(or Why You Should Come Hear Kerry Egan speak at Christ Church Greenwich on February 3)
by Becky Ford
Kerry Egan is a hospice chaplain—but what exactly does that mean? Does it involve a lot of hand-holding and Hail Marys? Last rites and death-bed confessions? If you are fortunate, you are still in the dark, or as my husband put it once, “still not a member of the club we will all one day be forced to join.”
And you are not alone. Hospice work in our time and culture can be a very mystifying thing to the uninitiated. “The dying are just people, like you and me, who are doing something we’ve never done,” Egan says, in her beautiful and deeply affecting 2016 memoir, On Living. “To die is a verb, like to jump, to eat or to laugh. It is something people do, not who they are.”
On Living is one of the best books about living that I have read in the last two years. Far from being morbid, Egan affirms something we all take for granted—the fact that we live—and assures us that dying is just the last chapter of our story. Interwoven with Egan’s own story about the traumatic birth of her second child, during which she experienced a drug-induced psychosis, On Living is suffused with a kind of hard won wisdom and empathy that only comes when your world is turned upside down.
Egan’s primary work as a hospice chaplain is the practice of presence. For patients who are not conscious, or, as one of her colleagues put it, “behind the wall of dementia,” her work becomes literally about presence. “I try to create a feeling of peace and acceptance. I imagine a giant bubble of love encompassing the patient and me,” she says.
Her book is also full of stories from patients who may not have much time but have many things to say. “Hospice chaplains,” Egan explains, “are the opposite of story tellers—they are story keepers.” And what exactly do the sick and dying talk about with a chaplain? Faith? God? The meaning of life? According to Egan, most people want to talk about their families. “They talk about the love they felt and the love they gave. Often, they talk about the love they didn’t receive, or the love they didn’t know how to offer, or the love they withheld or maybe never felt for the ones they should have loved unconditionally.”
Early in the book, Egan tells of one elderly woman wishing to reveal a long-held secret to her son. And there is the story of the young mother who is acutely aware of how much she will miss her body saying, “If only I had known, I would have danced more!” Perhaps most poignant of all are the words of a woman Egan is standing next to as the body of her beloved husband is removed after a long period of in-home hospice care. Instead of falling apart as Egan feared she would, she sagely says, “It’s a beautiful life, and then you leave.”