Focusing on life, facing death

When Kerry Egan became a hospice chaplain, she was surprised to discover that over time, the beautiful, broken people she met helped to heal her from the traumatic circumstances she experienced during and after the birth of her first child. Egan relates that as she was having a C-section to deliver the baby, the epidural anesthesia failed. She was given an emergency anesthesia called ketamine, a drug that is usually used on horses, battlefields and at raves. The drug doesn’t function as a typical anesthesia does, by blocking pain. Instead, it is a dissociative anesthesia which triggers a psychotic state as it severs the mind-body connection.

In a rare case, Egan’s psychotic state wasn’t temporary. It lasted seven months, a time in which she was totally incapable of caring for her baby and experienced hallucinations, delusions, dissociation, suicidal thoughts and catatonia.

When Egan became well once again, her experience of terror and utmost vulnerability led her to work in hospice “in large part because I was afraid of death and illness and wanted to see what was on the other side of that loss.”

In her work as hospice chaplain, Egan makes it clear that she isn’t a theologian, preacher or priest. She adds, “I cannot comment on and do not pretend to be able to tease out the intricacies of soteriology – the theories of salvation.” In practice, as Egan works with the hospice patients, she is open to many views of salvation – not accepting that only through Jesus’ sacrifice can people be made right with God.

Egan’s book gives readers a poignant window into the lives of some of the hospice patients she served and who gave permission for her to share their stories. Hospice chaplains, she explains, are not storytellers, but story holders. When they listen to people’s stories, “they create a space – a sacred time and place – in which people can look at the lives they’ve led and try to figure out what it all means to them.”

In Egan’s experience, almost always people’s stories were about shame, grief and trauma. As she offered her presence and a listening ear, invariably, if the patients were still able to communicate verbally, stories would unfold, stories often hidden for decades and sometimes never shared with anyone else.

Egan explains the process: “So many times I’ve sat in the silence, the air heavy and tense, as a patient searches my face. When you do it often enough, you come to recognize when the moment arrives. There’s a feeling of electricity in the air, and the patient tests the charge. This is when I wait, knowing that if I just hold the line, if I wait in silence, no matter how hard that is, somehow, the patient will find the courage. He will say the unspeakable thing. He will admit, not just to himself but to another human being, the thing he thought he could never say, the hard thing he thought would destroy him just by admitting his existence in his life.”

Egan confronts myths surrounding the dying, pointing out that they aren’t more heroic, wise or noble than the general population, nor are pearls of wisdom and love usually spoken in people’s dying breaths. Rather, she points out, “The dying are just people, like you and me, who happen to be doing something we’ve never done. To die is a verb, like to jump, to eat or to laugh. It’s something people do, not who they are.”

On Living, as the title suggests, primarily focuses on life, even as patients face death. The book offers a gentle, wise view on not only the lives of hospice patients and of Egan herself, but on a sacred place and space in which we most likely all will enter, either to walk alongside someone who is dying in hospice, or as a hospice patient ourselves. 


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