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When life as we know it comes to an end, we search for words

By Ron King, Hospice Chaplain

LIFE is infinite.  Words are not.

As caregivers and hospice patients, we approach an inevitable end that comes on its own schedule. The words we use help us take the next step in that direction, connect with each other, and make some sense of what is happening.

When we realize that our words will always be inadequate to convey all we carry inside, we can use them more freely. When we accept the fact that no words will be complete or fully accurate, we can fumble about for language knowing that each attempt to fathom the unfathomable, to describe the indescribable allows us another chance to articulate, however imperfectly, the grief and hope we feel.

When life as we know it comes to an end, we search for words to contain the emotions, understanding, loss, and hope we experience.  We speak of “death and dying”, “passing away”, someone who is “no longer with us” or has “expired”.  None of these terms describe the fullness of our thoughts and feelings, but are attempts we make to communicate difficult mysteries as we pass through the “valley of the shadow of death” (another choice of words seeking to encompass the mystery of death).

Words are sometimes hard to find when caring for someone in hospiceWords by definition are dualistic. They provide us with a way to indicate what is true or false, what is right or wrong, what is best, or real, or important.  The questions and meanings we face at end of life won’t be contained inside these categories.  Words alone can never hold the love expressed in caring for another because love is also a mystery, just as life itself.

So we speak and listen for the words that shape us and guide us from many perspectives, each fitting in different places at different moments.  Our words are never adequate, yet each of them are needed as we seek comfort, confidence and acceptance.  We can’t define or explain what matters most, but we give and receive tiny bits of the infinite with words.

But sometimes silence allows us to express more. Sometimes, in silence, we find that we are not alone; we wait for the strength, comfort and direction we need, and we listen for life’s calling. Avoiding words gives space for us to rest and freedom to find our own way.  Quiet moments provide the stillness needed to experience peace.  Leaving a gap between words is an act of respect that allows words to be shaken off if unhelpful or to sink in deeply if needed.

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