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The dying are teaching me how to live

By Lynne Hinton

Working as a hospice chaplain has changed me. Even though I had this job 25 years ago. Even though I knew what to expect. Even though I knew what was coming, knew what it means to stumble through the dark valley of death, trudge across the dry desert of dying, it changed me.

I grumble about the paperwork, whine during the on-call hours and the required meetings on corporate guidelines. I complain incessantly about compliance issues and productivity regulations. I do not love for-profit health care. But doing the work as a hospice chaplain has crept into my soul and changed me.

I would say the changes are mostly for the best. I’m better, I think. I’m more patient with my husband, more attentive to my parents, more present to the moment. I would say I’m a better person because of what I do.

I wouldn’t say, however, that this transformation, this “better me” has anything to do with my spiritual achievements or any great evolution on my part.

I just think that being with the terminally ill, being with the bereaved has softened me, widened my heart. I believe this work causes me to get hit on the head day after day with the knowledge we all have but generally cast aside, the clear and undeniable knowledge that we are all going to die. That our loved ones are going to die. And the thing is, that knowledge, being with people willing to flesh out that knowledge in front of me, doesn’t depress me or flatten me.

Instead it lifts me, inspires me, reminds me to pay attention, to live passionately and love fiercely, and when you think about it, how can that kind of living not transform you?

It makes no logical sense, but I feel more alive than I have in a long time. I am more in love with each day, more aware of each moment. It is as if this work has awakened me in some way I can’t even explain.

Sometimes I imagine it will not last. I sometimes worry that this transforming knowledge, this understanding of the brevity of life, this revelation cannot be sustained.

Sometimes I expect to wake up and have returned to that bland way of living, of taking everything and everyone for granted, to once again merely stumble through the valleys or trudge across the dry deserts.

I know that it is, as we learned from the play “Our Town,” hard to keep that knowledge in front of us all the time. But that’s an issue for another day, and I don’t think too much about another day.

That is, after all, another change brought about by this work. The dying say it all the time: Today is all I’ve got and today is all I need. And hearing that reminds me, once again, how exquisite are the lessons I learn.

Lynne Hinton is a minister and author: lynnehintonnm@aol.com
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