Insights about Grief and Death from Hospice Worker John Hughes

Jul 3, 2023

“Heart Like A Bonfire” gathers poignant, gut-wrenching, and heartbreaking tales now available on Amazon. Hughes weaves poignant, often heartbreaking stories about death, grief, and bereavement through a blend of gritty honesty, humor, and loving spirituality.

During a short-lived retirement break in my 13-year (and counting) career as a spiritual care provider and bereavement specialist in the mesmerizing world of hospice, I wrote a novel about my work and published it on Amazon on May 2nd of this year. "Heart Like A Bonfire" is a forceful gathering of poignant, sometimes gut-wrenching, and heartbreaking tales. It explores dying, death, grief, and bereavement from several honest perspectives, all of them from the front row of human experience, and faces these with a blend of gritty honesty and loving spirituality. The result should be clarifying for readers who might want to know what goes on in hospice and who might want to receive a glimpse of what dying will be like.

Shattering Taboos Around Death

As lovable patient Ezra comes very near death, a nurse prescribes fentanyl for him as a painkiller, and Ezra’s son Bob objects. Bob calls for an ambulance, removing his dad from his home where he was about to have a peaceful passing, and Ezra perishes en route to an emergency room.

The octogenarian patient Beth approaches death with fears of hell, saturated as she is with Roman Catholic guilt over her sexuality.

Youthful patient Benjamin, married to devoted Mabel, a pancake waitress, has a rebellious, off-color outlook on life and proceeds through the Elizabeth Kubler-Ross five stages of dying, getting to the end in an inimitable way.

Straddling Humor and Sorrow in Hospice Stories

Chaplain Richard and Nursing Aide Mona tell the story of their involvement with these in alternating voices. Richard is a committed meditator and progressive spiritual practitioner who feels things deeply in his soul, and Mona is an ardent proponent of feminist spirituality with endless love in her heart. They explore their own feelings about mortality and the work and describe their evolving perspectives on the above characters, as well as five others. The others are brought in for extra vivid color and a sense of the context of the work of hospice.

Pathos, humor, and the big pictures of life and death predominate. We see that private details of individual lives are deeply entwined with the facts and events of recent collective history, prevailing attitudes, and social norms. Also, Richard and Mona describe the pressures of working in a setting as intimate as hospice, but in a corporate business structure, which often puts compassion on the back burner, subservient to record-keeping and profit.

The patients and their families have their says too, and speak in bold and intriguing voices. Readers are entertained but also led to experience death and grief journeys in ways as varied as human character. Ultimately, the book is a call to awareness of mystery and love in the face of our finiteness. It is available as a paperback and ebook on Amazon.

A Journey of Personal Evolution

I am Chaplain Richard. This is an autobiographical book, a memoir. My background which brought me to this work is unique. I was an evangelical Christian at one point in my life, never quite comfortable with the squeaky clean constraints of the faith tradition, and that discomfort boiled over when in evangelical theological seminary, and I saw the repressive, narrowly limited underpinnings of it all, now on full display in our society and culture in 2023. I graduated from this faith perspective, some would say “fell away,” and soon embraced a reflective, sacramental, progressive Christian worldview based on mystical attunements as described by Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, and Thomas Merton. I spent time working with Mother Teresa in Calcutta, India, was a volunteer in a maximum security prison, and became an Episcopal priest, firebreathing in my progressive sermons, popular with my church members, who loved my liberality and humor.

The hierarchical structure of organized religion, however, soon vomited me out. I was despised by my bishop and his underlings. Meh, too bad, so sad. I moved on, and by the time I left the church and the priesthood behind, I was studying Zen and Jungian depth psychology closely and working to incorporate the wisdom thereof into my life. I was impacted by the insights of Ken Wilber and his “integral” spirituality, learning about “the kosmos,” which incorporates knowledge of the physical cosmos as well as the infinite world in the inner human experience.

During my years as a priest, my wife of 12 years, Kerri, died suddenly, leaving me to raise two daughters by myself for ten years. I was shattered and couldn’t help but note the absolute poverty involved in the church’s response to my grief. The bishop I worked under never even mentioned her death to me in subsequent years. He never called me to encourage me regarding the raising of my daughters. I was, apparently, expected to affect a stiff upper lip and carry on. A handful of priests were kind about my loss, but there were no real insightful or helpful interventions on my behalf. In fact, at times, I felt judged by other priests for undergoing a journey of grieving and healing!

