Big questions about death

Big questions about death

The process of coming to terms with dying can throw up a whole series of questions about death that often begin with the word 'why'. Allowing time to explore meaning - either in your own life or in general - is an important aspect of the art of dying well.

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Big questions about death and dying

At some point in your life, you may find yourself asking ‘big questions’ about matters of life and death. You may  wonder about things such as the meaning of life or the existence of God. Maybe you have questions about life after death, why there is so much suffering in the world, or indeed a whole list of other concerns.

Perhaps events in your life, such as the birth of a child, a career change or the death of a relative set you thinking. Now that you’re having to come to terms with death – either your own or that of another – maybe you’re asking those kind of deep and meaningful questions again. They might be worrying, or even scaring you. The good news is that you’re not alone.

It’s OK to ask

Fr Peter Harries, the Catholic chaplain at University College London Hospital, has been asked these kind of questions for the past 15 years. He explains: “Sometimes people ask ‘is there a God?’ or ‘how can God allow this suffering to happen to me or to a loved one?’ It can indeed be difficult to believe in God when faced with suffering. But I find that most people don’t usually want a philosophical debate at that point. They just want to know that it’s OK to ask these kind of questions – and I reassure them that it is.”

The reality is that your big questions will be unique to you. Regardless of your religious beliefs, you may find it helpful to explore them with someone such as a chaplain, priest or minister. He or she may not be able to give you all of the answers, but they will offer a listening ear and may be able to share some food for thought.

Spiritual support

Fr Peter goes on: “Many people find faith difficult or have not given much thought to religious faith or to the ‘big questions’ before. So I invite them to reflect on what life means for them. It’s also true that spiritual support can be given without giving religious words. It’s about a presence that allows these things to be thought about in a safe space.”

Fear of the unknown

What, if anything, happens after death is a question that may be of particular concern to you right now. Perhaps you believe that that there is no life after death – and that is troubling you. Maybe you’re really not sure, but you very much hope that there is life beyond the grave for you or your loved one. And even if you have faith in everlasting life, you may find yourself getting ‘cold feet’ about it.

Sister Alice Thomas, a chaplain at Kings’ College Hospital in London, recognises these concerns: “Every day, directly or indirectly, patients voice to me their fear of the unknown. I work with many people from many denominations – and also those of no faith – and it’s very common for people to be anxious about what happens after death. This is a difficult topic to address generally; it really requires an open conversation with someone about their own private or personal struggles with belief. If the fear of the unknown is troubling someone – whether they have faith or not – I encourage them to open up to a chaplain, priest or minister.”

Hopes and beliefs

The hope Christians have in life after death is rooted in the resurrection of Jesus. During the final prayer at a cemetery after a Catholic funeral, the priest says: “In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our brother/sister N., and we commit his/her body to its resting place: earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”1

People with a belief or hope in life after death may also find it comforting to look on death as a reunion. The time has now come to reunite with loved ones who have gone before. If you are dying, you may be saying goodbye to some loved ones, but it means you will also shortly be saying hello to others.

On the other hand, even if you are not a believer, you will probably still have big questions to ask, although yours may be very different. Again, it’s worth talking about them with a trusted listener.

Mystery in suffering

Dealing with suffering might also be very much on your mind. You may be dealing with physical pain, limitations on your life, personal grief, or worries about what lies ahead. This may have led to questions about why God is allowing you or your loved one to suffer, or what you could possibly have done to deserve this.

“There is mystery to suffering,” acknowledges Fr John O’Toole, a priest from London. “Yet, when suffering does afflict us, even when we can’t explain why, we can recognise that there can be good that comes out of suffering. For example, after an immense tragedy, people show great courage or bravery or generosity.”

Becoming closer to God

Others have found that they are able to better appreciate the value of life or become closer to God amid their sufferings. Some people have discovered that death has served as a ‘reality check’, helping them to appreciate what is truly important in life.

As the author C.S. Lewis once put it: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”2

Why does God let death happen?

For Christians, however, the ultimate answer to the meaning and value of suffering is found in the experience of Jesus himself. In  The Mystery of the Cross, Cardinal Basil Hume, the former leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, wrote about the closeness of Christ to those who are experiencing pain, suffering or death. He reminded us that Christ who was cruelly tortured and crucified on Calvary still identifies himself with those who need his presence in their hour of need:

“Sometimes people wonder, when confronted by tragedy or suffering, why God lets it happen. When we are tempted to echo those words, we need to remember that God is now and forever at the heart of any human suffering. The Christ who was cruelly tortured and crucified on Calvary suffers still whenever there is pain, suffering or death, among those he now identifies with. If we ask ‘where was God in all this?’, the answer has to be ‘There, wherever there are human beings’.”3

When Andrew Robinson from Coventry was training to be a priest, he discovered he had advanced colon cancer. Throughout his journey towards death, he saw it as a sharing in the cross of Christ. His mother recalled his words the day before he died: “I too have lost my dignity, I now know how Jesus felt at the cross when they stripped him of his garments.”4

“The world’s thy ship and not thy home.” St Thérèse of Liseux


  1. Committal prayer B, (p.7), Rite of Committal at a Cemetery, Liturgy Office of the Catholic Church in England and Wales.
  2. C.S. Lewis, (1940) The Problem of Pain (London: Fontana Books).
  3. Basil Hume, (1998) The Mystery of the Cross (London: Darton, Longman and Todd) p52.
  4. Andrew Robinson, (2001) Tears at Night, Joy at Dawn – Journal of a Dying Seminarian (Stoke on Trent: Alive Publishing).
The Art of Dying Well