'I Just Wanted You to Kill the Pain'

A physician talks about how to help dying people best live their final months

What Dying People Want: Practical Wisdom for the End of Life
By David Kuhl, M.D.
Public Affairs, 317 pages, $25.00

After my mother's memorial service in November, one family friend reminded me of a dear acquaintance we shared from more than 20 years ago. "Linda," she said, "told me how very helpful you were when you visited her in the hospital. Of all the visits she had, yours was the most meaningful."

The long-faded incident came back to me. I was an associate pastor in a multiple staff ministry. Linda, the senior pastor's wife, had cancer, and we were all frightened for her.

When I saw her in the hospital, I was overcome by her fragile situation. Few words passed between us. I sat at her bedside and tried to just give her my time and my attention. I went away discouraged that I hadn't been able to bring her some apt word or insight. As it turned out, silent companionship was just what she needed.

Linda turned out to be survivor, and decades later, the grace of that shared silence lives in her memory—and mine.

What do dying people want? What do they need? Insofar as social research can answer that question, Dr. David Kuhl can enlighten us. With funding from the Soros Faculty Scholar Program, he conducted a ten-year study of dying persons in British Columbia. As a palliative care physician (a doctor who specializes in managing pain and other symptoms of the terminally ill), Kuhl was in a special position to carry out the research. His book, What Dying People Want is subtitled Practical Wisdom for the End of Life. Although the book is formally addressed to people whose physicians have told them they are dying, it is easy for pastors, health-care workers, and family and friends to feel it is written for them as well.

Ten years ago, ...

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