After raising my daughters, once they were out of the house, I went back into the “ministry,” but this time as essentially a Zen chaplain, impacted by Taoism, Tibetan Buddhism, depth psychology, nature awareness, Chinese poetry, yogic philosophy, and feminism. I also love the new scholarship, exemplified by the writings of Cynthia Bourgeault and Neil Douglas-Klotz, regarding who Jesus truly was in the context of wisdom traditions and the Aramaic worldview (what I get from them is, for the most part, best described by me as an aromatic fragrance of depth and joy). I was, as a person, unrecognizable from the born-again Christian I had been in the late 1970s and early 1980s and was indeed pretty far from the Episcopal priest I had once been. I called it “evolution, hopefully.” I am still very much in the beginning stages of a transformation.

What I was most enthused about was the opportunity to put my evolved thoughts, perspectives, and attitudes into practice in the often all-too-real context of hospice. To hold hands with 3200 people as they went through their dying process and with their 10,000 family members as they went through their grief, loss, and bereavement, called strengths of empathy and steadiness from me that I didn’t know I had. In fact, I might not have had those strengths at the level necessary, but I grew them to suit.

What readers will discover via my book is the depth of grief phobia that exists in American society and culture today. We are weighed down by grief phobia and ignorance of the dying process and of the grief process. We are as estranged from these facts of life as we are from the processes of nature, which we are shielded from by our “civilization,” and the cost is illiteracy in some basic human experiences which are thoroughly essential to who we are.

The patients and their outspoken family members, plus the chaplain and aide, are strong, outspoken advocates for awareness of the dying process and the grief that follows.

A Deeper Motivation: Facing Rising Fascism

I would be remiss if I did not mention an additional factor that motivated me in the writing of this book. It is my conviction that the United States, and several of our key allies, are in a crisis of fascism. The Trump presidency, but also the rise of fascist leaders or candidates in nations like Turkey, Brazil, and France, and the fervent support of these by tens of millions, is something I never thought I would see. It is a rise of darkness that we haven’t seen on the world stage since the 1930s and 1940s. Human rights are in eclipse. Compassion, discernment, and kindness are trampled by ignorance, genocide, barbarity, deceit, and raw murderous power. The molester Trump can crack wise on television about being held liable for sexual assault and elicit laughter from his TV audience. Misinformation and disinformation are rampant. The collective spirit of the West seems to be in a contraction from an open society that values the common good to the resurrection of toxic patriarchy. It is a shocking meltdown of all that has been held dear (such as democracy itself) by people for many, many decades.

At this point in time, you, dear reader, don’t need to be convinced of this. And if you disagree with me on this fundamental truth, you can stop reading right now (as you probably have). I wrote “Heart Like A Bonfire” about hospice work--dying, death, grief, and bereavement in the context of a corporate structure that depends on adhering to governmental regulations for Medicare funding--but also as a voice for common valuing and loving of the human condition in all its varied and often-ragged glory. It is a bid to contribute to the regeneration of the open society and the common good. It is an effort to inject a little wisdom into the human conversation of these times. You can decide if I make such a positive contribution.

Breathing Life into Characters and Illuminating the Unknown

As I wrote this book, the miracle to me was that I never had to strain to “think up” what the characters would say or what would happen next. The characters were a band of muses in my den, speaking up, even surprising me with what they dictated to me. I merely took their words down, making an occasional edit. They are the true authors of this book. I was often moved, even to the point of tears, by what they came up with and what they gave utterance to. I didn’t invent how the stories would unfold, but let the stories flow forth from my fingers, contours and all. On occasion, my off-color patient Benjamin provided language a little overwhelming—I let his words stand. My heart beat with love for these patients and most (not all) of their family members, and when the last of the patients died (No spoiler alert; this is, after all, a novel about a hospice), my heart was broken, and I cried. These patients were “fictional,” but their presence to me was as real as most people I know in real life!

For the reader, I provide some advice on grieving. Grief is not something to get over and get through so that you can get back to “normal.” Grief itself is the healing. It is a new, soul-deepening reality you are living in. I provide “triage” ideas for immediate, short-term coping with the pain of loss and “ceremonial observance and honoring” items for long-term depth cultivation of the new you dealing with the new reality without the deceased loved one. The ideas contained therein would make for a great book club conversation or discussion in a church, synagogue, sangha, community forum, nursing home, or library gathering. You will find it useful as an individual griever. I came up with the ideas after 13 years of working with folks who simply didn’t know how to address their painful losses.

I am proud of the book. It was the best I could do, and I think it is a cogent novel, with good and enjoyable characters strongly loved by their author, engrossing stories, a vision for spirituality strong on compassion and human rights, and an honest and thorough look at dying, death, grief, and bereavement, about which we know so little. I consider it timely. I hope you will enjoy it and find it useful. Peace to you today and tonight.

“Heart Like a Bonfire” is available as paperback and ebook on Amazon by clicking this link

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