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Don’t wait till your dying words to say what’s most important

January 16, 2017 at 6:20 PM EDT
"Should I plan out my last words?" As a hospice chaplain, Kerry Egan hears that question sometimes. But death isn't so easy to predict. Instead, Egan suggests making sure you ask forgiveness or share your wisdom now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: What we can learn about life from those facing death?

Chaplain Kerry Egan’s new book is called “On Living” and is the latest edition in our essay series In My Humble Opinion.

KERRY EGAN, Author, “On Living”: When people learn that I’m a hospice chaplain, they usually have one of two reactions. They either say they could never do that job and change the subject completely, or they have questions, lots of questions.

One of the questions I hear more often than I would have thought is about people’s last words. People are enormously curious about what people who are actively dying talk about.

Have you ever heard anything really amazing? What’s the craziest deathbed confession you have ever heard? Should I plan out my last words?

That last question seemed really odd to me the first time someone asked, but I have been asked it at least a dozen times, so it’s obviously on some people’s minds.

The questions don’t actually match up with what typically happens when someone is dying. Instead, I suspect they’re coming from a sort of Hollywood movie or television idea of what dying should be like, clean, calm, bizarrely romantic, always with the good sense to close your eyes before taking a long sigh and limply tossing your head to the side, and beautiful, urgent, life-altering utterances.

So, if this is what you think happens in death, I can see how you would feel a lot of pressure to get it right.

When someone asks me if they should plan their last words, the short answer is: No. People who are dying are often unconscious for days before they die. Sometimes, they’re in pain. They’re often highly medicated.

Honestly, most of the last words I have heard are so mundane, I can’t even give an example.

When you know you have a terminal diagnosis, death often takes a person by surprise. You might not even know that your last words are your last words.

But there’s a longer, more complex answer too. If you had something so important to tell your loved ones that you feel the need to plan out what to say, then why would you wait to say it? If it’s so important that you’re worried about it now, then say it now. Ask for forgiveness now. Say you love someone now. Share whatever wisdom you have with the world right now.

Here’s the thing. When people ask me about dying words, what they’re really asking is, what is so important in this life that it should be the very last thing we talk about?

So, instead of asking, what do other people talk about, ask yourself, what do I really want to talk about now? And that’s a really good question. That’s a really good thing to ponder.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A lot to think about there.

And you can watch more of our series In My Humble Opinion on our website.

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