What do people talk about when they’re dying?
If there is anybody who is able to answer this question, it is Kerry Egan. As a chaplain she visits, talks and listens to dying people and their life stories – offering them a precious gift that she calls “a peaceful presence”. In her book “On Living” she shares the touching stories of some of her patients and the effects that these stories have had on her own life so far.
This is not just a book worth reading – it’s a book worth reading, rereading, thinking and rethinking about. It’s a book that made me stop and remember what is really important in life leaving me with a feeling of truth. And that’s what I actually love so much about On Living: It’s just true. That’s where most of us stop pretending and start telling stories from within our souls. That’s when we all let the mask drop and start talking about what really matters: In the face of death. Here are just some of the messages that resonated with me so deeply. Enjoy them and take these messages into your next day, week, month and year.
“I don’t know if listening to other people’s life stories as they die can make you wise, but I do know that it can heal your soul. I know this because those stories healed mine.”
– Kerry Egan, On Living
1. “Mostly they talk about their families”
So, what do people who are sick and dying talk about with a chaplain? “Mostly, they talk about their families, their mothers and fathers, their sons and daughters.”, Kerry says, “they talk about the love they felt and the love they gave. Often they talk about the love they didn’t receive or the love they didn’t know how to offer, or about love they withheld or maybe never felt for the ones they should have loved unconditionally. And sometimes, when they are actively dying, fluid gurgling in their throats, they reach out their hands to things I cannot see and they call their parents’ names: Mama, Daddy, Mother.”
2. “Every single person out there has a crazy story”
We all grow up in a society that teaches us what is “good” and “bad”, “normal” and “abnormal”, “right” and “wrong”. Too often, these definitions are the reason we decide to keep our most important stories untold – stories that happened to us, that shaped our selves and made us into the people we are today, but are too “crazy”, too “embarrassing” to talk about. Just because they don’t live up to the absurd definition of a “normal” life that does not even exist for anybody of us. “When you talk to hundreds of people who are dying, you come to realize something startling: Every single person out there has a crazy story. Every single person has some bizarre, life-shattering, pull-the-rug-out-from-under-you story in their past, or will experience one in their future. Every shopper in the grocery store, every telemarketer on the phone, every mother at school pickup, every banker striding down the sidewalk. Money, faith, popularity, beauty, power – nothing prevents it.“
3. They start to tell shame-filled secrets
Surprisingly, we don’t just “have” crazy stories but – in most cases – seem to have an unexplainable urge to share these stories. But why do people decide to share them with a chaplain? Maybe it is knowing that there is nothing left to lose, nothing to be afraid of anymore, which makes it so much easier to tell these stories in the face of death. Or it is just the fact that death sweeps away everything unreal and clears the way for letting our true selves be seen. “When someone shares a shameful secret with me, it doesn’t feel like confession. It feels like an unburdening.“, Kerry says. For telling stories we energetically held back our entire lives, is anything but easy: “Shame-filled secrets are told – when they are told at all – with bodies trembling and voices shaking so hard they are barely comprehensible, with fear and urgency in equal measure, throbbing with the enormous energy it has taken to keep them secret for so long.”
The best Coffee House to read this book in
Since I am enjoying my last days of the year in Stuttgart, I would like to recommend the one and only Leonhardts to you. It is located on the giant television tower and therefore offers a wonderful view of the beautiful city of Stuttgart. Drinking coffee above the city roofs while reading On Living is maybe one of the best ways to take a big step away from all of your small, minor problems and returning to what really matters instead. Read this book. Seriously.
Photo credits: Images by the auhor.