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Pondering the final hours of life

TUESDAY, JUNE 26, 2012

Q. I sit with dying people as part of my ministry. When I am with patients in their final hours of life, I often wonder: Does anyone really know when the human spirit or soul departs from its physical body?

A. Your question has been asked for centuries. And while the world has evolved in remarkable ways, we understand very little about what happens to our being upon death.

Socrates and Plato believed the soul was the essence of personhood and was reborn into new bodies upon death. Aristotle believed the human active intellect was immortal, but he did not define “soul” as one’s spirit.

In the late 1800s, Dr. Duncan MacDougall of Massachusetts conducted research on dying patients. He set their beds on specially designed scales. His conclusion was that the soul left the body “coincident with death.” The resulting weight loss? Twenty-one grams.

In 1975, Raymond Moody published “Life After Life” documenting more than 100 cases of people who were clinically dead and then revived. People reported their spirits leaving their bodies and observing activity that they could not have known when they were “dead.” Did their spirits depart and return?

What would we gain if science proved that, at the instant of death, the human soul, weighing 21 grams, departs the body? Very little.

Perhaps the best answer is a poetic one. Hospital chaplain JoAnn Smith, of Olympia, says she believes the soul leaves not with brain death, but when one’s heart finally stops beating.

“The soul is the spirit of God inside us, in our hearts. Our heart is filled with that love, God’s love, and when the heart stops beating, that love, spirit, is the last to depart the body, but our connection with others continues forever,” Smith believes.

Q. I just learned that my cousin, who lives in a different city, is very ill. He’s just out of surgery and is preparing for chemo. I’m not sure how to let him know that I’m thinking of him. As we were growing up, our families spent a lot of time together on Christmas Eve and during the summer at the lake, but we’ve lost touch as adults. I’d like him to know that I’m thinking of him and praying for him but don’t want to make him feel he has to respond. Any advice?

A. When we lose touch with relatives and friends after many years, it can seem both awkward and impossible to reconnect.

“When you’re stuck in neutral, it takes effort to shift, to write something and put it in the mail,” said Frank Bach, a Diocesan priest in Spokane who often shares with people one way to shift out of neutral.

He calls it “the ministry of the short note.” It works like this. No matter how much time has passed since your last contact, sit down and write the card.

Briefly apologize for not being in touch and then add a few sentences updating the person on your life. In your case, tell your cousin you heard about his cancer, you’re sorry, and he is in your thoughts and prayers. Then write a sentence or two updating him on your life.

Most people who receive ministry-of-the-short-note cards feel guilty, too, that they’ve lost contact with old friends and relatives. They often feel relief that someone took the initiative to reopen the connection.

“Relationships and friendships are among the most important things we have,” Bach said. “But so often we end up being nicer to strangers than to people we know. A (card) is easy to do, and people appreciate it.”

Catherine Johnston, a health care professional from Olympia, and Rebecca Nappi, Spokesman-Review features writer, welcome your questions about what to do in times of illness, dying, death and grief. Contact them through their EndNotes blog at

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