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My Faith: What people talk about before they die
January 28th, 2012
11:00 PM ET

My Faith: What people talk about before they die

Editor's Note: Kerry Egan is a hospice chaplain in Massachusetts and the author of "Fumbling: A Pilgrimage Tale of Love, Grief, and Spiritual Renewal on the Camino de Santiago."

By Kerry Egan, Special to CNN

As a divinity school student, I had just started working as a student chaplain at a cancer hospital when my professor asked me about my work.  I was 26 years old and still learning what a chaplain did.

"I talk to the patients," I told him.

"You talk to patients?  And tell me, what do people who are sick and dying talk to the student chaplain about?" he asked.

I had never considered the question before.  “Well,” I responded slowly, “Mostly we talk about their families.”

“Do you talk about God?

“Umm, not usually.”

“Or their religion?”

“Not so much.”

“The meaning of their lives?”

“Sometimes.”

“And prayer?  Do you lead them in prayer?  Or ritual?”

“Well,” I hesitated.  “Sometimes.  But not usually, not really.”

I felt derision creeping into the professor's voice.  “So you just visit people and talk about their families?”

“Well, they talk.  I mostly listen.”

“Huh.”  He leaned back in his chair.

A week later, in the middle of a lecture in this professor's packed class, he started to tell a story about a student he once met who was a chaplain intern at a hospital.

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“And I asked her, 'What exactly do you do as a chaplain?'  And she replied, 'Well, I talk to people about their families.'” He paused for effect. “And that was this student's understanding of  faith!  That was as deep as this person's spiritual life went!  Talking about other people's families!”

The students laughed at the shallowness of the silly student.  The professor was on a roll.

“And I thought to myself,” he continued, “that if I was ever sick in the hospital, if I was ever dying, that the last person I would ever want to see is some Harvard Divinity School student chaplain wanting to talk to me about my family.”

My body went numb with shame.  At the time I thought that maybe, if I was a better chaplain, I would know how to talk to people about big spiritual questions.  Maybe if dying people met with a good, experienced chaplain they would talk about God, I thought.

Today, 13 years later, I am a hospice chaplain.  I visit people who are dying in their homes, in hospitals, in nursing homes.   And if you were to ask me the same question - What do people who are sick and dying talk about with the chaplain?  - I, without hesitation or uncertainty, would give you the same answer. Mostly, they talk about their families: about their mothers and fathers, their sons and daughters.

They talk about the love they felt, and the love they gave.  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.

They talk about how they learned what love is, and what it is not.    And sometimes, when they are actively dying, fluid gurgling in their throats, they reach their hands out to things I cannot see and they call out to their parents:  Mama, Daddy, Mother.

What I did not understand when I was a student then, and what I would explain to that professor now, is that people talk to the chaplain about their families because that is how we talk about God.  That is how we talk about the meaning of our lives.  That is how we talk about the big spiritual questions of human existence.

We don't live our lives in our heads, in theology and theories.  We live our lives in our families:  the families we are born into, the families we create, the families we make through the people we choose as friends.

This is where we create our lives, this is where we find meaning, this is where our purpose becomes clear.

Family is where we first experience love and where we first give it.  It's probably the first place we've been hurt by someone we love, and hopefully the place we learn that love can overcome even the most painful rejection.

This crucible of love is where we start to ask those big spiritual questions, and ultimately where they end.

I have seen such expressions of love:  A husband gently washing his wife's face with a cool washcloth, cupping the back of her bald head in his hand to get to the nape of her neck, because she is too weak to lift it from the pillow. A daughter spooning pudding into the mouth of her mother, a woman who has not recognized her for years.

A wife arranging the pillow under the head of her husband's no-longer-breathing body as she helps the undertaker lift him onto the waiting stretcher.

We don't learn the meaning of our lives by discussing it.  It's not to be found in books or lecture halls or even churches or synagogues or mosques.  It's discovered through these actions of love.

If God is love, and we believe that to be true, then we learn about God when we learn about love. The first, and usually the last, classroom of love is the family.

