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I’ve gotten a few questions from readers that I will attempt to tackle from time to time in this ‘Ask a Chaplain’ series. If you have questions you’d like me to address, post them in the comments or contact me

Recently, a parish pastor wrote with the following questions:

Can you talk about the conversations you have with people who are getting ready to die?  The spiritual work of preparing for death?  Maybe questions that come up about what heaven looks like or where you go when you die?

As a chaplain, I view my work as not giving theological directives. Instead, I try to meet people where they are.  I help them access their emotions, put words to their fears and explore their own answers with them. Here’s some of what I do:

With the Individual:

  • Life Reviews – These are just what they sound like, having people look back on the major events on their lives. I love doing these with patients, because I get to know them and hear so many neat stories, happy, sad and everything in between.
  • Confession – This is sometimes brought about by the Life Review, unlike my more Catholic friends, I simply view this as anything they might want to get off their chest (ie. regrets, wishes, etc) and talk about as a way to unburden.
  • Ask how they’re feeling about dying – By asking you are putting it on the table and giving them permission to talk about it. I used to be afraid to broach this topic with people – but then I realized, anyone who in this stage is thinking about it anyway.
  • Let them be honest – Some of the people I see are so lonely or in so much pain that death would be a welcome friend, especially if they believe it will reunite them with a loved one.  With family around, they probably haven’t been able to admit these sorts of things, out of fear they’ll upset others.
  • Pray – Not only is it helpful if  some of the above techniques are done, but if the individual can formally communicate these things to their Creator, even better.

With the Family: 

  • Encourage conversation & meaningful goodbyes –  Sometimes individual goodbyes with each family member are especially poignant, even if the patient can no longer communicate. I often see unconscious patients holding on until one last family member shows up to make their peace.
  • Review Living Wills & Advanced Directives – Things go so much smoother when families know about their loved one’s healthcare wishes. I’ve watched so many people struggle over not knowing what decisions to make because they were never discussed or written down.

Regarding Heaven 

  • I haven’t been yet, so I’m not an expert! Rather than try to offer some conclusive answer, I always put these questions back on the patients “What do you hope it looks like?” I’ve found that this tends to be more powerful and opens up the conversation and their imagination.

Above all, I think it’s hard to go wrong when you’re ministering in love  & when the you’re in touch with your own thoughts & emotions about the dying process. 

I’d love to hear from hospice workers and others who may have more formal ways of doing the spiritual work of preparing for death. Please add your advice in the comments.