I’ve been asked a number of times since The Art of Dying was released how I could have ended up writing it. I look too young, people have said. Well, there are a number of quick responses to that. As a hospice volunteer, I’ve been around dying people a considerable amount, and I’ve learned a lot as a volunteer. I also spent a year working at a funeral home. So, I’m familiar with this topic. I can also say that being thirty-something doesn’t make me immune from death. I have a few creaks in my joints and aches in my muscles. Nothing to cause much bother but enough to know that my body’s youthful days are behind it. And I’ve had acquaintances who died too, either colleagues or college friends.
So, I’m not completely free from thoughts of death. But writing a book about it is a little different from just thinking about death. How I discovered and became deeply involved in learning the art of dying is a more lengthy story.
It began when I was visiting my great aunt as she was dying of breast cancer. She was in the same apartment as she’d lived in for decades, the same apartment where I’d visited her as a child. I saw her twice in her final days and the last time she was very sick and only a week away from death. The hospice team had brought in a hospital bed to replace the bed in her room. She spent most of her time there in bed. She couldn’t say much, at least much that I could understand. And so the responsibility came to me to do something with the time.
I had come in order to see my aunt, who I knew was dying. But I felt that I could do nothing more than see her. Conversation seemed silly. Saying anything at all seemed a little ridiculous in that moment. And it wasn’t like we shared a long history of memories to recall. She was nearly 60 years older, my grandfather’s sister, and all I remembered was her habit of giving my brother, my sister, and me one-serving boxes of sugary cereal.
I left my two visits with my great aunt with the feeling that I had completely failed. I had nothing, within myself, to bring to those moments. I killed time and left when appropriate. But I couldn’t really do anything for her. I stood there awkwardly trying to think of things to say. In an important moment, one of the most important periods of life, I had nothing to offer. I’d failed.
That experience made me aware that I needed to develop the ability to be with a dying or very ill person. While this was my first experience, I knew it wouldn’t be my last. So my senses were heightened to the issue.
When I later read Dallas Willard’s book, The Divine Conspiracy, I noticed the three pages he gives to death. In the 300 pages of the book, those are the ones I best remember. He says that death is like falling asleep and waking up in a new place. Or that it is like walking from one room into another. In the doorway, death, some people see both rooms at the same time. Then, Willard says, before the heavy use of anesthesia it was common for people to speak with family members who had already died. It was as if these familiar faces had come to ease the dying person’s entry into eternity.
What!!! I’d never heard this before. It seemed unbelievable to me that I was learning about this for the first time. It seemed too important to only be discovering in my late 20s. After this, I wanted to learn as much as I could about the end of life. There was a certain morbid curiosity about it, but mainly I wanted to learn because I saw it as essential to my life–my living rightly and my ability to develop the skills necessary to be with the next family member who might be on her deathbed.
What I found in my research was that Christians once had very specific rituals and practices surrounding death. As the site of death moved to the hospital, these practices fell away because professionals, with medical expertise, stepped in. However, we need these practices now more than ever, because today–more than in the last 80 years–we are likely to be involved in someone’s dying. We’re likely to be involved because dying has become an extended, drawn out process. Diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes are our leading causes of death. These are chronic and gradual illnesses, and they require the extensive involvement of family members in caregiving. In fact, about 67 million Americans are caring for an elderly person, usually a family member.
My experience with my aunt would certainly not be my last. As a hospice volunteer, I’ve been able to be with others on their deathbed. I’ve been able to spend those moments in meaningful ways that I hope have helped the dying. It has certainly made my life more meaningful. And I hope The Art of Dying will help readers in the same way.