The Work of Dying Well

In walking our particular path over the years and miles of our life journey, each of us have done, seen and heard things that we carry to the end of life. That experience and the wisdom that comes with it will be lost unless we recall and pass along to those we love the lessons they need to face challenges on their own path.

Some memories will be pleasant and enjoyable. They may be stories that have been told countless times. They need to be heard again because they are told and heard from a different perspective and with a different impact when shared at the edge of eternity. The burden of dying is slightly lifted when we can be grateful for the good times that happened, more than being remorseful about the good times that won’t be shared together.

Memories often arise that have been forgotten for decades, even in periods of dementia. Thoughts from the past may be a dysfunction of the brain or the result of medication, or they may be a gift from times long past to future generations- a gift that brings hope, direction and confidence for children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and beyond. By hearing the memories of loved ones at a time when our attention is fully focused, we learn where we’ve
come from and who we are.

Other memories will be painful- difficult to speak and to hear. This is harder work, but may save others from having to learn many lessons the hard way. Some of the most important lessons in life have been costly and can become precious reminders about what is important, fair, true, and loving.

This is the work of witness and confession. Witnessing and confessing to what is good, valuable, beautiful and true as well as what is broken, false and destructive.

We don’t know that a person on hospice care will be the next one to die, but that is the anticipated order of events. Because death is expected in a short time, a hospice patient may act as a guide through decisions and territory that is new to them, and unseen by others.

As a pioneer in the dying process, we teach by example more than instruction. We don’t need to understand what we are going through at the end of life in order to demonstrate a spirit of courage in facing final challenges, pain, the struggle for acceptance and meaning in the face of death.

Even the fear of dying can be a shared experience that teaches us how to overcome those fears together. The ones who remain may be able to better prepare for their own death with less fear because of watching and feeling the fears of loved ones who have gone before.

Dying first isn’t easy because you know you are leaving those you love alone. The hospice journey may be the best time to help others live independently. There are practical matters like sharing insurance records, titles and deeds, access to investments, passwords to online accounts, medical choices and wishes for a memorial service.

Beyond practical details, there are other areas of getting loved ones ready to live without you. Affirm the gifts and strength of those who care. Remind them of beliefs you share that are easily forgotten in times of loss. Let them know as you grow in confidence and acceptance of your final breath. Encourage them to sing and love deeply again when you are gone. This is your final blessing. Final words can be food for healing grief or old wounds and opening new doors. Gifts given at the end of life can grow and be treasured for years to come.

The greatest work we can do for ourselves and others may be prayer- not to necessarily bring us better health and more days, but to change our spirit and to connect us with each other and with the One outside our suffering who understands and is able to help. Whatever your practice of prayer or meditation may be, the peace it brings to you brings peace to those around you as well.

Prayer opens our heart and focuses our attention on what comes next. If we are able to receive a glimpse about what may be on the other side when we are at the edge, we can rest more comfortably and suggest to others that death might not be something to dread as much as we naturally do. Things seen and heard in the liminal space between life and death may be seen with greatest clarity in prayer.

When the pain may be overwhelming, the medication leave us too drowsy or our body leave us too weak to do the work we would like to do, there may be a grace that comes, allowing us the clarity, strength and freedom in the hidden places of our soul to do the best and most important work we’ve ever done. A simple smile, loving gaze or gentle touch sometimes accomplishes more than our greatest efforts.

Ron King, D.Min., LMFT

Ron King, D.Min., LMFT

Hospice Chaplain

Ron has been involved in ministry to people for more than 30 years. As a chaplain with Holy Redeemer Hospice, he hears the life stories of patients daily and faces end-of-life challenges with each one. Along with being a member of the ethics committee, regularly presiding at memorial services and teaching hospice professionals, his primary joy comes in seeing the lessons of life revealed in so many lives rich with memories and questions.

Part of the perspective he brings to the hospice experience is placing this life event in the context of an entire life and generation of family history. As a chaplain, Ron works from a strong belief that the spiritual dynamics create a sacred space for hope and personal growth until the last breath and beyond, for both patients and caregivers.  Honoring each individual path toward the end of life, he believes the work caregivers do and the reward they receive is more than physical. As a hospice chaplain, he considers himself a companion on that path.

On his own life’s path, Ron has been the clinical director of a residential addiction center, a community restorative justice organization, and pastoral staff. In addition to his work with hospice patients, Ron is a licensed marriage and family therapist working with families at all stages of the life cycle. This particular practice is enhanced by his own experience of nearly four decades of marriage, two daughters, and four grandchildren.
Ron King, D.Min., LMFT

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One Response to “The Work of Dying Well”

  1. Barbara

    Beautifully expressed, Ron. You’ve encapsulated what so many on hospice would like to do to prepare their loved ones…or what they are already doing without realizing it. I think this will bring peace to those on hospice and to those caring for them.


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