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Doing the hard work of dying well

by Ron King

As a chaplain, I often ask hospice patients, “What kind of work do you do?”   The first answer I often receive is “Nothing; I’m retired,” sometimes followed by a description of career details from earlier in life.  Thinking about previous job responsibilities, volunteer work, household or yard work becomes a pathway to the current work involved in dying well.

We can believe with conviction that as long as we have breath, there is work to do.  Although it isn’t the same work we did when we had greater strength and physical ability, the work we do near the end of life may be our greatest work.  I can never determine what the work is for another person, but we can be sure that we have the attention of loved ones and therefore the impact of our work can be great on those who are close to us.

When the work to be accomplished is made clear we will know what it is.  There is normally openness to listening for divine direction or calling when we come to a place in life we’ve never been before.  End of life work may be primarily internal in the form of prayer or final steps in emotional, intellectual, and spiritual development.  It may include life review or facing current personal challenges.  At times, the primary work is relational or may deal with external circumstances.  There may be a need to make choices, a confession, grant advice or blessing to others.

Work done at end of life may be more effective and important than the same work done at a different time. There is a sense of sacred importance when we know our days are numbered.  Since all our days are numbered from the time we are born, it might be a good perspective to live with every day. But when we become aware of this reality, even small changes and movements can take on new significance.  When we are attending to each word of a loved one knowing it may become one of our last conversations and memories, the work done by a dying person may live on in stories told of last words, wishes, thoughts, decisions or shared memories.

One task every hospice patient performs is to go before others into unknown territory.  There is opportunity to act as a guide helping others to be prepared when they reach the end of their own life journey.  In caring for hospice patients, it is a privilege to support loved ones in their own work and share the fruit of it together.  Let’s honor and validate the work anyone chooses to do in the final days of life.

Do you have a story about the end-of-life work a friend or loved one is doing? Share it with us in the Comments section.

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