Sometimes that love is not only imperfect, it seems to be missing entirely.  Monstrous things can happen in families.  Too often, more often than I want to believe possible, patients tell me what it feels like when the person you love beats you or rapes you.  They tell me what it feels like to know that you are utterly unwanted by your parents.  They tell me what it feels like to be the target of someone's rage.   They tell me what it feels like to know that you abandoned your children, or that your drinking destroyed your family, or that you failed to care for those who needed you.

Even in these cases, I am amazed at the strength of the human soul.  People who did not know love in their families know that they should have been loved.  They somehow know what was missing, and what they deserved as children and adults.

When the love is imperfect, or a family is destructive, something else can be learned:  forgiveness.  The spiritual work of being human is learning how to love and how to forgive.

We don’t have to use words of theology to talk about God; people who are close to death almost never do. We should learn from those who are dying that the best way to teach our children about God is by loving each other wholly and forgiving each other fully - just as each of us longs to be loved and forgiven by our mothers and fathers, sons and daughters.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kerry Egan.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Death

soundoff (4,494 Responses)
  1. Douglas Adams

    I Hoped and prayed there was no afterlife, then I realized the contradiction and just hoped there wasn't an afterlife.

    January 29, 2012 at 6:50 am |
    • Jesus

      When I was a small child I asked, where is heaven and hell....I needed an address. I saw the perplexed look on my parents' faces and realized that they were living a delusion. Everytime I see a sports figure look up to the sky and point I realize how sick this delusion is. No being is up in the sky....no God, no Angels, no souls of dead people....just clouds. We've been up there and seen it for ourselves! If we as a species were reality based, we could intelligently deal with issues constructively rather than infect our decision making with Bronze Age nonsense.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:35 am |
    • toadears

      If you are not Mexican, your screen name is an insult intended on offending Christians. Bet you wouldn't do that to a Muslim.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:09 am |
    • Flappy

      What's wrong with the name Douglas Adams?

      January 29, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • Carl

      Toadears:

      If you are not really a member of the cult of the Eared Toadites, your name is also offensive.

      January 29, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
    • Kirk

      Err, toadears, there are people of many nationalities (not just "Mexicans") who have the name "Jesus". Even (gasp!) Americans!

      January 29, 2012 at 8:57 pm |
    • tom clements

      Isn"t hoping for hopelessness also a contradiction?

      January 30, 2012 at 10:57 am |
  2. Rev. Carrie

    FINALLY this young chaplain got it! Her instructor didn't get it at all. I do more marriages than funerals or sitting at the bedside of those who are dying however those whom I have sat with as they cross over to whatever is on the other side, do indeed want to know their families will be okay or they need to unburden themselves of the guilt of what they did or one last time confess to what they missed in life if they were a victim of some sort. Many clergy miss this message at the pulpit and at death. Most of those passing do indeed "reach out " to loved ones who are gone. My own father saw his mother coming for him. She might have been the only person in his life he truly loved therefore felt love in return.

    January 29, 2012 at 6:50 am |
    • Jesus

      What sad and dumb animals we are. Rather than accept reality of life and death, we indoctrinate ourselves to believe in the ridiculous and unbelievable.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:37 am |
    • toadears

      Yes Satan, I would rather believe a temporary human than an omnipotent God.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:20 am |
    • Andrew White

      Jesus,
      this is what we called faith. I can't force you to accept it into your heart. You are Man and have free will. All I can do is pray for you. But out of respect for others and their beliefs can't you at least be respectful ?

      January 29, 2012 at 10:22 am |
    • evensteven

      Jesus: A person is either an Eternalist or a Temporist. You either believe some form of you lives forever (i.e., Einstein's "energy never dies—just changes form") or you believe life is temporary and then you fade to black.

      The problem with being a Temporist is that there's no future in it.

      January 29, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
  3. buctootim

    What a great life affirming article by a compassionate author. Never be cowed by pompous academics who are so widely read and have so little understanding. .

