when the dying speak: how to listen to and learn from those facing death

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In this collection of poignant and hope-filled stories about people who are dealing with death, Ronald Wooten-Green draws on his experience as a caregiver for his dying wife and as a hospice chaplain to give us a glimpse of the spiritual reality known only by those nearing death. From conversations with unseen visitors to visions of long-dead ancestors, When the Dying Speak reveals the unique phenomena surrounding death and helps us listen to and learn from those at the end of their earthly journeys. Scripture passages, biographical sketches, and thought-provoking questions provide spiritual and historical perspective while encouraging self reflection.


  • vii


    Why It Is So Important to Listen to the Dying 1

    Stories Not of Death but of LifeListening to a Different Language

    A Look beyond the Obvious


    Listening and Letting Go 9

    Its Time to GoI Seen Your Daddy, Sonny

    Mick, Keep Hammering on the WallKeep Them Away!


    Hearing from the Heart

    of Near-Death Experience 35

    Been There and Done That!Flying to Heaven


    Listening for the Silent Witnesses 49

    Come to Momma!Bedside Shadows

    Reports from History


  • viii


    Listening to the Call of the Road 67

    Planes, Trains, Automobiles, Buses, Boats, and HorsesPacking It Up


    Hearing the Call to Forgiveness 91

    Going around on the CarouselPeace with OthersPeace with God

    The Straight Story of Alvin Straight


    Hearing Language from Beyond Ourselves 109

    I Dont Know Who to Stand With!The Game Is Over

    I Love You, Son


    Near-Life Experiences:

    The Conversation Stopper 133

    A FatherDaughter BondShadows and Perfume, Cannonballs and DovesThe Convergence of NDE, NDA, and NLE


    Tuning in to Explanations 147

    The Spiritual Journey from Here to There

  • ix


    Hearing Aids:

    Engaging in the Conversation 155

    How to Listen to the Dying or the BereavedHow Not to Listen to the Dying or the Bereaved


    Learning from the Dying 167

    No One Dies AloneWe Die the Way We Live

    Reflected Fear Stalls and Aggravates the Natural Dying Process

    Afterword 185

    Notes 189

    Bibliography 195

  • chaPTER ONE


    why it is so important to listen to the dying

    i t was late evening, and I had just finished getting my wife, Dawn, ready for the night. I wanted to get to bed because recent experience told me that this, too, would be an active night, with Dawn waking up and wanting to talk (not neces-sarily to me but to others in the room unseen by me). She seemed agitated, a sure sign that another night of sleep deprivation was in the offing.

    You seem upset, Dawn. What is it?I just dont know how to get from here to there. her tone

    was one of consternation.

  • From here to where? Even though I was sure I knew the answer, I thought I should ask. Without hesitation, this fifty-one-year-old woman, who now appeared as if she were at least eighty, said, Well, heaven, of course!

    The next day when I came home for lunch, I walked into our bedroom to find Dawn sitting up in her bed amid a com-pletely changed atmosphere. You look so happy, honey! I said, suspecting that perhaps she had received a call from one of her siblings or one of our kids.

    Oh, Ron. Those people who have been hanging around here have given me a ticket for the bus and have invited me to go with them! She beamed as if she had just won the worlds greatest sweepstakes.

    In a very real sense that is exactly what had happened. I hardly needed to ask about the destination of this bus. I knew that for those with a ticket, those with the vision to really see, the sign over the windshield of this bus would read Heaven Bound.

    This book is written because of that bus. Dawns ticket for the bus was my ticket to a whole new world: the world of death and dying and of learning how best to stand with those who are awaiting their own bus.

    StorieS Not of Death but of Life

    The stories related herein are stories of life rather than stories of death. These stories view life as a spiritual process that begins with birth, flows eventually to death, and continues on to a new life. Death is seen as a new kind of birthing.

    w h e n t h e d y i n g s p e a k

  • This book addresses a variety of issues, such as grief and grieving, pain and suffering, letting go, the symbolic language of the dying, near-death experience, nearing death awareness, near-life experience, and learning how to listen to those who are on their way to death.

    This book includes experiences of my own as a chaplain, a caregiver, and a bereaved husband. It also includes the stories of many people who are gone now, people who have, through their openness as they moved toward death, given us amazing glimpses of spiritual reality.

