Compassionate, informed advice about healthcare decision making

Posts Tagged ‘rituals’


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Let’s start with a trivia question. What do the following words or phrases have in common?:

bomb, chronic disease, demonic, homework, influencer, milestone, remix, Roman Catholicism, swampland, unattainable, worthwhile

Milestone: 100K on 2017 VW Passat

The answer in just a moment. I emphasized “milestone” because I hit one last week. Our 2017 VW Passat passed 100,000 miles. I go into buying a new car with the hope of getting 200,000 miles out of it. We’re halfway there.

It’s funny how we have so many “milestones” in our lives are related to automobiles. Think of getting a driver’s license (for me, at 16) or that first car (for me, a 1969 Camaro). Heck, getting the Passat in September 2017 was marked by another milestone — Hurricane Irma in Florida.

My wife and I were signing papers in the VW sales office when we noticed a long line of people holding propane tanks across the street. My wife commented, “Look at all the people getting ready to grill on Labor Day.” The salesman responded, “Are you crazy? They’re getting ready for the hurricane.”

We were new arrivals in the state and failed to make the connection with the approaching hurricane. That memory is now a milestone — or rather two milestones: our first hurricane and the purchase of our ’17 Passat.

Defining milestones

Photo by Steven Brown on Unsplash

The best I can tell, the Romans were the first to use milestones along their roads. I found a photo of a milestone after the Roman era marking the distance to “London.”

There are two definitions of “milestone,” according to Apple Dictionary:

1) A stone set up beside a road to mark the distance in miles to a particular place.

2) An action or event marking a significant change or stage in development.

Synonyms of “milestone” include climacteric, climax, corner, landmark, milepost, turning point, andwatershed.

1990 – Fairfax Nursing Center. Photo by Hank Dunn

As a hospice and nursing home chaplain, I observed many milestones in people’s lives. The most obvious milestone for the patient and their family is the event of the death itself. But there were also milestones leading up to the death.

I would hear about the milestone of someone’s diagnosis, “I will never forget sitting in the doctor’s office and hearing ‘You have cancer.’” Or the milestone of the day someone entered a nursing home. A turning point at which the patient loses their freedom, and the caregiver is freed from the burden of constant caregiving.

Use rituals instead of stones

Milestones: A new Tampa home in 1961 for the Dunn family and upon selling it in 2000

I am a fan of using rituals to mark milestones in our lives. For a chaplain, of course, that can include a prayer at the bedside after the patient takes their last breath.

When my parents sold the home they had lived in for almost 40 years, I felt it was important to mark the milestone. Mom and I picked up Dad at the nursing home and went to the house before the closing to sell it.

I pushed Dad in his wheelchair from room to room, and we recalled the people and events that took place in each. We had a prayer of thanksgiving. We wept.

So, what does “milestone” have in common with “homework,” “influencer,” “swampland,” and those other words I listed above? The first known use of each in the English language occurred in 1662. Who knew someone could be an “influencer” hundreds of years before the internet existed?


Author Chaplain Hank Dunn, MDiv, has sold over 4 million copies of his books Hard Choices for Loving Peopleand Light in the Shadows (also available on Amazon).

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Better-Late-Than-Never Rituals

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I was talking to a friend whose husband died unexpectedly last year from a heart attack. No warning. He died in his sleep. Because of the pandemic, they had no wake, no visitation, no funeral, no public events. She told me, “It’s like he just vanished.”

My mother-in-law, Sue, also died last year amidst COVID. We were fortunate to have a church funeral at the time, although it was only for immediate family. We sat spread out in family “pods.” The priest said all the familiar words that get said at these things. He knew her well, so it was very personal too.

Family and friends gather to say “good-bye” in COVID-delayed ritual

As meaningful as that service was, there remained a huge hole missing. There would have been scores, if not hundreds, who would have come from near and far to be with us in normal times. Family and friends would have filled the church, hugged our necks, and told us meaningful and funny stories about Sue. It didn’t happen.

Fast forward to last week. We finally buried Sue’s ashes in a public ritual. Those friends and family members did indeed come from near and far — from Dallas, Seattle, New York, Arizona, Chicago, Virginia, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Cleveland, and from just a few blocks away. Necks got hugged, and stories got told. You never get over grieving, but these public rituals can be an important part of the process.

Rituals denied by choice of the dead

As I write this, I think back to my brother’s death four years ago and what we missed. My sister, brother-in-law, and I traveled from Colorado and Virginia to visit Dennis barely two weeks before he died. I cherish the photo taken during that visit. The three of us stood outside his “cracker house” home on farmland north of Tallahassee. We would not see him again.

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

Dennis was a very private person. As he knew his death approached, he told his wife he did not want any services to remember him. Our only ritual was the dreaded phone call from my sister, “He’s gone!” It was my birthday, and my now widowed sister-in-law suggested that my sister not call me until a day later. You know — “don’t ruin his birthday.”

So, my sister and I cried together over the phone. That was that. We are now the last two of the six in our family of origin.

It is curious that we give the deceased such control over survivors’ grief rituals. How did my now-dead brother get the right to deny me gathering with family and friends to remember him? He won’t even be there. It would have been about us and not him — our needs, not his.

“Thanks for all the laughs.”

So, last week, we gathered at the columbarium of St. Paul’s on the Lake Catholic Church in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. Sue’s 88-year-old, life-long best friend, going back to their childhood days, reached into the niche, touched the urn, and said, “Thanks for all the laughs.”

These rituals are so important. It really is “better late than never.”

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