On Living, Kerry Egan: Book Review

Egan shares inspiring stories about the lives of her hospice patients.

On Living Kerry Egan Book ReviewRiverhead Books / Joshua Aaron for Riverhead Books
On Living Book Cover On Living
Kerry Egan
Adult Nonfiction
Riverhead Books

As a hospice chaplain, Kerry Egan didn’t offer sermons or prayers, unless they were requested; in fact, she found, the dying rarely want to talk about God, at least not overtly. Instead, she discovered she’d been granted an invaluable chance to witness firsthand what she calls the “spiritual work of dying”—the work of finding or making meaning of one’s life, the experiences it’s contained and the people who have touched it, the betrayals, wounds, unfinished business, and unrealized dreams. Instead of talking, she mainly listened: to stories of hope and regret, shame and pride, mystery and revelation and secrets held too long. Most of all, though, she listened as her patients talked about love—love for their children and partners and friends; love they didn’t know how to offer; love they gave unconditionally; love they, sometimes belatedly, learned to grant themselves.

This isn’t a book about dying—it’s a book about living. And Egan isn’t just passively bearing witness to these stories. An emergency procedure during the birth of her first child left her physically whole but emotionally and spiritually adrift. Her work as a hospice chaplain healed her, from a brokenness she came to see we all share. Each of her patients taught her something—how to find courage in the face of fear or the strength to make amends; how to be profoundly compassionate and fiercely empathetic; how to see the world in grays instead of black and white. In this poignant, moving, and beautiful book, she passes along all their precious and necessary gifts.

This review contains quotes from the novel.

*Special thanks to Riverhead Books for allowing us to read Kerry Egan’s On Living.

Kerry Egan revisits some of the most emotional stories shared by her patients while she working as a hospice chaplain in On Living.

Egan was always willing to listen to her patient’s stories about their lives. They would talk about their jobs they had or the dreams they had for their lives. But Egan found that most of the people she sat with talked about the love they had for their friends, spouses, and children. She realized that each person had a story to share before they died. They wanted to talk to someone about what they felt was the most meaningful aspects they had in their lifetime. And Egan was willing to listen to anything they had to say.

“There are a thousand stories patients have told me, but the ones in this book are the ones people wanted to share. Those patients understood long before I did that some stories are meant to be bundled up and locked away in a chaplain’s heart, but some are meant to be told. Their hope, when they said I could share parts of their stories, was that people who still have years, decades, lifetimes left to live would find something in there that could help them learn the things my patients learned so late.”

-excerpt from Kerry Egan’s On Living 

Egan recalls these stories as the “spiritual work of dying,” which is when someone is trying to find meaning in their life. Her patients were able to teach Egan something new. She learned through them courage and to be able to forgive people who have wronged her. She learned compassion and empathy for each of these people who were on their death beds. But most importantly she learned to see the world in gray and not in black and white.

Egan was then able to heal her own wounds in her life. These people showed her what things are important in life and that life is too short.

“I don’t know if these stories will make you wise. But maybe, in seeing that other people have done it, you’ll find your own way to let your life be kind to you.”

-excerpt from Kerry Egan’s On Living

I recommend this to anyone who is looking for their next inspirational read. Egan did a fantastic job of conveying each patient’s emotions and feelings through their stories. Egan also did a great job with being able to share these meaningful stories with empathy and eloquence. This book should be read by many because the life lessons in this book need to be shared with the world.

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Jessica Duffield
the authorJessica Duffield
Contributing Writer
I am a junior in college. Books are my passion and I hope to work in book publishing once I graduate from journalism school.