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...