Standing Astonished in the Swirl of Existence

Here’s a paradox, and one that accounts for why any agreeable person would take on such work as preparing a body for burial, or in my case, serving as a hospice chaplain: being present to the dying the dead and the bereaved  has intensified my sense of being alive. Just as a malevolent character in a novel can heighten the goodness of the hero, being near the dying or the dead can serve as a foil to life. Sometimes as I step outdoors after visiting a hospice patient, everything I encounter seems more firmly anchored in the here and now. Birdsong and the patter of rain make of me a rapt audience. A swaying traffic light beams out with more redness; a wind kicking up and vacillating between cool and cold bars my way from any warmer crosswinds. How can all this be happening around me while someone is about to cut loose from the moorings of her life?  I stand astonished in the swirl of existence.

Where does this intensity come from?  The closer I am to reading the end of a piece of fiction, the more weight the sentences bear. Each succeeding word seems to take on a deeper significance. Likewise, as I am talking with someone who is nearing the end, whatever they are saying is more poignant given that backdrop. I think that is why so much is made of hearing a person’s “last words.” We assume they will be loaded with wisdom, or that they will enlighten us regarding something we had never understood about that person or about ourselves.

Those of us who care for the dead and the bereaved, get a continuous sneak preview of our own final crossing over the inscrutable edge between life and death. As with any rehearsal, we reap benefits that could never accrue if we were to simply improvise when the time came.


This is a reprint of my guest post in the blog, Expired and Inspired, in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, November 25, 2015. The precise link is:


6 thoughts on “Standing Astonished in the Swirl of Existence

  1. Consuelo Beck Sague says:

    As always touching and beautiful. It reminds me of Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Readi.h Jail. I never saw a man who looked so wistfully at the day. As an AIDS doc, i have been at lots more deathbeds than i would ever want to remember. But at my friend Ron Spivey’s execution, his simple chiding last words: “What would Jesus do? Would he do this?” decades later, those dying words electrify me with an outrage that can only be yes: really alive. I can relate to how that closeness to last words can intensify the feeling of life.


    • It is one thing for me to witness persons approaching death through natural means. I cannot imagine the searing pain of witnessing an execution. I hope that your presence provided him and/or his family at least a tincture of solace.


  2. Caroline Yih says:

    Dear Karen,

    I just wanted to drop you a line to thank you for your sharing in “standing astonished in the swirl of existence’. Your words captured so much of my own astonishment throughout this year of learning to walk alongside patients and resonated deeply with me. It also came as such a lovely time too as I will be graduating from my first unit of CPE this afternoon marking the end of my first year stepping out in trembling fear responding to my calling. It has been a rich year of learning, being stretched and new discoveries in the most unexpected ways. God is so Good and I feel that i am once again standing in another threshold. I remember stumbling into your blog last year this time as I was also in a liminal stage and I have continued to look forward to reading each new post in the year which invites me to pause and reflect on my own experience. Thank you for taking the time to share with us.I wish you all the very best in the coming new year.

    Blessings, Caroline



    • Congratulations on completing your first unit of Clinical Pastoral Education. Now for a post-test: write a guest post for this blog! I am so happy that you found CPE to be so transformational. But one note of caution: you are currently rejoicing in God’s goodness, but always remember that a patient may feel angry at God, or cheated by God, etc., or of course not believe in a deity at all. Congrats again, and I hope you will keep me and this community of other offbeatcompassion readers updated on what you see beyond your current threshold.


  3. Jessica says:

    Wow I was trying to explain how I felt peace and a sense of tranquility by being next to a dying patient. Many of those who heard me talk were astonished even hurt by my expression. Thank God I’m not the only one that feels this way. Death gives a greater meaning to my life. Your description is a masterpiece. Thank you so much for sharing.


    • A “masterpiece”; well, um, gee shucks, come on,… Anyway it’s fascinating that CPE students and doctors have been the commenters so far to this post. Who was the one who was hurt or began to wonder if it was time to summon some white coats when you expressed your sense of peace around a dying patient? Depending on who it was (family member or friend of the patient? Your own friends?), their head may have been in quite a different place at that moment. Maybe they thought you were minimizing their own discomfort, grieving, fear or dread around the subject.


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