I recently finished reading On Living, Kerry Egan’s memoir of her work as a hospice chaplain. I took my time reading the book: like dark chocolate or strong medicine, On Living is best in small, savored doses. Each chapter describes patients Egan has met over the years and the lessons she’s gained from those encounters, and these seemingly simple accounts are surprisingly powerful.
Early in the book, Egan struggles to describe her job to a woman at a party who can’t quite understand what it is, exactly, that hospice chaplains do. I suppose the word “chaplain” evokes images that might not match the reality of the person standing next to you at a party: Egan isn’t a priest, nun, or pastor, and her book isn’t full of the God-talk and conventional piety you might expect from clergy. But that, actually, is what makes the book so powerful.
Egan doesn’t spend much time preaching, praying, or enacting overtly religious rituals at the bedsides of dying patients; instead, she describes herself as showing up and spending lots of time listening. Egan calls this endeavor “being present,” and it seems a deceptively simple thing: surely anyone with a backside to sit on and a mouth that closes is equipped to sit and listen, but of course it isn’t that easy.
Judging from the stories Egan tells, a chaplain’s most powerful skills are the abilities to listen, empathize, and refrain from casting judgement. A good chaplain, Egan suggests, suspends her desire to jump in and fix the situations she encounters. Better than even the best advice and encouragement is a well-timed nod or genuine question that reflects a patient back upon her own lived experience: gestures that say “Tell me more” rather than “Let me tell you how it is.”
This practice of “being present,” in other words, is amazingly difficult exactly because it is unbelievably simple. “This is a real job,” Egan’s fellow party-goer asks her with a mix of hostility and incredulity, “that people go to graduate school for?” This question points to the paradox of pastoral care: the things that seem the simplest to do are actually the most difficult, many friends and family members avoiding awkward visits to the hospital or nursing home exactly because they don’t know how to act, what to do, or what to say when faced with a person who is terminally ill.
I’m not a hospice chaplain, but I found myself nodding as I read Egan’s book, her experience at the bedside of dying patients ringing true with my experience giving consulting interviews as a Senior Dharma Teacher. When I started giving interviews, a Zen Master friend gave me a bit of advice that has proven to be invaluable. Giving consulting interviews, he explained, isn’t about answering questions; it’s about sharing an experience.
In the years I’ve been giving interviews, I’ve decided he’s exactly right on that point. The folks who come into the Zen Center interview room aren’t asking for advice; instead, they want the reassurance of knowing they aren’t alone in whatever challenge they face. Faced with a receptive listener who has reined in her desire to jump in and fix their life situation, the folks who come talk to me usually come to their own clarity and conclusions. All I do by being present is give them permission to listen to their own gut.
Being a hospice chaplain, Egan explains, isn’t about being a storyteller; it’s about being a story holder. As people face the end of their lives, they are in a unique position to look back and reflect, and sometimes what they want is nothing more than a nonjudgmental person to sit quietly alongside them, ready to cherish whatever stories they want to share. On Living is a repository of these stories, and that is what makes it priceless.
DISCLOSURE: I received a free copy of On Living through a Goodreads giveaway.