    This book, as part of my present work with the dying, is driven by a firm belief in the value of story. It is from the stories of our lives that we find meaning and hope, or as master story-teller Father John Shea has said, we tell, and retell the stories until we get them right. Sheas point is that the stories details are secondary to the meaning that we attach to the stories. While the details may change, the meaning of the stories always remains the same, sharper each time we retell them, but the same.

    Some of the stories Ive collected here are my own. how-ever, the bulk of this book comes from those who can no lon-ger tell their own stories, those who have gone before us. and so, with a profound humility as we stand before the great cloud of witnesses, I commit the audacious act of trying to speak for the silenced ones while protecting their anonymity by changing names and the details of certain circumstances.

    LiSteNiNg to a DiffereNt LaNguage

    The language spoken by the dying may seem strange, new, and even frightening. Yet it is a language as ancient as adam and

    w h y i t i s s o i m p o r t a n t t o l i s t e n t o t h e d y i n g

  • Eve, and as new as the person who died minutes ago, mumbling something about going home. To listen to the dying is to be informed that there is indeed a journey, that a destination looms ahead, and that death is not the end.

    Listening well to people as they make the transition from this world to the next requires the ability to hear with and from the heart. We who are standing vigil must not prejudge what the dying person is saying. Instead we must attempt to listen with the purity implied in one dictionarys definition of hear-ing and listening: To hear is to listen to and consider, to regard with favor, to give primacy to the person speaking, to value that which is being uttered; to listen is to heed what is being com-municated, and to attend to its meaning.

    To do anything less is to neglect not only what is being communicated but perhaps even the person conveying the message as well. This is precisely what occurs when a dying person speaks to us of visions and experiences and we, in turn, attempt to keep that person grounded in reality.

    as Elisabeth Kbler-Ross has observed, If people would listen more to their own intuitive spiritual quadrant .-.-. they would begin to comprehend the beautiful symbolic language that dying patients use when they try to convey to us their needs, their knowledge and their awareness. creating that kind of a climatea climate in which the dying are free to share the richness of their visions and those at the bedside are free to listen and open to hearingis what this book is about. Perhaps in some small way this book may help us all to listen more carefully to the intuitive spiritual quadrant that exists within all of us and that the dying reveal through their words and faces.

    w h e n t h e d y i n g s p e a k

  • a Look beyoND the obviouS

    a piece of fabric in a frame on the wallthats all. Noticeable, but certainly not attention grabbing like a panoramic of Mount Rainier. I was told that if I stood a few feet away and relaxed, I would see a picture within the fabric. Reflection is the key, said my brother-in-law and owner of the computer-designed geometric print known as Magic Eye art.

    Not wanting to be antisocial, I played along. The longer I stood there seeing nothing but the fabric in the frame on the wall, the dumber and more challenged I felt. I never doubted that he could see what I could not. Yet I was becoming con-vinced that whatever he and others were seeing was a vision quite open to interpretation.

    Then it happened. My daughter Kelly stood beside me. I glanced at her reflection, blinked my eyes, and saw a three-dimensional underwater scene: a huge wide-mouthed shark and smaller fish, a skull, a treasure chest, and an ocean-bottom garden. This picture that was a half inch deep had become a view of an ocean floor that was at least twenty-seven cubic feet in dimension.

    The miracle is that once youve seen it, you cannot un-see it. You can lose the vision for a moment, but you can always go back to it and see it again. With new eyes, in a sense, you can hold on to the vision for as long as you want.

    If I have learned anything from the dying, it is that we learn nothing by focusing on the obvious, such as what seem to be hallucinations. If we remain fixed on the presumed real-ity that the dying are out of their heads due to the morphine, and if we dont even attempt to communicate with them about

    w h y i t i s s o i m p o r t a n t t o l i s t e n t o t h e d y i n g

  • when the o

    how to listen to and learn

    r o n w o o t e n - g r e e n


















    Oh, Ron! Those people who have been hanging around here have given me a ticket for the bus and have invited me to go with them!

    When Ron Wooten-Green heard his dying wife make this joyful excla-mation before her passing, he knew that although he couldnt see or hear the people to whom she was referring, he had witnessed a significant step in her journey to heaven. Drawing on his personal experience as a caregiver and hospice chaplain, Wooten-Green seeks to decipher the deeply symbolic language of the dying and reveal the importance of listening to, and learning from, those at