psychologists in 2015. They build on the work of Ernest Becket’s Denial of Death (1974). The Worm goes to great lengths to prove that we all live in terror of death and that our actions and those of the culture we inhabit seek to comfort us. NOT ME.

Doth I protest too much? I like to think that, in my heart of hearts, I am leaving this extensive paper trail of my life and thinking and beliefs in case my children, grandchildren, or other descendants are ever curious about me. I am very comfortable with my deepest convictions, even though some would say they are not orthodox. Perhaps there will be other seekers of spirituality in my family who would benefit from reading about my path.

I have no control over whether anyone cares about what makes me tick. I cast these words out into the sea of my legacy, perhaps to drift on as flotsam. It’s what I can do in these last years of my life. Well, hopefully years.


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.

On The Other Hand, “I don’t want to die at home.”

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Conventional wisdom says, “A good death is at home with my family gathered around me.”

An alternative view says, “I don’t want to die at home.”

How many times have we seen in an obituary, “He died peacefully at home with his family gathered around him.” Families wear this as a badge of honor. They provided the best of care and met the patient’s wishes to remain at home.

Home is generally considered the preferred place to die. For the first time in generations, more people are dying at home than in the hospital*. I have seen some studies that consider dying at home, as opposed to dying in the hospital, as a “good outcome.”

“Not so fast, my friend.”

“Not so fast, my friend,” as Lee Corso would say on College Game Day. Many people die away from home by choice. As I said in a previous blog, there are some people who just feel more comfortable dying in the hospital. Some families do not want to live in a home where a family member died.

I have a friend who is in his 70s and his preference is to die away from home. He is in a second marriage, this time to a widow. He does not want to put his wife through the caregiving burden again.

Besides, he told me, he has so far paid for long term care insurance for years and would hate for all that money to go to waste. With the insurance, he is prepared financially to live for years in assisted living or a nursing home. “I will not put her through that again,” he said.

*See a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine, “Where Americans Die — Is There Really ‘No Place Like Home’?”


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.


Cover Photo by Zac Gudakov on Unsplash

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.”



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.

My 2021 books on a Civil War that will not go away

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Sometimes a wound is so deep and unhealed that I can’t stop myself from trying to understand what it all means. One only has to look at the images of the Confederate flag being carried into the U.S. Capitol last January 6th to know this war has not gone away.

“This war” is, of course, the American Civil War. In 2021, I again read books looking at “this mighty scourge,” as Lincoln called it in his second inaugural. I recorded a brief video at William Faulkner’s home. I quoted him, “For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863” (Intruder in the Dust, 1948). I was that lad growing up in the Deep South. I knew Pickett’s charge on the third day at Gettysburg was the “high water mark” of the Confederate nation.

I started my review of my 2021 reading with spiritual books and then books on science. Here are my Civil War reads:

Grant (2017) By Ron Chernow

I listened to all 48 hours of this 900+ page book. It was worth every minute. Grant overcame so many setbacks to succeed as a general and President. Most significantly, according to Chernow, was his conquering his struggles with alcohol, a fact he does not mention in his own memoir. Had the Civil War never happened, history might not have known the name of U.S. Grant. It was his strategy to cut off the Southern states from beyond the Mississippi River with the fall of Vicksburg (July 1863), send Sherman through Georgia (1864), and capture Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox. There was no finer moment in his life than when he offered generous terms of surrender to Lee. He hoped to begin the healing of a fractured nation. Sadly, as President, he had to fight the South again as it rose in the K.K.K. We are fortunate, as a nation, that Grant and Lincoln rose to the top when we needed them.

Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause (2021) By Ty Seidule

Author Ty Seidule was born on July 3rd into a family culture steeped in the myth of righteous cause for which we Southerners fought. When people said, “too bad you weren’t born on the 4th,” he’d reply that he was glad to have been born on the day of Pickett’s charge (there it is again). Seidule rose through the ranks in the U.S. Army and taught at West Point. Through his academic research and soul-searching, he concluded that the “lost cause” myth of the South was wrong. According to Seidule, the Civil War was about slavery and the Confederate soldiers who took up arms against the U.S. government were traitors. He makes a compelling argument that we no longer need to honor these traitors with monuments or U.S. Army bases.



In the Hands of Providence: Joshua L. Chamberlain and the American Civil War (1992) By Alice Rains Trulock

Like most, I knew of Chamberlain for only a few hours of his life on July 2, 1863, at Gettysburg. He commanded the 20th Maine at the extreme end of the Union line on Little Round Top. His troops were under repeated assault and running out of ammunition. Had he failed in defending his position, the entire U.S. Army on the field could have been destroyed in a flanking maneuver by the advancing Confederates. He ordered his men to fix bayonets, and they charged downhill, capturing more than 100 Southerners and saving the day. Many books and movies have captured this one moment. He was a college professor before the war. He became a college president and served four years as governor after returning to Maine. One other moving scene in Chamberlain’s military career was the last day of the war. He was the commander in charge of the ceremony at Appomattox, where the defeated rebels would surrender their arms. In the spirit that Grant set in the terms of surrender, Chamberlain ordered his men to salute their defeated foes, now countrymen once again.

Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865-1920 (1980, 2009) By Charles Reagan Wilson

With all believing God is on their side in a war, it is especially hard for the losers to explain what happened. This presented an exceptional problem for the dominant version of Christianity in the South (evangelical Protestant). In their view, the Yankees were more secular, more liberal, more urban, and less devoted Christians. This book by Charles Wilson, a former professor at the University of Mississippi and fellow church member with me in Oxford, explains the mental and theological gymnastics my Southern ancestors went through to explain how God was on their side. God sided with the South because their cause was righteous, but the North’s industrial strength was too much even for God. Dr. Wilson recently gave three lectures on this topic at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Oxford, and they are on YouTube. If there is any doubt that Southerners saw their cause as God’s cause, you need to look no further than two blocks from where Dr. Wilson lectured at St. Peter’s. On the Confederate monument (1907) on the Square is the inscription “They gave their lives for a just and holy cause.”

Fighting to defend slavery was “A JUST AND HOLY CAUSE.” Monument on the Square, Oxford, Mississippi


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.


Hank’s 2021 Books on the Spiritual Side of Science

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When I explore the secrets revealed by science, I feel in the presence of something sacred. As I looked back on my 2021 books written by scientists, they all had a spiritual spin to them. I started my review of books last week. Here are my books on the Spiritual Side of Science, reads for the year:

Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine (2018) By Alan Lightman

“As a physicist, Alan Lightman has always held a purely scientific view of the world.… But one summer evening, while looking at the stars from a small boat at sea, Lightman was overcome by the overwhelming sensation that he was merging with something larger than himself — a grand and eternal unity, a hint of something absolute and immaterial.”




Almost Human: The Astonishing Tale of Homo Naledi and the Discovery That Changed Our Human Story (2017) By Lee Berger and John Hawks

My interest in human evolution stems from one of my core spiritual beliefs — that the self is an illusion. My work with the dying, my reading death and dying literature, my contemplation of the mystics, and my pondering of my own Christian beliefs led me down this path. I am curious about how we evolved from being animal-like with no sense of self to being self-aware. Genesis pinpoints the moment when Adam and Eve’s eyes opened, and they saw they were naked — they became self-aware. This book is just another piece of this puzzle looking into our human ancestors. “This is Lee Berger’s own take on finding Homo Naledi, an all-new species on the human family tree and one of the greatest discoveries of the 21st century.”

