Aspen Words resident writer Kerry Egan shares lessons from the dying

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
Kerry Egan
Courtesy photo |

If You Go…

What: Reading & Talk with Aspen Words writer-in-residence Kerry Egan

Where: Woody Creek Community Center

When: Wednesday, Sept. 23, 6 p.m.

How much: Free

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People want their stories to be told.

Kerry Egan, a South Carolina-based hospice chaplain and author, has learned this in her time listening to the dying.

Egan has been in Woody Creek this month, as Aspen Words’ September writer-in-residence, at work on a book about her experiences in hospice and how the dying find meaning in their lives. She’ll read a sample of the work in progress at a free talk today at the Woody Creek Community Center.

“I’ve always thought it’s the flip side of the coin to being a writer,” Egan said recently over coffee at the community center. “A chaplain is a story holder. A writer is a storyteller.”

And yet she often hears from patients that they want her not to hold their stories in confidence but to share them in order to help others. One woman, whom Egan calls Gloria, led a colorful life, and on her deathbed she confessed she’d always wanted someone to record it.

“Gloria said to me one day, ‘I always wished I could meet a writer. I would say, “Here are my stories. You can have them and your can write a book,”’” Egan recalled. “‘I never got wise my whole life, so maybe somebody else could hear my stories and get wise. I used to pray that God would send me a writer.’”

Egan laughed and disclosed that she was a writer. (“I thought you were going to send me a man!” Gloria responded, looking to the heavens.) Gloria then asked Egan to promise to share her story, which is included in the book in progress.

Egan’s first book, “Fumbling,” published in 2004, is an account of hiking Spain’s Camino de Santiago while dealing with her grief over her recently deceased father. That book began as her master’s thesis, written while she was a student at Harvard Divinity School. Over the course of writing it, she cut out her academic analysis of her spiritual evolution and focused instead on her personal story.

Written when Egan was in her late 20s, before she became a mother and a hospice chaplain, “Fumbling” is far different from the book she’s finishing now.

“To me, that feels like a very young woman’s book,” she said. “It feels like a book from another life.”

The job, and the honor, of listening to people and comforting them during their last days has transformed Egan as a writer.

“While ‘Fumbling’ was focused on my own experience, I’ve come to find that other people are much more interesting,” she said.

In recent years, Egan has written occasional essays for about her work in hospice, offering a compelling glimpse of a world few people get to see and the lessons the dying can offer.

Her CNN essays drew interest from the publishing world and eventually earned Egan a book deal.

The first story, published in 2012 and titled “What People Talk About Before They Die,” explored her chaplain experience and the surprising fact that most people in their last days don’t want to talk to a chaplain about religion, theology or God — they talk about love and family.

“They talk about the love they felt, and the love they gave,” Egan wrote. “Often they talk about love they did not receive, or the love they did not know how to offer, the love they withheld, or maybe never felt for the ones they should have loved unconditionally.”

The dying are not, she noted, talking about gay marriage or birth control or the social issues that sometimes preoccupy the religious during their healthy years.

The story earned an enormous online readership (it has generated nearly 4,500 comments to date) and proved surprisingly controversial. Some used the online forum to simply share their own stories about their loved ones’ last days, but other religious commenters criticized Egan for not saving the souls of the dying by talking to them about God.

Egan views her detractors with compassion.

“The amount of fear and anxiety in those sentiments is almost impossible to describe,” she said. “That angry response is out of fear and love. They love those that they think are going to hell, so they’re afraid for them. … The people who think I’m going to hell have a very special place in my heart.”

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