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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. Bob A.

    Kerry – What a wonderful article to start my Sunday morining with. Thank you so much for what you do on a daily basis, I know it must not be easy, but hopefully you find it truly rewarding. If I could humbly offer one piece of advice, don't be too hard on that professor of yours, all things happen for a reason, for as hard as it must have been for you to hear at the time, perhaps he was sent as the spark to have you search for more within, knowing what your path in life would be. Thank you.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:44 am |
  2. ob1

    thank you for this article. in some small way on a dreary january day, it brightened my day and comforted me. isn't that one one the callings of a chaplain? well done....

    January 29, 2012 at 9:43 am |
  3. Mark

    CNN seems to be scouring the earth trying to find religious people who are willing to diminish their belief in God just so they can plaster crap like this on their front page. In case anyone hasn't figured it out yet, according to CNN the biggest story of the last 2 years is that GOD IS DEAD and according to CNN even religious people know it!
    It would have been nice if your front page was used to inform people about the chaos that went on in Oakland over the last 24 hours or about how Julian Assange is about to be forced back to Sweden so the U.S. can shut him up forever. Or about how half the world is on the verge of bankruptcy.
    Instead we get another puff piece on how some nobody religious authority thinks belief in God is fbest expressed as an onscure afterthought.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:42 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      Last time I looked (about 30 seconds ago) there was room on CNN.com for more than just one story at a time. This one was appropriately filed under the subject heading "Belief Blog". You should perhaps avail yourself of the clickable links (white words on a red strip across the top of the page) to find subject areas you're more interested in.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:51 am |
    • miscnelson

      Oh yeah! I would way rather be depressed by the topics you just listed than have something uplifting to break the monotony.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:52 am |
    • Mark

      If you're depressed by the real world then how fulfilled do you feel being told that dying people don't think much about God so don't waste your time? My guess is that these people are thinking more about their families on their death bed because they don't know any more about God then the Chaplain seems to.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:00 am |
  4. Scott

    Great piece. 'Nuff said.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:42 am |
  5. Smell_This

    Amen!

    January 29, 2012 at 9:42 am |
  6. Deborah

    Jesus promised us that He was leaving us a comforter in His place when He returned to heaven. That is the Holy Spirit. If the dying are speaking of their families, who is to say that the Holy Spirit is not encourageing that? Who better to give us comfort in those dark days than memories and words about our families? I believe it's intended to be that way....

    January 29, 2012 at 9:40 am |
    • sybaris

      ..and still, there is nothing but wishful thinking to support your view.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:45 am |
  7. Sara

    This was excellent. The best article I think I've ever read. Thank you, Kerry. Sending this to family, friends and facebook community. <3

    January 29, 2012 at 9:40 am |
  8. Fran

    Awesome article! Understanding people and what they need, instead of what you believe (or were taught) they need is a powerful thing. The world needs more spiritual leaders like this. Thank you!

    January 29, 2012 at 9:39 am |
  9. Janet

    Thank you for this beautiful, meaning-packed article. More, please more, of this kind of sensibility.
    It heals the living and the dying.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:38 am |
    • JE

      Ame, Janet
      The Lord's prayer supports the premise: the Holy Family and their loving interactions do teach the Gospel and provide the ultimate examples to follow

      January 29, 2012 at 9:58 am |
  10. christina

    Kerry – what you describe is explained so much in Many Lives, Many Masters. Here we experience LOVE, and learn lessons about love and forgiveness though relationships. Good article!

    January 29, 2012 at 9:37 am |
  11. HighwayMiles

    If God = Love, then can't we just leave God out of it and talk about love? Please?

    January 29, 2012 at 9:37 am |
    • sybaris

      Don't forget that the same god created/allows evil

      January 29, 2012 at 9:47 am |
    • guest

      i agree. get religion of of EVERYTHING we do, not just love.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:48 am |
  12. The Dude

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pz38P24jHBc&w=640&h=390]

    January 29, 2012 at 9:36 am |
    • Irish Warrior

      That was awesome!

      January 29, 2012 at 9:50 am |
  13. Wanda

    Ah, your wonderful article is a comfort and a blessing as you can see from the responses. I was touched and brought to tears. The fact that a professor would be so disrespectful of a student is unbelievably arrogant. I am so very proud that you perservered and are such a blessing to those you serve. Your article has reached thouusands....the front page of CNN.com..and the hearts of everyone who read it. Blessings always to you Kery.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:34 am |
  14. daryl

    Thank you, Kerry. You really touched a nerve with me talking about God, love and forgiveness. Keep on doing what you are doing...touching the lives of others in a very meaningful way.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:33 am |
  15. Najam

    Very nice article.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:32 am |
  16. Mark

    WOW! Great article. I have been questioned as to my priorities in life by others who really do not understand. For me, family always comes before anything including god, church, work or money.
    Seems to be a pretty good way to live one's life!
    Thanks for the excellent article.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:31 am |
  17. CDL

    Excellent article. I hope your old professor sees it...

    January 29, 2012 at 9:31 am |
  18. Madeleine

    I get it. I get the article. God IS love (like I've heard a million times). And in the end, people want to talk about LOVE in terms of their families. I was raised with religion and as an adult approaching 50, I stopped going to church 20 years ago, but I never stopped being spiritual and depending on Jesus for guidance and strength. I don't believe, like so many "Christians" do, that Christianity is the ONLY way to life everlasting. I don't believe just because we are "Christians", WE get the ticket to heaven. You mean to tell me everyone on this planet who is NOT a Christian is NOT going to be with their Lord in heaven? The only religion the world has in common IS love. When my grandmother was dying, she reached out to her sisters and called their names. She said, "Eva! Esparanza! Loli!" She saw her parents and was so happy. She died four hours later. Our sadness was comforted by her joy in the end. When my father-in-law was dying, he was talking to his father, who passed 30 years prior. My father-in-law died three hours later. My Aunt's last words were, "Mama!" as she reached out and died two minutes later. All three members of my family were "religious", but not one of them talked of religion, heaven or God in the end. Not one of them prayed for their soul to be taken to heaven. Not one of them called on Jesus. I don't believe being associated with a religion is necessary in order to believe in a higher power. LOVE IS our higher power.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:30 am |
    • Betty

      Madelieine, Jesus said," I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father, except by me" He did say that everyone will have heard the truth and no one is without excuse. You will find no other religion where God sacrifices his son for our sins. (selfless love that we can't earn)

      March 24, 2012 at 8:55 pm |
    • Sorry, but.....

      Jesus was a liar.

      March 24, 2012 at 9:03 pm |
  19. Bob

    I don't usually comment on articles written but this was a great topic that was well written...it touched my heart and soul...Thanks for sharing..for I in turn will be sharing with my family and friends...Thanks again....

    January 29, 2012 at 9:30 am |
  20. NJreader

    I am interested in the idea that "God is love," particularly whether it works in reverse as well, i.e., "love is God."

    January 29, 2012 at 9:30 am |
    • sybaris

      Your god created evil as well. You can't dismiss it.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:48 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.