    January 29, 2012 at 6:49 am |
    • RNB

      I have also come across my fair share of pompous academics who think that their opinions and interpretations are superior simply due to the fact that they have a piece of paper saying they're "smart". You can read as many books as you want, and knowledge of course has its place in the world. But even the smartest person might not be wise. Wisdom and intelligence do not necessarily accompany each other. A lot of those professors have intelligence they learned in a book from someone else. But does the majority of them have true wisdom only gained through real life experiences? Given my own experiences, I would say that most don't.

      January 29, 2012 at 6:58 am |
    • Playjojo

      Pompous academics, how perfect. I'd also add arrogant in this mans case. It's my death, I'll talk and think about what I want, not what this person thinks I should. To shove your beliefs down someones throat at the end to satisfy your calling, I believe is reprehensible.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:24 am |
    • Ellen

      You nailed it.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:18 am |
    • Susanna

      “He who possesses art and science has religion; he who does not possess them, needs religion.”
      – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

      January 29, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
  4. Ayodele

    CNN – you are taking the leadership role by showing the public what life is really about. Kudos to your editorial team. You are now my favorite news site, because you share news, discuss life, and bring me close to what is most important in life namely: family and God, and loving others! Excellent work CNN – I will continue to invest in your news

    January 29, 2012 at 6:48 am |
  5. Bon

    mmm

    January 29, 2012 at 6:48 am |
  6. Carl

    “Do you talk about God?
    “Umm, not usually.”

    One might begin to think that they are on to something.

    January 29, 2012 at 6:47 am |
    • toadears

      She is paid by Medicare and Insurance. And the banking owned press will tell you whatever you want to believe. So go ahead and believe it. CNN has deleted every comment I have tried to make so far explaining that I visit deathbeds at the family's request. I always pray and the patient is always grateful. Always. It gives them peace. I am not paid by anybody. Let's see if they delete this one. Tass.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:19 am |
    • Flappy

      Woah! The bank owns the press? Where did that come from?

      January 29, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
  7. Mopper

    True religion does not equivalate to Family. I suppose if you have no religion what else are you going to talk about on your deathbed...American Idol?

    January 29, 2012 at 6:47 am |
    • Jesus

      My Uncle died before the finals of American Idol and regretted expiring just before the finale.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:48 am |
    • Gumby

      Oh, and I suppose YOU have "True religion". Funny how every Christian loves to point at others and say "They're not really Christians, but ALWAYS think they themselves are.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:53 am |
    • SquarePegRH

      Gumby, isn't it the truth. Such narcissism

      January 29, 2012 at 10:01 am |
    • perplexified

      I tried looking up "equivalate" in the dictionary, but, uh, nope. Isn't there. Could you expoundify on the meaningness of that word?

      January 29, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
    • Jeff

      @ perplexified...Hilarious!

      January 29, 2012 at 9:06 pm |
  8. Smile

    Powerful piece; thanks

    January 29, 2012 at 6:46 am |
  9. kippyj

    I wish I could link this to my facebook wall. I'm not the only person out here who's having a difficult time. This is the most helpful thing I've read since my husband was murdered.

    January 29, 2012 at 6:43 am |
    • Dave

      So very, very sorry to hear about your husband. I hope that as time goes on you will continue to find support. No doubt many people who have read your comment are thinking about you today.

      I'm not religious at all, but clearly this chaplain does valuable work and has an understanding of human nature.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:08 am |
  10. MightyMoo

    Student +1, Professor 0. Great story.

    January 29, 2012 at 6:43 am |
  11. SKaye

    You are wonderful. Thanks for sharing your story. IMO that professor did not truly understand life whereas, you did/do. It is someone like you who I would want at my side when dying along with family.

    January 29, 2012 at 6:43 am |
  12. Julianne

    Your understanding of death, dying, and religion is profound and has moved me. Your empathy is visionary. God bless you.

    January 29, 2012 at 6:39 am |
  13. tim

    This was a very nice article, calming yet eye opening, thank you.

    January 29, 2012 at 6:39 am |
  14. Davinia

    What can you say to the "TRUTH," but, "amen."

    January 29, 2012 at 6:38 am |
  15. RNB

    "We should learn from those who are dying that the best way to teach our children about God is by loving each other wholly and forgiving each other fully."

