Breath is a collection of reflections for those who care for the dying. It contains weekly meditations that uplift the spirits of any caregiver. It celebrates life as it contemplates mortality.
The overhead speaker at a hospital sings. Its song is of life and death. It can rush staff to a stopped heart when calling out its codes and it can warm hearts still beating when it plays that little nursery rhyme jingle at every birth. The speaker reminds us that within slivers of time and moments of space, lives begin and lives end.
I had a patient named John. He was the kind of guy you either loved or hated, and most hated. He was gruff and sarcastic, hilarious and often mean. Years of disease had wrapped a barbed wire around his tender heart. He struggled with illness for what seemed like ages, and for ages John drove everyone around him nuts. That is, until his grandson was born. The birth of this child did not extend John’s life. No, the 52-year-old died three months later. The birth of this child did, however, allow John to die peacefully. This child, this squirming little ball of neediness and love, let John know, in unbroken flesh, that there was more to life than his death. After the birth, John’s anger gave way to gratitude, cruelty to kindness. John was a man without any faith, but the birth of this child gave his last days meaning. The new life that entered this world allowed John to leave it. Life itself opened the door for John to die well.
If we leave out the great by and by and set aside notions of what comes after this world, all we are left with are the hospital speakers. The call to attend the dying and the encouragement to rejoice at new birth. For John, and perhaps for all of us, that is enough. So when our task grows hard, when it seems the only song that plays is the funeral dirge, may we remember that, somewhere, hospital speakers are playing their happy little jingle. There is always new life.
“These beautiful, warm, and sensitively written reflections are a true gift for individuals caring for the dying.They offer comfort and solace as we journey with those at the edge of life.”
Kenneth J. Doka, PhD, MDiv
The College of New Rochelle
“In the vignettes that fill the pages of his book, Chaplain Matt Holmes attends to the mysterious interweaving of death and life by deeply reflecting on his ministry with the dying. With poetic observation, personal vulnerability, narrative skill, and at times poignant humor, Chaplain Holmes reminds us to pay attention: to pay attention to everything.”
Kathleen (Kadi) Billman
John H. Tietjen Professor of Pastoral Ministry Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago
Matt Holmes has spent his professional life caring for the dying and their caregivers. He has served as caregiver, a hospice chaplain, and a bereavement coordinator. He holds a Master in Divinity from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, and currently lives in Chicagoland with his wife and two children.