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Heart Like a Bonfire: A Hospice Worker’s Insightful Journey into Death and Grief

“Heart Like A Bonfire” is a forceful gathering of poignant, sometimes gut-wrenching and heartbreaking tales now available on Amazon by John Hughes. Hughes vividly amalgamates poignant, often heartrending tales that unravel the realities of dying, death, grief, and bereavement from several perspectives, facing these with a blend of gritty honesty, humor, and loving spirituality.

Shattering Taboos Around Death

“So many people are burdened by lack of knowledge about hospice,” Hughes says. “I see this several times a day on my job, as well as our culture-wide fear of death and illiteracy about grief. And we enter into the dying process with these burdens holding us down. I felt strongly that I should write a book from my expertise to help the reader. The stories that come out of hospice are often mesmerizing because readers have a front-row seat to the human condition at the point of departure. As well as mesmerizing, these stories are both challenging and comforting simultaneously. I think I have written a very strong and useful book for just the right reader who is confronting or will confront the mortality of a loved one or of themselves.”

The Complex Tapestry of Life and Death

The book intricately explores multiple perspectives of mortality. When patient Ezra’s life hovers on the threshold of death, he’s prescribed fentanyl, a potent painkiller. Ezra’s son, Bob, objects and calls an ambulance, but sadly, Ezra succumbs in the ambulance itself. Beth, another patient, grapples with her mortality, haunted by Catholic guilt and fear of damnation over her sexuality. And then there’s young Benjamin, a rebellious soul whose wife, Mabel, adds “morphine stealing” to the Elizabeth Kubler-Ross five stages of dying.

Hospice Stories: Between Humor and Pathos

Chaplain Richard and Nursing Aide Mona tell the story of their involvement with these people in alternating voices. They explore their own feelings about mortality and the work they are doing and describe their evolving perspectives on the characters and five others. The others are brought in for extra color and a sense of the context of the work of hospice. Pathos, irreverent humor, and the big pictures of life and death predominate this engrossing and unique book.

Richard and Mona also share their own spiritual practices and discuss ways in which bereaved persons, in the grip of grief, can approach their situation in two phases: triage, during the first six months or so and ceremonial observance, for the rest of the lives of the bereaved. The goal of these practices is not to “get over” the death of the loved one but to develop the strength to cope with their absence.

The patients and their families have their say too, and speak in bold, intriguing, and often unforgettable voices. Readers are entertained but also led to experience death in intimate ways. Ultimately, the book is a call to awareness of mystery and love in the face of human finiteness.

Bearing Witness: From Hospice to Heart Attack

“Dying and death, bereavement and grief, are areas of challenge which we all must face, and yet our culture and society, to a very thorough degree, avoids the topics out of fear of the unpleasantness. Some people go so far as to call it morbid,” Hughes says. “We try to evade that which cannot be evaded, at great cost to ourselves. But we can embrace the reality of our situation with wisdom. It is within our capacity to do so. This book, with its amusing and poignant stories and its pointing out instructions, helps people access some of that wisdom.” He smiles and adds, “Readers will benefit after laughing and crying,” Hughes assures. He views his book as an antidote to society’s evasion of the unpleasantness of dying and death.

Hughes was ordained a minister in 1991 and has what he jokingly calls “a checkered past,” moving in and out of ministry through his adult life, also working as a furniture salesperson, stockbroker, and truck driver. He describes an evolving perspective in his own life and practice through the decades.

“After the death of my wife, I left full-time ministry in order to raise my daughters,” he says. “During those years, I grew a lot as a person. I called it ‘evolution. Hopefully, I am still very much in the beginning stages of a transformation. But I started work as a hospice chaplain being a person strongly influenced by Zen, Taoism, and Jungian depth psychology. What I was most enthused about was the opportunity to put my evolved thoughts, perspectives, and attitudes into practice in the often all-too-real context of hospice. To hold hands with 3200 people as they went through their dying process and with their 10,000 family members as they went through their grief, loss, and bereavement called strengths of empathy and steadiness from me that I didn’t know I had. In fact,” he adds thoughtfully, “I might not have had those strengths at the level necessary, but I grew them to suit.”

An Intimate Examination of Mortality

“I recently had a near-fatal heart attack,” he adds. “I correctly surmised that I very well could die there in the back of the ambulance. I was able to approach my possible end in a manner which tells me I have learned from my hospice work and from the writing of this book. I quieted my mind from all its chatter, took a humble attitude, thought, ‘Okay, launch me into the mysteries,’ and had a peaceful time waiting without fear but with curiosity. Thankfully, this time, I lived. But if we stare into the mysteries together enough, perhaps this sort of peaceful death approach is available to all of us.” “Heart Like a Bonfire” does not shy away from mortality’s harsh realities but instead embraces them, offering readers a poignant, humorous, and ultimately enlightening look into the mysteries of life, death, and love.

“Heart Like a Bonfire” is available as paperback and ebook on Amazon by clicking this link:


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