The Slow Sacred Texts of the Dying



My sister sits daily at the bedsides of the dying.

She is a hospice chaplain. This is her job.

On a recent visit to a private residence, my sister was greeted by the 80-year-old daughter of a 104-year-old dying woman. The daughter, white-haired and stooped, opened the door and in a sing-song drawl called over her shoulder, “Mama, the preacher’s here,” a pronouncement that had my sister rubber-necking over her own shoulder looking for “the preacher” who had snuck in behind her.

This geriatric announcement, “Mama, the preacher’s here,” while so funny on so many levels, is also so true. My sister is a preacher. She preaches from the slow, sacred texts of the dying’s last days.

This is what she preaches:

We need to fearlessly affirm. The dying shed all inhibitions. My sister, middle-aged and of normal attractiveness, has been told she’s beautiful by more patients than she can count. The approach of death has not affected these people’s eyesight; it’s affected their inhibition, shattering the veneer of decorum that has kept them from voicing their true feelings and thoughts. The words come forth in childlike innocence and honesty and are therefore the furthest thing from flattery because they are offered by those with nothing to lose or gain. My sister receives these words like the benedictions they are.

We need to connect at all costs. On one particular visit, my sister entered a hospital room to find the patient’s children hunched, each in his or her own chair, paralyzed in isolation and anxiety at the decline of their mother. My sister sat with them, holding their mother’s hand. Gently, she suggested that the patient’s 60-year-old daughter place her hand on her mother’s leg.

It was a simple act, but in touching her mother, this grieving woman broke the spell that held her apart from the one she wanted to love. Soon she was massaging her mother’s feet as her siblings swapped stories from their childhood. One truly hilarious story involved a rabid squirrel, a garbage can, and a baseball bat. Soon they were weeping with laughter, the beauty of their connectedness restored by physical contact and their shared stories.

We need to name our emotions. “I’m so sad,” said a 90-year-old patient, tears welling in his eyes, when my sister asked how he was doing. He went on to explain how his cancer had come back just when he was so enjoying life. Others have said, “I’m scared” or “I’m so grateful.”

While those patients who plant themselves in gratitude have faces that shine with a unique tranquility, my sister contends that the important thing is not trying to fake joy or thanksgiving, but voice emotions that are true. For it is in the naming of their feelings that space is opened for connection and transformation. Fear and sadness are not the enemy, avoidance is. The ones who can name their emotions go peacefully. The ones who respond with “I’m fine,” have a tougher time.

We need to stand as empathetic witnesses to each other’s pain. Hospice chaplaincy rule number one: Do not satisfy your own curiosity. Dying people and the relatives of dying people find diagnostic reporting of their medical conditions exhausting. If they are emotionally healthy what they want and need is someone to attend to their feelings, fears, regrets, hopes. Receiving and holding another’s fears and hopes without judgment or advice-giving is to stand as an empathetic witness, honouring the grieving one’s experience. It is a service we can give anyone in pain. All that is needed is a commitment to heed Rumi’s famous suggestion: “Keep your eye on the bandaged place.”

We need to learn to be alone. In the year before he died, the late great psychologist and spiritual director, Gerald May, wrote The Wisdom of the Wilderness, a book that chronicles his experiences in a state park where he sojourned years before when he felt his life unraveling. During his days of wilderness solitude he came to experience God as “The Great Slowing,” a presence powerfully immediate, healing, re-orientating, and hospitable.

“Hospitality asks for the creation of an empty space, where the guests may find their own souls,” wrote Henri Nouwen.

This might be the key to all the lessons my sister has learned in her bedside vigils. It is this “empty space,” nurtured through solitude, that allows not only the guest but the host to find her own soul as well.

Solitude is like a little death, a death to the distractions and preoccupations of what we assume is giving us meaning, but is only bolstering the charade we are playing.

In solitude we open space for empathetic witness, connection, affirmation and non-judgmental companioning.

These are the lessons my sister has learned.

