Spirituality, Religion, and Death

Chaplain Debra Hepburn has been part of the UF Health Shands Hospital for eight years and she spoke about what she learned during that time.

Spirituality, faith, and religion are significant factors that can support a patient’s coping process during end-of-life care.


This spiritual guidance can come in any form of the patient’s choosing.


Whether it is the guidance for individual prayer, or asking for specific help from a religious or spiritual leader, chaplains on the palliative care teamwork around the clock based on patients' needs. If a patient asks for a spiritual leader from a specific faith, it is the duty of a chaplain to ensure this happens.


The UF Health Palliative Care Team has a pastoral service unit that consists of a priest and three chaplains. Their goal is to provide support to the patients and their families. This support can come in the form of counseling, sharing sacraments or other rituals from a multitude of religions and faiths. 

“Other people struggle with meaning and what their disease means or what the process means for them. We do the spirituality work with them in order for them to find meaning in the disease process and also in the act of dying.”


Sculpture of World Religions - UF Health Chapel

Chaplain Hepburn’s role extends further as a liaison between physicians and families. She makes sure that both families and healthcare providers are on the same page in terms of what the patient's goals of care are.

Chaplains deal with different situations daily depending on families and their different religious backgrounds. Every family has different preferences that determine the level of involvement they have with chaplains and other religious leaders. 


“All families are different. I try to get to know who’s who in the family and what moves them, what has meaning for them. The most important thing around end-of-life conversations is to get the family to hear the loved one that they are speaking for, to hear their voice. What do they want?” 

Working in this field can be difficult due to the amount of grieving that is involved with patients and their families. Chaplain Hepburn, having been a chaplain for 21 years, offers families this advice:


“Grief is human. That is a human emotion and it is not unnecessary or for them, it may be necessary. Different cultures grieve in different ways as well.”  


Chaplains also provide aid to patients in non-religious or spiritual ways. They serve as someone to speak with, even if the patient is not associated with, or does not practice a specific religion. 


“I tell people all the time, we do more than pray. We listen. Do not be afraid to call a chaplain in and ask for some help. We help them connect with various disciplines in the hospital in order to care for their body and their spirit.”