A Review of
A Faithful Farewell: Living Your Last Chapter With Love
Marilyn Chandler McEntyre
My first night as an on-call chaplain, I came to know how little I know.
I’m a seminary grad, so it’s not as if I know nothing about matters of ultimate concern. I can speak of pain and suffering, death and dying, theodicy and providence as ancillary pieces of the grander theological project. I can define the terms and review the books. I can document sources and fill up pages, if that’s what it takes to make the grade.
But as my body lay taught and shivering under the cheap hospital blankets my first night in the chaplains’ on-call room—praying for a night of silence and peace—I realized how little those words have to do with the work of this place. When I of speak of death and dying here, amidst the acrid mix of sanitized countertops overfull bedpans, I speak in abstraction and jargon, the foreign tongue of a distant land.
For in this place, death is not ethereal, an incorporeal other, an idea to be pondered. In this place—among the sobbing of loved ones, the whoosh of the vent—death is made flesh. Abstractions mean little. And the chasm that divides the living and dying feels as wide as that which divides the living and dead.
You’ll understand my reservations, then, when I first heard of this book. It’s not that Marilyn Chandler McEntyre’s lacking in insight or ability. Far from it. Her previous works (especially Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies and What’s in a Phrase?) have done more to change the way I read, pray, and preach than anything in recent memory. It’s that I know from experience how hard it can be to speak meaningfully and concretely on the subject of death and dying.
And yet, despite the difficulty of her subject matter, she succeeds in every way.
That success is due, in part, to her time spent with people who are actively dying. McEntyre’s primary job is professor of medical humanities at UC Berkeley, a role not without connection to the subject of A Faithful Farewell, but she also writes out of her experience as a long-time hospice volunteer. And it’s that latter work which most deeply affects her writing here, as every chapter is born out of her conversations with the patients she’s served, their insights into the day-to-day struggles of a prolonged dying, and McEntyre’s reflections on her own aging and eventual death.
That pastoral experience working with patients lends her writing a concreteness that’s often lacking in other treatments of this topic, and that alone makes it worth the read. What makes this book truly remarkable, though, is the form her insights take within it. With her background and experience, she could have written—as others have—some meaningful, but distanced, treatise on what it means to die well. But the chapters here have another purpose: They are written as reflections for people who are slowly dying on the wide variety of beauties, pains, opportunities, and struggles that have become part of their post-prognosis lives. What’s more, she has written these reflections in first-person language, which gives them a sense of intimacy, as if the person reading them was simply meditating on various aspects of his or her life.
From anyone else, this bold stylistic choice could have disastrous results. After all, there are few people outside the audience for whom this book is written who could presume to understand (at any level) what it’s like to face one’s own mortality, let alone the minutiae of that experience. But in McEntyre’s capable hands, the book feels anything but presumptuous. Instead, I felt as though I were listening in on the reflections of the many hospice patients she has served over the years, which have been reproduced here with honesty and humility. And that includes all the less-than-lofty parts of dying, too, from enduring foggy days and boredom and nausea, to losing privacy and enduring pain—for in dealing with death, one must deal with it all.
Because of the book’s style and design, it’s a natural fit for those who face a long dying and pine for the voice of one who can empathize with them. Its short chapters—each two or three pages in length, written with the deleterious affects of age and medication on one’s attention span in mind—make it simple to skip around and seek out whatever sort of wisdom one needs that day. I say “wisdom” because, in addition to her willingness to speak of these struggles with empathy and grace, each chapter also provides encouragement and direction for those who want to make the most of the days that they have, who want to live with love and hope. And to that end, each section closes with a prayer and a few lines from a hymn. So, whether one gravitates toward reflection, prayer, song or some combination thereof when thinking and seeking, McEntyre has it covered.
As helpful as this book could be for someone going through the dying process, I’d be remiss if I didn’t recommend it to everyone else, too. Whether we find ourselves in the chaplains’ on-call room or not, all of us will encounter prolonged death at some point—our own or someone else’s. And when we do, no matter our vocation or background, or how well we think and speak and ponder and preach about matters of ultimate concern, until we find ourselves in its embodied midst, it’s hard to know how little we know.
So come listen. Come learn.
You won’t get answers, but you will get direction. And when you walk away, you may say to yourself, as one who has felt the presence of God in the midst of their darkness:
“I think I am being met and reassured: I won’t have to travel this passage alone. I am not alone. Love bids me welcome” (114).