Podcast #116 Thanksgiving Gratitude – Hank Dunn, Chaplain

This week, in honor of Thanksgiving here in the US, I share a brief conversation with Hospice Chaplain Hank Dunn. He reads two moving pieces from his book, Light in the Shadows: Meditations While Living with a Serious Illness, and we talk about “letting go” versus “letting be.”


Diane Hullet: Hi, I’m Diane Hullet, and you’re listening to the Best Life, Best Death Podcast. If you’re living in the U. S., happy Thanksgiving. It’s Thanksgiving 2023. And I’m here today with Chaplain Hank Dunn, chaplain, author, and just beautiful thinker about all things end of life. And I wanted to do a special Thanksgiving conversation with Hank.

Welcome, Hank. 

Hank Dunn: Thank you. I’m glad to be here with you to me. 

Diane Hullet: Thanksgiving is, you know, it’s so much about gratitude and especially in these tumultuous times in our world, feeling the beauty of what we do have in our lives and the challenges that face so many. So I just wanted to take a moment and ask Hank to come on and chat with me about that.

Hank Dunn: I’m glad to do it. I think if it’s okay, I’ll read just one section of my Light in the Shadows book as a story that goes back to my nursing home [00:01:00] chaplain days. And it was one of the highlights of my whole career was meeting this lady. Beautiful. Go for it. Okay. As I entered the nursing homeroom.

The noise just outside the window was deafening. Construction workers were breaking up concrete with jackhammers. Seated next to the window, not ten feet from the closest jackhammer, was my friend, Mary. She was totally blind, had beautiful white hair, and often… Let a smile cross her lips. As soon as I heard the noise and saw Mary right next to it, I said, Mary, you don’t have to stay here with all that noise.

We can find you another room during the day and you can come back. And after the noises stopped, she smiled and said, that’s okay. I kind of like it. You like it, I ask? And this time, with a [00:02:00] big grin, she said, It’s so good when it stops. I asked her once what it was like to be blind. She said, It’s wonderful.

Wonderful? I repeated. Yes, she explained. You can learn so much being blind. I listen to talking books and talk radio. I can tell where people are in the room and what they are doing. Just from their sounds. You listened so much better when you were blind. She had a way of giving thanks for what she still possessed, rather than despairing over what she had lost.

If there is one attitude that can sustain us through the most difficult circumstances, it is the attitude of gratitude. This is the ability to give thanks for the gifts in one’s life, not necessarily because of the hardships, but in spite of them. In other words, [00:03:00] we are not grateful that we have a life threatening illness.

We are able to give thanks while. we have a life threatening illness. If I had not seen the ability demonstrated consistently over years, I would not have believed it possible. In the midst of the most serious illnesses, people have told me they have had a wonderful life with children, grandchildren, and beautiful memories of good times.

They remember the traveling and fulfilling careers. Another blind patient who was wheelchair bound and more than a hundred. years old would often say, isn’t God wonderful?

So that’s the attitude of gratitude. And just, you know anybody who’s in healthcare runs into these people all the time. And even young, younger folks who might be dying of something, they’re just so thankful for the life they’ve had.

Diane Hullet: Yeah, I think of [00:04:00] the, you know, the recently nominated poet laureate of Colorado is named Andrea Gibson and wow, you know, with a huge diagnosis of difficult cancer, Andrea has managed to just turn that into some of the most electric poetry.

And really kind of talks like I came alive because of this diagnosis, just such gratitude in the face of something we would say, Ooh, we don’t want that. What a terrible thing to have happened. So there is this incredible possibility in what we do with our circumstances that makes such a difference for how we experience those circumstances.

That jackhammer story is the perfect example. 

Hank Dunn: Good old Mary. She was awesome. 

Diane Hullet: I can’t think of, I can’t think of more people who would have been saying, Oh, this noise. This is so terrible, terrible 

Hank Dunn: day. Yeah, so she took care of herself. 

Diane Hullet: Well, I think you’ve got a poem you wanted. 

Hank Dunn: Yeah, let me, let me read this.

We can kind of close our [00:05:00] Thanksgiving thoughts here. Actually interesting. I started toying with this poem way back in the 1994 edition of the book. And then in 2001, I. Published a poem, and it was entitled Giving Up and Letting Go, and I sent a draft of the poem to a lot of people, and one of them was Joanne Lynn, who was a physician, and she, she wrote a note in her comments on my draft, and she said, you know, Stopped using the term letting go and started talking about letting be.

And well, I was about to go to press with my new book and didn’t want her messing with my very popular poem. So I left it giving up and letting go, but I never forgot. So in the 2009 edition and now the 2016 edition, I have it giving up, letting go and letting be. Giving up implies a struggle.

Letting go [00:06:00] implies a partnership. Letting be implies in reality there is nothing that separates. Giving up says there is something to lose. Letting go says there is something to gain. Letting be says It doesn’t matter. Giving up dreads the future. Letting go looks forward to the future. Letting be accepts the present as the only moment I ever have.

Giving up lives out of fear. Letting go lives out of grace and trust. Letting be just lives. Giving up is defeat at the hands of suffering. Letting go is victory over suffering. Letting be knows suffering is often in my own mind in the first place. Giving up is unwillingly yielding control to forces beyond myself.

Letting go is choosing to yield to forces beyond myself. Letting be acknowledges that [00:07:00] control and choices can be illusions. Giving up believes that God is to be feared. Letting go, trusting God to care for me. Letting be never asks the question. Happy Thanksgiving. 

Diane Hullet: Happy Thanksgiving. You can find out more about hank@hankdunn.com and as always, you can follow my work at www.BestLifeBestdeath.com.

Diane Hullet

Diane Hullet

End of Life Doula, Podcaster, and founder of Best Life Best Death.