Author Kerry Egan on why the stories of the dying are surprisingly hopeful and what she believes about God.
Posted in , Dec 29, 2017
What can we learn from the dying?
That’s the subject of hospice chaplain Kerry Egan’s book, On Living. Egan discovered that listening to the stories of those who were near death offered her new insights into how to live and challenged stereotypes about the dying.
In the book, Egan shares true stories from her patients, with their permission. In On Living, the dying aren’t saints or sages, dispensing advice from under a halo. Instead, they are people sharing their mistakes, regrets and hopes.
“People who are dying are still living,” Egan tells Guideposts.org. “They are no different than you and me. They're just doing something we haven't done yet.”
Despite serious subjects like loss, pain and family secrets, the stories Egan shares are often moving, sometimes funny and surprisingly hopeful.
“The book is hopeful not because there was some artificial patina of hopefulness I wanted to paint over it,” Egan says. “I didn’t put hopefulness in there. It was already there. I just wrote it down. The reason the stories are hopeful, despite being really tragic, is that there's hope in the world.”
That hope manifests itself in different ways. One patient, who became pregnant as a young single woman, told Egan that she was forced to give her son up for adoption and then fought to get him back. While she was ultimately able to raise her son, she had not been able to tell him about his past. She begged Egan to tell the son the circumstances of his birth. Egan declined and encouraged the patient to find the courage to tell her son the truth. While she can't erase her difficult past, the patient is able to find strength and courage to talk with her son.
In the book, Egan also reveals she experienced a terrifying period of postpartum psychosis years before. Though she did not discuss it with her patients, she writes that her patients' stories helped her learn a new way to understand what had happened to her.
"For a long time, I thought my own life experiences marked me as strange and cursed," she writes. "But after hearing so many stories, I came to realize that I was like everyone else, and that while my experiences might be unique to me, the pain was quite ordinary, and I was not alone in it. That was more healing than anything else."
She hopes readers will find the book helpful, too.
“The book is really about making meaning,” Egan says. “To see somebody else make meaning of what has been so anguish-filled for an entire lifetime, and then to be able to find meaning in it... I mean, if people in the last month of life can do it, then we can do it too. It doesn't mean it's easy, and it takes time, but that's my hope. That’s what people would say to me when they were dying, ‘I wish I'd had a chance to do this sooner.’”
In an interview with Guideposts.org, Egan answered some questions about what the dying experience and what she discovered in her work.
Guideposts: In the book, you write “We are becoming who we already are up until the moment we die.” What did you mean by that?
Kerry Egan: I can’t tell you the number of patients who would say, ‘I’m 88 years old but I still feel like I’m 25.’ So, that is still in you, and yet you are not that person any more. They were still changing, still growing. Who they are as a person is still developing.”
Guideposts: Did anyone mention near death experiences?
KE: No, but one of the most common experiences was that their mothers come to visit them towards the end. [This didn’t happen to everybody], but if they have a visitor [who has died] they’re visited by their mother. People don’t understand these to be hallucinations. They do not claim they’re dreams. They believe they have an absolute real experience of their mothers coming to them and telling them not to worry, or just standing with them, waving to them. It’s enormously comforting. And, people have experience with angels. I believe them because I believe it’s part of my job as a chaplain to believe people, to believe what they experience and help them figure out what it means.
Guideposts: Can you tell me about one of those stories?
KE: One that stood out to me was a woman who saw two women visit her. One of them was her mother. Her mother [who was deceased] was holding hands with another woman and they were smiling at her. She was very happy to see her mom, but she couldn’t figure out who the other woman was. Then, she was leafing through some albums with her daughter, and she came across a photo. She realized the woman holding her mother’s hand was her birth mother. Her birth mother had died giving birth to her, so she had never met her. She didn’t know the other woman was her birth mother until she saw the photo.
Guideposts: You write about your own traumatic experience, and you talk about how your patients found meaning in what happened to them. What do you hope readers will take from this?
KE: There’s nothing stopping you and me from doing this meaning-making work right now. It’s not like you have to be dying to do it. We just don’t do it. We don’t take time to think about it and talk about and pray about it and ask for guidance from God. [We] can spend some time figuring out, ‘What do I believe all this meant?’ I can look at the really painful places, the unhealed places in my life, the places that are still open wounds, and I can heal them. It’s my hope that people read this book and think, ‘I can do this too.’
Guideposts: This is a bit philosophical, but what has your work taught you about the nature of God?
KE: I think that as human beings we put a lot of limits on God. I think God is gentler than we imagine and stronger and kinder more creative than we imagine and has a bigger sense of humor than we imagine. God’s ability to heal the human heart is so much greater than I imagine.