Like many people who work with the sick and the dying, I had started out wanting to comfort people, to help them with their pain and their fear. I also wanted to understand why some people seem to die “better” than others, and I hoped to take the measure of my own fear of suffering and of death.
I was thirty-nine when I started my chaplaincy training. Early on I was paged by the night nurse to sit with a woman who was in the final stages of cancer. The nurse had found her crying and told me to sit and pray with her. It turned out that the dying woman had little inclination for prayer, and didn’t really want to talk with anyone. What she did want was a bowl of chocolate ice cream.
Luckily, this happened at a large urban hospital, and even though it was very late, I was able to find some ice cream. When I brought it to her, the surprised woman asked if I’d watch Jay Leno with her. That’s how I learned that if you want to work with the dying, you first have to learn to listen to their needs. Eventually, the woman yawned and said that she felt sleepy. As I rose to go, she asked if I’d say a prayer for her. I did, and she thanked me—the tears streaming down her cheeks.
Why do some people die “better” than others? And what constitutes a good death? I found that the medical staff certainly preferred it when someone died with a minimum of struggle and suffering, and with someone from the family present. Yet I was surprised at the number of patients who died after their loved ones had momentarily left the room. The medical staff told me that dying patients often seem to want to spare their loved ones a traumatic final parting. Then again, I came to wonder whether anyone really dies alone: not infrequently the dying would tell me that they saw loved ones or spiritual beings coming to accompany them. One particularly fearful patient lit up in wonder when he “saw” a beautiful woman standing just over my shoulder. I asked what she was doing, and he said she told him not to be afraid. He died peacefully a short time later.
Each of us will die a unique death. When I came to understand that fact, praying with the dying became a powerful way for me to share in this mystery and to participate in the patient’s suffering. I also experienced the power such prayer has in their lives.
One of my most memorable teachers was a cancer patient in her mid-seventies. Single most of her life, in her mid-fifties she had married a widower and suddenly acquired both doting stepchildren and grandchildren. I never thought I’d envy a dying person, but I envied her. She had married late in life, had found a family, and had traveled extensively with her husband—all things I longed to do. I would later come to know such happiness myself, but at the time this woman forced me to face my own heartache. She showed me how to accept God’s will—and that what really counts is to live deeply, passionately, daily.
I had a much younger patient who was dying of cancer. His mother regularly terrorized the medical staff and frequently threatened to sue the hospital. When he died sooner than anticipated, she made an unforgettable scene. Years later, I met her at the bedside of another patient. She radiated such peace and joy that I didn’t recognize her at first. She told me that after her son’s death she had decided to get a nursing degree and that for years she had been working with the families of dying children. Similarly, a young couple whose child died two weeks after birth was so devastated that I accompanied them for months of grief counseling. One day the young mother suddenly announced that she wanted to start making quilts for all the infants in the intensive care nursery. Her quilts brought comfort to many a stricken family, and she continued the custom long after the birth of her second child, a healthy daughter. She eventually organized a team of dedicated volunteers to carry on the project and it continues to this day.
What I learned from the dying was simple and life-giving. They taught me to live despite my fears. It all happened slowly and naturally.