Those final days of life should be a time of review, gratitude and opening up to appreciation of all the great stuff you’ve done, but if you spend it regretting the bad things or wondering why you’re taking so long to die, you are in for a lot more pain.
That’s the gist of “What the Dying Have Taught Me About Living: The Awful Amazing Grace of God,” by Fred Grewe. In the past 10 years as chaplain with Providence Hospice, and before that with Ashland Community Hospital, Grewe has helped more than 1,000 people through the dying experience, and he notes that it’s taught him to do what most of them did — to “milk the most out of life.”
For Grewe, this means now, not at death’s doorstep.
“What I learned from them was to cultivate gratitude, surrender to reality (of death) and to shower the people I love with love,” says Grewe, who is working on his doctorate in end-of-life care at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley.
Surrendering to reality is realizing that death is natural and we’re all going to do it, said Grewe, joking — as he often does in his books — that “life is a sexually transmitted disease that always ends terminally.”
Grewe’s colorful career took him through a bachelor’s degree in acting and directing, then 30 years as a Pentecostal minister, then ordination as a Congregational minister who is married to a Buddhist.
“If there’s wisdom anywhere, I need all the help I can get,” says Grewe, 61.
“When you sit with dying folks, a lot of nonsense gets kicked out of them by the diagnosis, the pain — so you really get to talk about what’s important.”
People who experience an easy passing, he notes, are those with the ability for gratitude.
“They say, hey, I had a decent life. I did the best I could. Also those who surrender to what’s happening. They have a lot less pain and need less drugs.”
The ones who suffer, he adds, are the ones who say life wasn’t fair — or they have great “existential pain” and loss of meaning springing from lingering in a painful death with the family having to take care of them.
“For me, what I learned is, why wait till the end? Surrender now to what can’t be changed,” he says. “It’s brought me a lot more peace and compassion to live life this way. I shower the people I love with love.”
Never once in his hospice work has he met a person who said they wish they’d spent more time at work or watching more football.
“It’s always, ‘I wish I’d spent more time with the people I love and telling them I love them.’ Well, I want to do that now.”
Grewe’s book is published by Pilgrim Press, which he says is the oldest book publisher in the nation. It costs $14.40 in paperback on Amazon or $12.99 on Kindle.
He got hooked on hospice work by helping his mother die of cancer at 44, then a close friend died of AIDS. He calls these the two most significant events of his life.
“I’ve seen firsthand that no one escapes this world without experiencing pain, suffering and death,” says Grewe, in his blurb on Amazon. “It was a rather startling setback for me when this truth torpedoed my well-constructed life a few years ago. I had spent most of my faith-filled Christian years trying to do everything in my power to avoid pain and suffering. I’d been taught that if I prayed enough, read the Bible enough, lived a clean life, and volunteered to work in the church nursery once in a while, God would protect me from all pain and suffering. The thought that suffering could be good for me in any way wasn’t even on my radar screen. But that was before I began to learn what the dying could teach me about living.”
As for the afterlife, Grewe won’t touch that topic, or even think about it.
“I consider myself a devout Christian and I have strong opinions about what happens next, but no one knows for sure. I trust that whatever happens next is really good and I base that on how good and kind and gracious and loving God has been to a rascal like me.”
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.