    I agree wholeheartedly. God is love. And where true love exists, God is there. I believe people speak about their families mores before they die because this is one of the greatest sources of love and spirituality in one's life. It makes total sense to me why this would happen.

    January 29, 2012 at 6:37 am |
  16. Mirosal

    You do NOT need any kind of deity to show love for anyone. Love does not equal 'god' in any way

    January 29, 2012 at 6:36 am |
    • AreAtheistReasonable?

      The trolls are coming out

      January 29, 2012 at 6:46 am |
    • Gedwards

      AreAtheistReasonable???//'The trolls are coming out"
      ======================
      Mirosal apparently needs some love, to balance out that hate.

      January 29, 2012 at 7:11 am |
    • Mirosal

      Sorry to disappoint you. I have plenty of love, as well as 3 kids. I never lack for companionship.

      January 29, 2012 at 7:15 am |
    • Gedwards

      Mirosal//"Sorry to disappoint you. I have plenty of love,..."
      =================
      I doubt you're really sorry. And you should share that love then. It's unlimited.

      Free will – another contradiction to entropy.

      January 29, 2012 at 7:19 am |
    • JT

      How anyone got "hate" from this comment is beyond me but I've noticed, in tthis blog Christians, so desperate to feel persecuted, demonize you and scream "hate" for simply disagreeing with them.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:15 am |
    • Olbap

      Right on JT and Mirosal. Very well said. I just posted my belief about disbelief in God and my comment was removed by an over-sensitive religious zealot....if I had to guess it was BozoBub.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:27 am |
    • Eug.

      @Mirosal. Only just spotted your kind response to my post of 08:04 EST this a.m. (29th.) [Re: Resurrection hope]
      Just wanted to make the point that it has been calculated that 97% of Bible prophecy has been fulfilled, leaving three percent, which all pertains distinctly to the future of mankind.
      Don't know about you but I tend to look upon anybody with a record of this magnitude, the same way as I regard the person who makes the sun come up every morning. Have a great week, Mirosal.

      January 29, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
  17. +

    There are no hate-theists in a foxhole.

    January 29, 2012 at 6:33 am |
    • Mirosal

      hmmm... "hate-theists" ... bigoted much?

      January 29, 2012 at 6:44 am |
    • caw

      Really? Look at the Atheist rally being put together at Fort Bragg.

      January 29, 2012 at 6:45 am |
    • Jesus

      Having been in a "foxhole" (in combat), I can say that there are MANY atheists there. Religion bases their very foundation on scaring you into believing that terrible things will happen to you after you die unless you join and adhere to their dogma. Fear is the essence of their business plan. The fear I really do have is about the harm religion and people who "talk to" an invisible and imaginary guy in the sky are doing to our world.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:42 am |
    • julie

      Hey "+." Somehow I doubt you were ever, or will ever be, in a foxhole. If you were, you'd know that soldiers are all individuals with their own set of beliefs. Meanwhile, you hide behind an addition sign as your handle.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:14 am |
    • Flappy

      Not all theists are haters. I think some of the Christians might resent that remark.

      January 29, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
  18. J Guerrero

    Who the eff is editing? People speak more about family THAN about religion. And no surprise, in the end the only tangible emotional attachment is to the people that have loved you, not to faith.

    January 29, 2012 at 6:31 am |
    • SKaye

      Are you serious – to be commenting on editing vs the important content of this blog? Get a life.

      January 29, 2012 at 6:45 am |
  19. J Guerrero

    Who the eff is editing? People speak more about family THAN about religion. And no surprise, i the end the only tangible emotional attachment is to the people that have loved you, not to faith.

    January 29, 2012 at 6:30 am |
  20. Karen Harrington

    "Then" should be "than" in the headline for this story.

    January 29, 2012 at 6:29 am |
    • Mirosal

      Where are the words "then" or "than" in the headline of "My Faith: what people talk about when they die"?

      January 29, 2012 at 6:31 am |
    • Gedwards

      Mirosal....the quote is "In their final moments, she says, people talk more about family then they do religion." It's really the byline, not the headline.

      January 29, 2012 at 7:12 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.