This is what she preaches.


Image credit: Marcia Pevey

Leah Kostamo
Leah Kostamo is the author of Planted: a Story of Creation, Calling and Community, a book Eugene H. Peterson called “remarkable” and Margaret Atwood called “clear-sighted and humorous.” She likes to read (and write) wise and winsome stories that inspire people to be the change they want to see in the world. She can be found online and @leahkostamo. She ministers with the Christian conservation organization, A Rocha.
Leah Kostamo
Leah Kostamo
Leah Kostamo

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  1. Powerful words. And very true. I am a hospice volunteer. I sit with those who are alone and very near death. They often are asleep or comatose. Sometimes, I speak to them, and sometimes, I sit quietly, holding their hand and matching my breath to theirs. Solitude is palpable there. I also just lost my father, who had hospice care in his home. Your words really resonate with the experience of companioning my own father through his transition, especially the need for connection as well as solitute. I gravitate to solitude, but I had to remind myself to leave my father alone sometimes, to give him the gift of solitude as well. So very important. Thank you.

  2. pastordt says:

    Goodness, this is powerful. Hard and beautiful truths here, Leah. Thank you. And thank your sister for the good, good work she is doing.

  3. Roos Woller says:

    I Really like the part where you say we have to name our emotions and that we all have a desire to deeply connect, both these things have been lessons I learned in the past year and isn’t it so true we all need connection.

    • Leah Kostamo says:

      Hi Roos, thanks for commenting. YES, so true — we all need connection. Thanks for connecting here. 🙂

  4. Heather Kuhns says:

    A million thanks for voicing this….perfect timing too.

  5. This is just so beautiful, Leah. Your sister certainly preaches.

  6. This is so lovely, Leah. I heard a show from On Being about how dying is another stage of life, and how if we can lean into it we can learn its lessons. I feel like you’ve helped me do that here 🙂

  7. Having just lost my father this week, these are necessary words. Thank you.

  8. Donna-Jean Brown says:

    Beautiful description of how rich an experience it can be to sit with the dying – and how we can transfer that wisdom to sitting with each other during life’s painful times. Thank you for this, Leah.

  9. I was a hospice social worker and this resonates with my own experience. The best gift I could offer patients and families was to enter into their pain and walk alongside them. I could bear witness. I could advise when and where needed but mostly I could listen.

    • Leah Kostamo says:

      Thanks, Leigh, for sharing your own experience with this. Yes, bear witness seems to be the best gift we can give those in the grips of suffering.

  10. Thank you for this thrum of peace…

    • Leah Kostamo says:

      Ah, I like that word — thrum — going try reverberate with that spirit of peace today.

  11. boelle kirby says:

    Leah, I am so thankful that you are sharing your wisdom writing with SheLoves. I appreciate hearing from you in a different context.

  12. Sandy Hay says:

    “Solitude is like a little death, a death to the distractions and preoccupations of what we assume is giving us meaning, but is only bolstering the charade we are playing.” I’ve been hearing and meditating a lot on solitude lately. Our culture doesn’t know what to do with it. I learned years ago that in solitude I had to be aware of my emotions…I had to name them. And it doing that their “spell” was broken and I could live.

    • Leah Kostamo says:

      Yes, solitude is so counter to what our culture promotes, which is why I think it doesn’t come naturally. To be alone is to face and untangle the emotions and patterns that keep us stuck. Thanks for sharing a bit of journey, Sandy!

  13. I hardly know where to begin there’s so much good truth here. It has just been in the past year that I have learned for myself the value of solitude and to appreciate the focus and freedom of it. I had no idea that this was soul-preparation for death as well as for life. Thank you for your words today.

    • Leah Kostamo says:

      Thank you, Michele. Yes, I’m just learning the basics of solitude myself. I now meet monthly with a group of women and we spend the whole day in silence with each other, with a bit of time for chatting at the beginning and a bit of time for lectio divina in the middle. I must say, I think my soul grows three sizes on those days.

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