Understanding spiritual needs

Understanding spiritual needs

What would be your reaction if someone asked you about your 'spiritual needs'? You wouldn't be alone if you wondered what on earth they were talking about. Is this a roundabout way of asking which denomination you belong to? Are they suggesting that it's high time to call in a priest? And what if you're not particularly religious, anyway?

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What are spiritual needs?

The truth is, if you are dealing with end-of-life issues – whether you are facing death personally or are losing a loved one – each person has unique spiritual needs. And talking to someone such as a chaplain, minister or counsellor can be a good way of exploring them. This is because spiritual needs aren’t exactly the same as religious needs. In fact, they’re much broader than that.

Dr Karen Groves from Merseyside, who works in palliative care, explains: “Whether or not they recognise it – and whether or not it is recognised by other people – everybody has a spiritual dimension. There is always something that gives them meaning in life, whatever that is. Therefore, at the end-of-life everyone will have spiritual needs of some sort – and we should be recognising those.”

As such, you may find at this time that you have general questions about the meaning of life, issues about right and wrong or even specifically religious topics that you would like to discuss with someone like a chaplain. Even if you don’t consider yourself religious, you may still be grappling with some of these concerns. Here are some typical examples:

Examples of typical spiritual questions


– What have I achieved in my life?

– How do I find meaning in the time I have left?

– Does life in general have any meaning?

Right and wrong

– Have I been a good person?

– I need forgiveness / to forgive

– I have ethical questions about dying well


– I’m doubting my faith / angry with God

– I’m not religious; what’s going to happen to me?

– I’d like the support of a chaplain or of prayer

Questions unique to you

Of course, the kind of spiritual questions you might have will be unique to you. And it is ultimately your decision when – and whether – to have these conversations at all. Many people grappling with end-of-life issues, however, say that finding a new appreciation of the meaning of life has been helpful in their journey.

Political strategist Philip Gould was diagnosed with terminal cancer of the oesophagus. In his last few months of life, he wrote When I Die, a book containing ‘lessons from the death zone’. He reflected on how death had changed his horizons, writing: “Death gives meaning to life and the knowledge that you are going to die one day gives you the sense that there is meaning in your life. When you are going to die soon, you really do feel the absolute intensity of life. Life becomes completely previous, not just because there is so little of it left but because the actual nature of experience is more fulfilling than it was before.”1

Discussing the issues

Not everyone is able to approach death feeling so at peace. There may be loose ends to tie up, struggles to forgive people or regrets over things that were never done. Regardless of your starting point, spending time discussing these issues with someone trained to deal with them is worth considering.

To some, confiding in a chaplain or counsellor about the past, how you’re dealing with death, your hopes/fears and even questions about life in general, might sound a bit much.

Catholic chaplains

Fr Peter Harries OP, the Catholic chaplain at University College Hospital in London understands this. “Sometimes, people need to know a bit about you before they trust you,” he says. “They want to know whether you are the kind of person that they can confide in. They also want to know that you are interested in them as a person rather than imposing your agenda.”

He goes on: “Most chaplains are very good at setting people at ease. Some people are reluctant to open up the first time I visit; it will be the second or third time before they open up. It all depends on the chemistry. Some people open up within two minutes – with others it’s different. My aim is to talk gently to people and to try to make it easier for them to speak freely.”

It is easier to trust others if you trust God. In the Gospel, Christ teaches that we are infinitely precious in His eyes:

Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matthew 6:26-27)


  1. Gould, P. (2012) When I Die – Lessons from the Death Zone (London: Little, Brown), p141.
The Art of Dying Well