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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. lhayes

    I'm not religious, but I'm pretty darn spiritual. It seems to me that if I'm not "right with God" by the time I'm about to die that it's a little late in the game to be making up for lost time. Thank you, Kerry Egan, for listening. I think that's what God does.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:04 am |
  2. Patricia Roy

    The more I read, the more I cried. I moved in w/my then 89 yr old mom a year ago, to care for her after she suffered a stroke. I have five siblings, four of whom live w/in 15 miles of my mom. It has been three months since four of them have visited her. The other one is here every day, even though she has two jobs. The others hate me, so they take it out on our mother, by not having anything to do w/her. How do I forgive them? Mom raised us the same, but how could two of us love and appreciate her so much, and the others act like she's already died? How do I forgive them for hurting mom?

    January 29, 2012 at 10:02 am |
  3. raggedhand

    I second the "well done"

    As a teacher, though, I'm appalled by your professor. What a horrible man. He certainly doesn't know the meaning of being a teacher or a chaplain. Humiliating students is neither charitable nor professional, but his lack of understanding is probably why he's working in academia and not in the field. I can see him sitting next to a dying person and being impatient with their ramblings because he doesn't understand that a that moment it was his job to listen, not to lecture.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:02 am |
  4. Deb

    Tender. Gently insightful. Moving.

    Thank you.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  5. Olbap

    God....HA. What a delusion. People's fear of death is so strong that many have to hang on to hope through the idea of an afterlife — the most ancient of concepts. Just accept death as a part of life. Accept that we are all made of star stuff. Accept that we are not alone in the universe. Accept that we are lucky to have lived once, and make the most of your life without the interference of divine thinking. Our family, friends, the people that are beside our lives and our deathbeds, this, above all, should be where our thoughts lay to rest. Lift the veils and truly see through it with untrammeled sight. This is called acceptance, and it's a very powerful human ally....after all, the freedom of acceptance is more powerful than the enslavement of delusion.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • Kevin

      What do you care what makes each individual person happy? It costs you nothing. You speak of populations being enslaved as if that gives you justification to tell each individual how to live and what to believe. That sort of arrogance is indistinguishable from the worst of religious sorts. I'm agnostic. I have no faith. But I know enough to know it is none of my da** business what brings others peace as individuals.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:04 am |
    • Olbap

      Take your own advice Kevin, what do you care what I think? If you don't want people to formulate an opinion different than yours, you should go to church.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:08 am |
    • Olbap

      And who gives you the right to assume that religion, belief in divinity DOESN'T tell people how to live their lives??? Your argument is completely flawed and hypocritical.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:10 am |
    • Bozobub

      The point of this article, since you so obviously missed it, is that people talk about family and loved ones, NOT God or religion, when/as they die. Get off your high horse and READ sometime. As a fellow atheist, I'm deeply ashamed of you.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:13 am |
    • Olbap

      BozoBob (aptly named). My argument is in response to another person that posted here, idiot. This is, after all, the "belief" blog.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:20 am |
    • Kevin

      I'm not speaking in generalities Olbap, about larger populations of people who haven't said a word, I'm speaking about you directly. You making grandiose assumptions about what is and isn't true, regardless of the fact that it can't be known, so that absolute certainty in the face of uncertainty makes you a hypocrite.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • Kevin

      "belief in divinity DOESN'T tell people how to live their lives???"

      Right, it makes you no better than they. You are telling people that belief is delusional and others preach that it is the truth. Exactly how does this make you any different than the people you criticize?

      I don't care how you live your life but you opened you posted your comment and so you made yourself open for criticism.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • Bozobub

      a) Never called you any names; silly ad-hominem merely exposes your lack of a cogent argument.
      b) It's Bozobub", get it right. Ever think about why I chose the name..? Making fun of it won't get you very far =3 ...
      c) You didn't post as a response, which is easy enough to do. Don't get your undies in a twist because no one can read your mind.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:55 am |
  6. JohnR

    The one point I reject is the notion that talking about family is how we talk about god. No, it's how we talk about love, meaning, life. God has nothing to do with it.

    In crisis, only the self absorbed fret about theology. When I recently went into heart failure and was unsure whether I'd come out of it alive, my own mind drifted to the animals I care for. Would they understand why I never came back if indeed I didn't. I cared about what matters. To me, these guys matter. Jolly old Jehovah doesn't – at ALL – and how shallow must be the love of those who stew about where they stand with some silly god or other when facing their own mortality.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • Dustydog

      JohnR....I recently had a similar experience facing bypass surgery. When I was told that my blockage is what was causing my chest pain, and that I needed triple by pass surgery...I also wondered what would happen to those who I care for if I did not survive. When I cried out, it was because I was ashamed of my self.... getting me to this place....which now was the cause and effect of not always doing the right things. God really had nothing to do with....I had done this. I know now that it is "now" that matters....not yesterday or tomorrow....but now.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:14 am |
    • llɐq ʎʞɔnq

