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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. scranton

    Silly professor.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:10 am |
  2. Deb

    Powerful – thanks for sharing!

    January 29, 2012 at 10:10 am |
  3. Colin

    So, I'm going to hell for being an atheist, am I?

    Stop for a moment, Brian, and think of the sheer absurdity of that statement. I don't have to kill, I don't have to r.ape, hell, I don't even have to litter. All I have to do is have an honest, reasonable and rational disbelief in [the Christian] god and it will inflict a grotesque, Medieval punishment on me for all eternity – and it loves me.

    Take it a step further. Approximately one hundred and ten thousand million (110,000,000,000) people have lived on Earth. Given all those who have, over the centuries, rejected the Christian god, or who have otherwise committed mortal sins, there must be literally thousands of millions of people burning for all eternity in the cosmic oven of hell set up by your all-loving god. Some must have been burning for thousands of years by now.

    About 100,000 people die every day. There must be a constant stream of thousands of forlorn souls every day into the one way pit of hell your all-merciful god set up and maintains.

    But, far, far worse than sheer overwhelming numbers is the extent of the punishment. There is no way out, no parole, no time off for good behavior. You don’t just burn, you burn for all eternity. Billions of people and thousands of daily new arrivals burning for all eternity!

    No criminal justice system in the history of the Human race, even those established by the most despotic of tyrants, comes close to matching the unfathomable barbarity of your “infinitely benevolent” god.

    Hitler murdered six million Jews in his concentration camps, but compared to your god, Hitler was a bleeding-hearted wimp. A goose-stepping girlie-man. Your all-caring god not only burns billions more than Hitler, Pol Pot and all other dictators and tyrants added up, he keeps doing so to them for all eternity! I would not wish a bad sunburn on a person simply because they have a different religion to me, let alone fry them for ever.

    It is also odd that your all-loving god is also all-knowing and knows which souls will go to hell before they do. He even knows it before they are born, and yet he still creates them. He is worse than a psychopathic teenager than breeds litter after litter of kittens so he can slowly roast them in ovens.

    When you have to use the same sky-fairy as both the carrot and the stick, it gets REALLY silly REALLY quickly doesn't it?

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

      According to the most devoted accounts of his most devoted believers, Yahweh is the most barbaric, cruel, heartless, sadistic, torturing, butchering, pettily vindictive, unforgiving archfiend in all of fiction. Good thing he's not real.

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

      Great points. For Christians who read their Bibles, check your numbers. God ordered 2,476,633 deaths. Satan: 10. God allowed, and gave rules for slavery. I would also like to point out that if I saw a starving or sick person, I wouldn't withhold food or treatment for them. If it were in my power to help them, I would. Again, I will quote Epicurus until people can get past the delusion:
      "Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
      Then he is not omnipotent.
      Is he able, but not willing?
      Then he is malevolent.
      Is he both able and willing?
      Then whence cometh evil?
      Is he neither able nor willing?
      Then why call him God?"

      January 29, 2012 at 10:21 am |
    • Kirk

      That's why Satan was invented, to wear the role of the stick.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:30 am |
    • ayo

      It is not in ones power to say one person goes to Hell or not. Only God can grant that a soul enter heaven; But from His word, God invites all to obey Him and love Him and love each other. God cannot force obedience; we have to submit our will to do His will – this is called obedience. God's reward for obedience is eternal life – Im glad he made it easy, He loves you – why should you reject such love ?

      January 29, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
  4. Hatashe Acronyms

    Lastday I made a comment on Obama's Facebook; [[The greatest truth in the United States Declaration of Independence is "Creator".
    "No one has ever seen God...."(John 1:18, 1 John 4:12) but also we look for His plan/wishes and we works for His glory!

    John 4:21: Jesus said the the woman, "Belive me, woman, the time will come when peoples will not worship the Father either on the Mountain or in Jerusalem.....but by the power of God's Spirit peoples will worship the Father as He realy is....

    We hold this hug to be self-evident (just) to announced the hidden truth through certains procedure&writing it's explanation (Nothing else).
    See: Matthew 5:17; 1 Corinthians 13:13; John 3:16; (Genesis 22:12; John 1:14 ); 1 Corinthians 13:10; Luke 16:16 and See More Parallel Testaments!

    And about 2000 years passed away after written NT but there had/have no single Explanation of NT (atleats didnt found), bcoz willingly nobody taken it's responsibilities yet!

    MAY GOD BLESSED US!]]

    and today I saw a dream that I am discussing with Thomas Jefferson, I just tryed to say by my expression that what comment I made I am not authorize to do it nor dare not to do it and became sad. I felt Jefferon caught my voice of expression and replied; "Nobody has ever seen the God....".
    But His expression was like this that he is imposing a great wisdom inside me; Look at me, "Nobody has ever seen the God...."!