The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature (2016) By J. Drew Lanham (audio read by the author)

Lanham is a “birder” with a PhD from Clemson University, where he teaches. He touches on two themes close to my heart — love of the outdoors and growing up Southern. Lanham’s viewpoint is that of a Black man who descended from generations of family in South Carolina, whose professional field is almost entirely comprised of White scholars and birders. “By turns angry, funny, elegiac, and heartbreaking, The Home Place is a remarkable meditation on nature and belonging, at once a deeply moving memoir and riveting exploration of the contradictions of Black identity in the rural South — and in America today.”


Useful Delusions: The Power and Paradox of the Self-Deceiving Brain (2021) By Shankar Vedantam and Bill Mesler

I have long been fascinated by the placebo effect and reviewed this book in a previous blog about my experience with it. Our delusions are not only helpful in medicine but marriage, too. Here is a quote from the book: “The researchers found that the couples who had the most inflated views of their partners — the ones who saw their relationships with the greatest degree of self-deception — were the happiest. This is hardly a new idea: Benjamin Franklin once offered the advice, ‘Keep your eyes wide open before marriage — and half-shut afterward.’” Vedantam hosts a great podcast, “Hidden Brain.”

Illness as Metaphor (1978) and AIDS and Its Metaphors (1989) By Susan Sontag in one audio program

In the 1978 monograph, “Sontag shows how the metaphors and myths surrounding certain illnesses, especially cancer, add greatly to the suffering of patients and often inhibit them from seeking proper treatment. By demystifying the fantasies surrounding cancer, Sontag shows cancer for what it is — just a disease. Cancer, she argues, is not a curse, not a punishment, certainly not an embarrassment, and it is highly curable, if good treatment is followed.” She then expands on this regarding AIDS. The backstory of these two pieces is that she twice “beat” cancer with treatment. She died of the disease in 2004. Her son, David Rieff, wrote of the tragic (in my view) ending of her life in Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son’s Memoir.

Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being near, in, on, or under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do (2014) By Wallace J. Nichols

It is no secret that I get spiritual refreshment from paddling my kayak. I did a video while on a kayak trip in the Mississippi Delta where I mentioned this book. The subtitle says it all. We humans benefit spiritually by being near water.




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.


Our Struggle with Dying Starts When We’re Toddlers

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[Adapted from a chapter in Light in the Shadows by Hank.]

“This is where our struggle with dying starts,” was my first thought.

“Putting It Together”, J.D. Hillberry

Many summers ago, I was wandering through an arts festival in Crested Butte, Colorado, when I came across the works of an artist who made pencil drawings. I was fascinated by a sketch he had made of his two-year-old son, depicting him as an unfinished jigsaw puzzle.

The child is looking down at his hand, which appears to be emerging from the flat surface of the paper. There is a puzzle piece in his grasp. He is searching for the place where that piece of himself fits. The artist titled the picture “Putting It Together.”

This memory of that Colorado summer came as I am now, once again, hanging out with a toddler and his infant sibling. This is my third tour of duty caring for little humans. First, there were my children. Later, I provided daycare once a week for two of my grandchildren through their early years. Now, we occasionally watch a friend’s two sons, who are 18 months and four months old.

Toddlers and the “Denial of Death”

I was watching my two grands after reading Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer-Prize winning

Hank’s grandson learning control at the light switch

book, The Denial of Death. Now, under the influence of these two new little ones in my life, I am rereading Becker. His main thesis is that the prospect of death is THE driving force in human behavior. Both the building of our individual ego or self and our culture’s attempt to shield us from the horror of death’s finality. Here’s a sample:

“[A child] avoids [despair] by building defenses; and these defenses allow him to feel a basic sense of self-worth, of meaningfulness, of power. They allow him to feel that he controls his life and his death, that he really does live and act as a willful and free individual, that he has a unique and self-fashioned identity, that he is somebody.… We don’t want to admit that we are fundamentally dishonest about reality, that we do not really control our own lives.” (Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death. p 55.)