      Almost everyone, (except a VERY few philosophers), NEVER examine what they "mean" when they "say" the word "god".
      Just translate it to "what is really important to me/us is......("god is love", bla bla bla). THAT is what almost everyone really means when they use that word. As for Yahweh, (the "god of the armies"), who was one among many of the concurrent ancient Near Eastern deities, no one who knows the history and development of the gradual integration of the "Yahweh" god into Hebrew culture could possibly take it seriously. Monotheism, to the Hebrews, (the "covenant"), was not that they believed only in one god, (they had several..Ashura, Yahweh's wife, and Baal), but that in order to obtain favor from the "god of the armies" during times of peril, they would WORSHIP, only one god. Google "monolatrist polytheism". (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MlnnWbkMlbg)

      January 29, 2012 at 10:17 am |
    • JohnR

      Thanks for the response, Dusty Dog and Bucky Ball!

      January 29, 2012 at 10:41 am |
  7. Charles Rouse

    I think this is authentic and a very good summary of what happens in hospitals. I'm not claiming extensive experience, but I know this lady has the background and is a good reporter of this experience. She's doing God's work and we should thank her for it.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:59 am |
  8. mglambe

    Wow. What a powerful article. Sobering, thoughtful, insightful and emotional. It made me cry as I read it, thinking about those whom I love who have passed and those in my life whom I love who are still here. They are so important and keep me going. Thanks for writing this.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:58 am |
  9. Andrea

    Wonderful piece Kerry!

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

    Having been a nurse for 30 years, much of that in a nursing home, my patients want their family when they are dying. They don't reach their hand out to God, they reach it out to a family member, or to their nurse if no family is there. We become their family in those cases. Having grown up equating being touched with being hit, those very patients taught me love.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:58 am |
  11. Sally

    Put into words beautifully and absolutely on point! The lesson here is how we live our lives, not how we die. I wish all "religious" people could understand this is the essence, not who you vote for, what your stand is on gay marriage, abortion, etc!! Wonderful life lesson for all! Thank you.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:58 am |
  12. Fred Robel

    Thank you for sharing this. Other people's disapproval often eventually validates the things we do.

    Thank you for being there for people to ease their passing.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  13. Slop Eater

    Convert to Corporatism... no silly myths. No terrorism. No hypocritical Christians. No yarmulke and bad food. Just money.

    Reject the myths, for the fattened calf.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:57 am |
    • Robert Kraus

      'silly myth' stop eater says . . . if stop eater is not spoofing, there is nothing sillier than stop eater's post

      January 29, 2012 at 10:11 am |
  14. Charlotta Toth-Fisher

    Again Thank You. As a nurse, I have worked with those in Nursing Homes and in the Hospital who are dying. It is beautifully written and so very helpful. Many times I teach students on the care of the Dying. I will remember these words. Keep up your great work.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:55 am |
  15. Ted

    The Divinity School should offer you a teaching position. Clearly you're more suited for the job than your professor.... or your former follow students.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:55 am |
  16. Karolyn

    This article really disturbs me and affirms what I already have experienced in working in a hospital. I would not want a chaplain around me when I die. I am an evangelical Christian and although I love my family dearly, my moment of death is about passing into glory. If one does not know Jesus as their Savior, it is about passing into an eternity without God. This author's ideas about God are not truly Christian ideas and would not be comforting or helpful to a Christian family. I have previously thought of chaplains as being Christians, but I have come to learn that the word chaplain is not necessarily describing someone of the Christian faith. I agree with the professor!

    January 29, 2012 at 9:55 am |
    • Lisa W.

      Mahatma Ghandi once said, "I could be a Christian if it weren't for Christians." I agree with him. "Christians" are some of the cruelest people I have ever known.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:02 am |
    • JohnR

      Your post nicely sums up what is so pathetic about evangelicals.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:02 am |
    • gayjesus

      Lame. Sounds like your family is going to be the ones talking about how they weren't loved.

      I can't stand you phony christians.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:03 am |
    • apostate

      Luckily Christianity is in decline so we can deal with its nutbaggery much less.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:06 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      You have no idea what dying is like, no matter how many others you might see who are in the process of doing so. You are assuming that you will feel a certain way, but you haven't been there and you cannot make such an assumption. People often say, "I would never do that" or "That's not what I would say", when they cannot know what such a situation will be like or how their lives will have changed since they made such absolute declarations. I hope you come to realize that life is NOT as black and white as you wish it to be.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:07 am |
    • julie

      Well, Karolyn, aren't you just special?

      January 29, 2012 at 10:07 am |
    • lhayes

      What a narrow little god you worship.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:09 am |
    • Judy75201

      Your rigidity and conceit/self righteousness are sick.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:10 am |
    • Karolyn

      There is not one bit of cruelty in my post. And as for my family, my beautiful family loves me and knows they are dearly loved. We also, yes, everyone of us, my siblings, husband, and children, loves Jesus with all our hearts. We right now, as we are living, talk about each other and with each other. None of us doubts the love of each of us for one another. We knew my Mom loved us dearly, yet when she died, her last words were of meeting Jesus. We didn't feel unloved. We rejoiced!