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

      You do know, don't you, that Jefferson wasn't referring to the God of the Bible when he wrote "Creator"? If not, look up "deism".

      January 29, 2012 at 10:19 am |
  5. Christopher

    Kerry, thank you for sharing the story and the insight. I found the comments of you professor to be quite disturbing. God's love does not fit the confines of religion. Love is the missing strand of human DNA that provides meaning and purpose to our lives. We are born to love. As new borns we look for touch, for voices, for smiles of the family we have become part of. We are surrounded by the love of family at birth, we learn the joy and difficulties of love as we live and at death we find love in the ones who showed us love in our lives. If I can quote my grandmother – "we are all made in the image of God and it's our responsibility to find the love of God in each face we encounter." Family is the face we see our entire life.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:09 am |
  6. annette

    This is so true and moving. Thank you for sharing it and for sharing yourselves with so many during what may be the hardest part of their lives. God bless you!

    January 29, 2012 at 10:09 am |
  7. budgiegirl

    I think there is a bit of regional variability to this. I'm a physician who has worked in the north east and in the south. I think the more secular north east reflects the author's experience. But in the south – they'd be praying.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:08 am |
  8. Peter E

    Now that's a true chaplain. One who listens. One who knows God is love, and God speaks through love.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:08 am |
  9. toadears

    Where is my comment, CNN? Too honest for ya?

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

      It probably contained one of the forbidden character strings, like the female breast hidden in the middle of the Const¡tuition that I always have to work around with an inverted exclamation point.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:22 am |
  10. joanne cromp

    This is so incredible..I pray people will read this and take head.. This truly touched my life.. Forgiveness is everything and we don't live here forever..But many times our pride often lies to us thinking nothing about love is important– I did forgive my Mom and Dad and it was the most freeing experience..we should not sweat the small stuff and realize what we are all here for- LOVE- thank you & God bless

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

      When it comes to head, it is better to receive than to give.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:23 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Bwahhhh!

      January 29, 2012 at 10:26 am |
  11. Lily

    A lovely article. Thank you for sharing.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:07 am |
  12. RichardSRussell

    "It may be that ministers really think that their prayers do good and it may be that frogs imagine that their croaking brings spring." —Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1899), “The Great Agnostic”, "Which Way?" (1884)
     
    "Independence is my happiness, and I view things as they are, without regard to place or person; my country is the world, and my religion is to do good." —Thomas Paine, American revolutionary, pamphleteer, and atheist, The Rights of Man (1791)

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

       "For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." – Romans 6:23

      January 29, 2012 at 10:15 am |
  13. John

    Thank you for the wonderful work you do and for sharing your perspective.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:06 am |
  14. JAMES R TAYLOR

    Knowing we are going to be with family and God could not be a more happier way to pass from this life to the next. God bless us alli

    January 29, 2012 at 10:06 am |
  15. NJinGA

    If you are anti-religion, why did you click the link to this article? It is beautifully written and she is doing something that few of us have the courage, or the love, to do. Have you ever sat with someone while they died? It is very difficult and she does this as her vocation! What a woman!!! Yet some people feel they need to use the comment space to this article to spout such extreme negativity. Got off your computer and go do something for your fellow man – whether it is in the name of religion or not.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:06 am |
    • DDM

      Since you asked – some of us clicked on this article out of curiosity to read what the dying had to say, especially via the comments section. That ok with you?

      January 29, 2012 at 11:01 am |
  16. Hazy

    Yes, a beautiful written article. Your professor should be sent this – it was wrong how he made you feel, you were learning & had little experience in which to answer him at that time!

    January 29, 2012 at 10:06 am |
  17. Anne

    It is so nice to read an article that is uplifting and positive... this lady is right on the money. I have sat with four family members that are dying and this is so correct. Good article and exceptional insight , well written

    January 29, 2012 at 10:06 am |
  18. Wolfe

    I concur. As a nurse in both the ER and a nursing home for many years I have held many dying hands. The cries for "Momma" , "My Love" or "Please forgive me" are what I heard. The need to say "I love you" and "it's okay" are universal.

    I have ben taught many lessons from the dying. The two biggest lessons: Forgive everyone everything, and work hard to love well – it will be your legacy.

    All you can do is love them and forgive them – no matter who the "them" is to you

    January 29, 2012 at 10:05 am |
  19. Rico

    Amen.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:05 am |
  20. julie

    Beautiful article. Thank you, Kerry.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:05 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.