Play and learning to take control

The toddlers in my life have shown this behavior. I remember my grandson discovering the light switch. I would stand him on a chair, and he would play with the switch. He would flip it up and then jerk his head toward the ceiling to see the light appear. Then, down and the light goes off. His actions were affecting his environment.

Hank’s granddaughter and the “singing bowl”

Let a child play with a musical instrument. My grandchildren both loved to bang on the piano or hit my singing bowl with the mallet. Any noise accomplished their unconscious goal of finding out they could influence the world around them.

Even the delight I recently observed of our friend’s toddler playing with the garden hose in our backyard revealed a growing sense of self. He put his fingers in the nozzle and felt the water. He found he could direct the flow of water into the air or on me. He was gaining control.

Fortunately, gaining control of one’s life can be beneficial to everyone concerned. Eventually, the child learns that studying improves your grades. Exercise makes you feel better. Treating people kindly encourages them to return the kindness.

Even toward the end of life we can practice some control, choosing to seek a cure for a terminal disease or focus more on easing physical and spiritual pain.

Letting go of the illusions we created

Third tour of duty with little humans

Every child makes their own progress toward gaining a feeling of control. This positive self-image that gives us a sense of meaningfulness, safety, and stability, allows us to grow and thrive. What is truly happening is that WE are creating this ego with the material that is handed to us genetically and emotionally. If we do the job adequately, we can live a life enjoying emotional and spiritual health.

So why did the sketch of the child make me think, “This is where our struggle with dying starts”? One day, in the last phase of life, all this meticulously constructed personality we spent our whole lives creating is revealed for what it is — a mask. The root meaning of the words “person” and “personality” is from the Latin persona, a mask worn by actors in a play.

Last week I wrote about dying without illusions. Watch a toddler and see those illusions being created.



Randomness, Death, and Mystery… It’s Okay

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Do you ever do this while reading random obituaries?

I see some person, about my age, who died of cancer. I read on and see it was lung cancer. I’m relieved. Obviously, they smoked. I don’t smoke. I won’t die.

Then, I read, a healthy person about my age dies suddenly from an undiagnosed brain aneurysm. No warning. They just drop dead. A random chance occurrence like a victim of a mass shooting at a grocery store.

We humans look for patterns — for reasons “why.” Some find comfort in the idea (*SPOILER ALERT* — not me) that God is in control of everything and sends some people a quick, unexplained death.

There are no accidents… or not?

I conducted a graveside funeral service years ago as a hospice chaplain. A woman came up to me after the service and told me her story. “A couple of years ago, my eight-year-old son was playing on the swing set in our backyard,” she started. “He jumped off the swing, fell on his head, broke his neck and died instantly. In my grief someone sent me a card that said, ‘With God there are no accidents.’”

I thought (but didn’t say), What a horrible thing to tell a grieving mother. God killed your son. Before I responded, I studied her face to see if I could catch some glimpse of how she received this message. I didn’t have to guess. She told me, “Those words have been so helpful to me.”

I was almost speechless. This woman is a complete stranger and I have no pastoral relationship with her. I would never want to take away a word that was helpful to her. I must have said something like, “I am so thankful that was helpful to you. It must have been a horrible time.”

What do I know? The card may be right.

Everything happens for a reason?

Contrast this with best-selling author Kate Bowler and her book Everything Happens for A Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved. The book jacket describes her situation:

“At thirty-five, everything in her life seems to point toward ‘blessing.’ She is thriving in her job, married to her high school sweetheart, and loves life with her newborn son. Then she is diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer.”

Bowler is an academic who has studied the “prosperity gospel.” That would be the megachurch televangelists who teach that if you just believe hard enough (and make a contribution) only good things will come your way. In her research, she saw the downside of this belief is that when you’re thrown life’s random tragedies you are left feeling like a loser.

Do yourself a favor and watch her TED talk on YouTube. Over six million people have viewed this 15-minutes of wisdom. She has learned to live with mystery… with randomness… with not having a “reason.” And it is okay.

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