      January 29, 2012 at 10:12 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      I get the distinct impression that, if what you wanted to talk about on your deathbed was your belief in God and your coming shot at eternal glory, that's exactly what Chaplain Egan would be willing to talk about (or listen to). Her point is that she's listening to what YOU think is important, not imposing her own judgments on some poor, helpless, dying person.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:13 am |
    • nolapearl

      You seem to miss the point. You're blaming the chaplain for what dying people want to talk about. Would you have her say, "Oh, no, let's not talk about your family, let's talk about being saved." The thought that you believe that talking about the benefits you think you'll receive after passing, rather than the love of your family, speaks volumes. I'd have this Chaplin at my bedside any day.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:18 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Suppose your mother had wanted to talk about God and a chaplain came up and insisted she discuss family instead? Are you so myopic that you don't see how silly your complaint is? Why should anyone who's dying be told who or what she "must" talk about?

      You want to dictate how everyone "should" do death? Get a clue-it's not your call. And it certainly isn't your place to tell a chaplain who's been in the profession for years how she "should" do her job.

      I wonder, dear, how old are you?

      January 29, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • Bozobub

      Interesting, Karolyn. Now, what are your credentials, that let YOU decide who is and is not a "true Christian"..? We'll wait.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • Karolyn

      Tom, I am older than you might think. And I perhaps did not express myself well. I never meant that a Christian should impose upon a nonbeliever their beliefs at death. I was talking from a Christian perspective, which I assumed was the perspective of the author. At my mother's death, which I mentioned, a hospital chaplain did come to talk to my Mom. We did not request this person, having our own pastor. My Mom DID want to talk about God, but this chaplain was not comfortable with that and kept trying to bring the conversation back to how my Mom and we, her children were feeling. It was quite intrusive. I have seen similar instances at the hospital where I have worked for 20 years. So perhaps I am biased about chaplains based on what I have personally experienced. I assumed they are there for spiritual comfort and encouragement.

      I did not anticipate getting into an argument with nonbelievers. I also want to say that I am not "special", at least no more than the next person, nor am I self-righteous. I am a sinner, saved by a loving Savior whose love I do not deserve.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:18 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      You are making precisely the same argument as the author. The chaplain should let the patient talk about whatever he or she wishes. The chaplain in your case was not more "correct" than the 'professor' the author described. You are the one whose beliefs are in conflict with your words.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:39 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      I also resent you presumption that only you and others who believe just as you do are "passing into glory" and that all others are passing into nothingness. You are stating your beliefs as if they were facts when they are not. You are welcome to believe if you wish but your beliefs should have nothing to do with what a chaplain does or does not do for anyone else. A chaplain is not required to be a Christian and not all Christians believe as you do.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:43 am |
    • Mike

      The person dying should direct deathbed conversation. Not everyone needs theological myth crammed down their throats by some self-righteous, overbearing minister.

      January 29, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
    • sister christian

      I agree. If anyone needs to hear the truth about God, it's someone facing death whom does not know God. My grandmother was saved on her deathbed – i wrote her a letter and witnessed to her about Jesus. She gave (what little was left of) her life to Christ and according to her, Jesus sat on her bedside just before she passed! Praise God.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:23 am |
  17. abtexas130

    This article is moving. And its takes a lot to move me. I weaigh 270lbs or so. Great Write.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:55 am |
  18. If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

    Excellent, honest article until .. "people talk to the chaplain about their families because that is how we talk about God"! Desparate attempt to turn the reality that dying people care about their family & not religion, to justify her career choice.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:55 am |
    • Steven Capsuto

      The same sentence made me cringe, too, but it's a beautiful article and I don't think she meant this one phrase in the arrogant way it comes off.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:19 am |
  19. TownC

    The peace that believing in God and trying to live a God like life brings is something an atheist will never understand. God lives! Love is a concept that doesn't end at death. When you strip away all of life's concerns, you are left with the love you experienced. This is what is really meaningful in life. The full expression of love is God's love for us.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:54 am |
    • IceT

      I (atheist) have no doubt that belief in God brings you peace. I just don't believe there is a spiritual reality, I believe in the psycholigical reality of religion. Your unprovoked attack on atheists is very unbecoming of a person claiming love & peace. My belief brings me peace as well.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:03 am |
    • JohnR

      The religious will never know what it is to love directly, without some mythological middleman telling you who to love and how to love and why you have to love his lofty butt over all else. It's a very sad thing to see.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:04 am |
    • apostate

      Yeah....the peace of knowing all your non-believing family and friends are roasting in hell for eternity, that's the "grace" of your "comforting" god.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:08 am |
  20. imhere60

    Beautifully written article, thank you for sharing it.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:54 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.