A hospice chaplain passes on wisdom on giving meaning to life, from those taking leave of it. As a hospice chaplain, Kerry Egan didn't offer sermons or prayers, unless they were requested; in fact, she found, the dying rarely want to talk about God, at least not overtly. Instead, she discovered she'd been granted a powerful chance to witness firsthand what she calls the "spiritual work of dying"--the work of finding or making meaning of one's life, the experiences it's contained and the people who have touched it, the betrayals, wounds, unfinished business, and unrealized dreams. Instead of talking, she mainly listened: to stories of hope and regret, shame and pride, mystery and revelation and secrets held too long. Most of all, though, she listened as her patients talked about love--love for their children and partners and friends; love they didn't know how to offer; love they gave unconditionally; love they, sometimes belatedly, learned to grant themselves. This isn't a book about dying--it's a book about living. And Egan isn't just passively bearing witness to these stories. An emergency procedure during the birth of her first child left her physically whole but emotionally and spiritually adrift. Her work as a hospice chaplain healed her, from a brokenness she came to see we all share. Each of her patients taught her something about what matters in the end--how to find courage in the face of fear or the strength to make amends; how to be profoundly compassionate and fiercely empathetic; how to see the world in grays instead of black and white. In this hopeful, moving, and beautiful book, she passes along all their precious and necessary gifts.
- ISBN-13: 9781594634819
- ISBN-10: 1594634815
- Publisher: Riverhead Books
- Publish Date: October 2016
- Page Count: 224
- Dimensions: 8.1 x 5.1 x 0.9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 0.65 pounds
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2016-08-08
- Reviewer: Staff
In her sophomore outing, Egan (Fumbling: A Journey of Love, Adventure and Renewal on the Camino de Santiago) masters the art of imparting critical life advice without coming off as preachy—a difficult feat. The author, a graduate of the Harvard Divinity School, works as an end-of-life chaplain—a profession sometimes belittled by others (a woman at her book club asks her, “You consider this work?”), yet helpful to those who need a healing catharsis in the limited time left to them, such as a mother who bore her son out of wedlock and lied to him about the identity of his father, and a father who blames himself for his four-year-old son’s death from meningitis. Egan is no stranger to sorrow herself, having experienced a psychotic break when doctors used ketamine during her emergency C-section, after her epidural anesthesia failed. Most of all, Egan’s empathetic tone is a comfort for both the healthy and the dying—whom, she opines, are not polar opposites. “People don’t somehow transform drastically into something else when they’re dying,” she says. “They’re just doing something you haven’t done yet.” Egan also counsels that things are never as they appear, that there are layers to every decision, good and bad. As the title suggests, this is not just a book about dying. It’s one that will inspire readers to make the most of every day. (Oct.)
Final life lessons
Several recent books, most notably Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, urge us to ask ourselves how we can live a good life, recognizing that death is a seamless part of our existence. Two compelling new accounts highlight individuals struggling with this question.
LESSONS FROM HOSPICE
In On Living, hospice chaplain Kerry Egan begins her vocation with some resistance, unsure that in her own brokenness she can provide comfort to those who are broken by life and waiting for death. Reluctant to talk about religion with her patients, she soon discovers that simply listening to their stories—of their families, of their losses and regrets, of love—heals her and them: “I don’t know if listening to other people’s 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.”
Egan shares the story of Gloria, a mother who’s been withholding a secret from her son and wants to reveal it as a gesture of love in her final days. A patient named Reggie expresses regret about a life that’s been “empty and alone,” leaving him without a single friend or family member to offer comfort. Then there’s Cynthia, who struggles to accept her overweight body even as she’s dying; like all people who are dying, Egan observes, Cynthia faces the reality that she will “no longer be able to experience this world in this body, ever again.” The lesson for those of us not dying, of course, is that living fully means embracing our imperfect selves with joy and love while we still can.
Egan’s evocative and eloquent book reminds us that we are defined by the stories we tell, and those stories often reveal how life can be “beautiful and crushing” at the same time.
DEATH WITH DIGNITY
Deborah Ziegler’s poignant and fierce Wild and Precious Life celebrates the life of her daughter, Brittany Maynard, who was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer in 2014 at the age of 29.
When Ziegler first learned of her daughter’s condition, she ran screaming into the dark night of hopelessness, praying that God would take her and not her daughter. She refused to accept her daughter’s impending death and wanted to pursue any treatment that would extend her life.
Brittany, however, taught her mother the one truth we most often avoid in such situations: A good death is part of a life well lived. After Brittany learned the gravity of her situation, she moved from California to Oregon, where a death with dignity law allowed her to make her own choices on how and when her life would end. Her decision prompted a nationwide discussion of assisted suicide and a patient’s right to make end-of-life decisions.
Skillfully interspersing stories of Brittany’s growing up with a touching account of her final year, Ziegler reminds us, in Brittany’s own words, of the real lesson we need to learn: “Live your lives well. Accept the sorrow with the joy, the ineffable grief with the love.”