Deathbed Speech Class. A proposal

I’m thinking about writing a book called “Deathbed Speech Class.” I love the title, even though it sounds like it’s going to be about your dying words in a police drama, or an old movie where you say, “rosebud” and no one ever figures out what that means.

What I know is that in most deaths at the hospital, we don’t see that last remarkable memorable moment.

I do know that there are many conversations that happen in the days and hours before, during, and after the death of someone we care about. And I do know that many of us struggle with knowing what to say and how to start.

These situations include

  • Making decisions about end-of-life care
  • Watching the last moments of a life
  • Talking with parents who are grieving
  • Talking with children wounded by the person who died
  • What do we say to others, what do we say to ourselves, what do we say to God.

I’ve had many of those conversations in the last six years as a hospital chaplain. But my reflection on these kinds of conversations goes back more than four decades to when I started studying communication and rhetoric. I’ve taught public speaking, I’ve written an (almost) daily blog for 13 years, I’ve helped people find words for all kinds of situations and projects as an administrator in higher education and in churches.

I am a words person.

Learning ways talk with people about and in the middle of death and dying matters, and is possible.

I want to help.

Here’s a start:


Deathbed Speech Class. (A TED Talk about conversations after end of life)

You know the feeling.

Your best friend’s mom dies. What do you say? What do you do?

You want to find just the right words. Everything feels inadequate. The stakes feel so high. You need to do something. You don’t know what to do.

So you walk into the hospital, into the room. His mom is still there. And you say, “Dude. You’ve got this.” If you are lucky, at that moment your knees will buckle so no one hears what you just said.

Why is this moment so hard?

Because in the research about fears, the number one fear of most Americans is public speaking. The second fear is death. And in this room, in the moments and hours after the death of someone’s loved one, those two fears collide. Your fear about saying the wrong thing and your fear of death are flooding your brain and heart with, well everything.

At this moment, walking into the room and saying anything helpful feels impossible.

But I’d like to help you move from impossible to merely hard.

Because these moments are always hard.

I know. I wrote a book about it.

“This is hard” is what I say when I’m talking to loved ones after their family member dies.

You see, I’m a hospital chaplain. A few hundred times over the last few years, I’ve walked into the room and talked with people. It’s never easy. Because for them, it’s always hard.

But I’m also a PhD in rhetoric, in speech. I’ve learned a little about finding words in hard moments.

Here’s the secret, if there is one.

You don’t have to be a counselor or a grief therapist or a psychiatrist. You don’t have to be a pastor or a rabbi or a priest. You can be a human friend who has thought about what to say to a person right after the death of a loved one.

Let’s talk about what to say and to do.

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