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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. Liz Tower

    Hopefully, you can see these. Kerry – thank you for what you do and for so eloquently, yet simply, sharing it with us. I am so glad you were not deterred by the words and discouragement of your professor. Hopefully, it drove you to greater depths which all of the patients, and their families you visited, benefitted. Your words helped reminded me of what is important today and every day. If you write a book, I definitely would purchase it.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:19 am |
  2. Slop Eater

    All religion myths are toxic jokes.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:19 am |
  3. Voice of Reason

    God is love and those who love are born of God. If a person does not love then he does not know God. Family is the vehicle God uses to reflect love, demonstrate love, and overcome by love. Let us only pray that more of us will become convinced about the power of love before our moment of death.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:19 am |
  4. ghr19

    This is the best thing I have read on CNN or any other website in YEARS. I cried as I read it.. and thought of the love and hurt within my family. I'm sending a copy to them as we all try to forgive and stay connected. Bravo Kerry for your honesty.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:17 am |
  5. gusboy

    TO TALK ABOUT FAMILY IS OK... BUT...BUT..BUT, A PERSON WILL FACE GOD AND THE MOST IMPORTAN QUESTION IS ..WHAT A PERSON DID WITH JESUS. HE IS THE ONLU HOPE FOR ANYONE.. NOT FAMILY, NOT TOYS, NOT ANYTHING, BUT JESUS.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:16 am |
    • Don Ricardo Spenelli

      PRAISE HE.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:18 am |
    • howash!

      Nonsense.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:21 am |
    • cats22

      We are to treat others as we want to be treated. Isn't that the Golden Rule? And who gave us the rule? If you want to be treated as trash, keep talking and posting comments like the one you posted..

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

      It is a little-known fact of theology that Satan invented the caps-lock key to enable his followers to make themselves known to each other.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:26 am |
    • Drew

      You can't fix stupid.

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

      Foolish gusboy. Do you not realize that you can face God today (and I don't mean by dying). This is what Jesus was all about – steering people away from their misguided focus on the next life, and guiding them toward a deep spiritual awakening where they can encounter the "kingdom of heaven" in the here and now. Instead of focusing on your personal reward in eternity, try giving of yourself completely here and now, and allowing the dimension of the Almighty to backfill your soul. (Try it before you knock it).

      January 29, 2012 at 10:33 am |
    • JohnR

      I once played jacks with Jesus! He cheated.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:34 am |
    • kim tong

      I am not christian but the love of family is so real for me... This is much more universal than you can imagine, it is absolutely more universal than any religion, it is more universal than Jesus, even more universal than God. Because people who never encountered the idea of GOD still have families and still love them with their whole heart and through their entire life.

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

      Jesus may be a savior, but! We shouldn't be strict enough to categorize those people simply by religion. Mahatma Ghandi was not of the Christian religion, never probably believed in Christ, yet, would you not agree what he has done on this planet is good enough to grant him a place in Heaven? People's actions will eventually determine where they end up, as many great people throughout history were not Christians. In fact, we know that many cultures, before globalization, did not have access to the Christian religion. Would you be willing to accept those people who never had the chance to know Christ as the savior would all go to Hell/Pergatory? No! The same goes here, these people, who may or may not have known Christ as the Savior through their life, learned something just as important, or perhaps more so, than us Church goers.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:35 am |
  6. Mark

    I'm dumb.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:16 am |
  7. Craigers T

    When I die, I think I will prefer to talk about things that I can prove had an impact on my life. Things that made a difference. Things I enjoyed. Like my family. Probably won't get too much into to discussion theological literature, a.k.a fiction.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:16 am |
  8. JohnR

    Perhaps we should forgive the evangelicals. Their fear of hell IS their hell, and there already in it and constantly digging in deeper and deeper.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:16 am |
  9. joan

    Shame on that professor. He could have learned something from you if he wasn't such an arrogant fool. I wouldn't want to have him by my bedside as I lay dying. You have given so many a wonderful gift during your ministry by listening. The most effective form of preaching does not involve words.

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

      Joan, you seemed to have missed the lesson. The judgement that hurt that student is the same judgement you are applying to the professor. Yes, he was wrong – but the judgement is not ours to render. Ours is to love those that hurt us – to understand and forgive – or haven't you been paying attention?

      January 29, 2012 at 10:27 am |
  10. howash!

    They always say that there are no atheists in the foxholes. Now it appears there's no God there as well! ;-)

    The last thing people worry about when they are dying is some silly illusions!

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

      Well said.

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

      I disagree, it was poorly said or at least poorly put into the conversation. To interject thoughts into a thoughts into an article that mean nothing and lack substance show you have a lot to learn and may at heart be an unhappy person.

      The article did not say there was no God, what he said is that many people express God through the memories and experiences with their families. It's a very valid and poignant thought.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  11. Eli

    ...and the student becomes the professor. VERY well done. The last person I would want at my bedside is your former professor. Hopefully they cleaned house at Harvard Divinity and fired that moron.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:14 am |
  12. Sheri D

    Higher education can sometimes be a brutal place, can't it? Kerry, thank you for sharing your gift of being with the dying and their families. In my opinion, there is no higher calling.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:14 am |
  13. berysax

    I'm atheist and this article was cool. :)

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

      IT FITS YOUR LIFESTYLE HA????? BUT IT DOESNT FIT GOD'S.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:20 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      God has a lifestyle now? Does he decorate? Buy imported coffee beans?

      January 29, 2012 at 10:24 am |
    • Kevin

      Gus, buddy, I'm a Christian and sadly I have to side more with the atheist than the supposed believer here. Yelling rarely solves anything. The CAPS lock key is to the left of your keyboard.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:36 am |
    • JohnR

      Silly Tom Tom! God is into lounge music and leisure suites. Martinis, too. All very retro, but so cool!

      January 29, 2012 at 10:36 am |
    • Leslie Tact

      I am also an atheist and thought the article was cool also. Blah blah blah, hell and damnation.... I have found quite a few ministers who were actually good people and not rambling fools who tried to force their illusions down other people's throats. The common denominator has always been a care and respect for the people they were trying to reach- including a recognition that it is our humanity that needs to be honored. If some chose to believe that the "humanity" of man has a divine source, so be it.l

      January 29, 2012 at 10:39 am |
  14. Bill

    This article is fascinating. I think the clergy wants the dying person to focus on God and the after life, that is their agenda. However, by doing this they do not focus on what the dying person has to say. My brother-in-law just died and certain people kept telling him he was going to be with God, and everyone would be together in the next life etc. What he talked about was his parents, wanting his family to hold his hand, telling his wife he was sorry for mistakes he made. He never talked about God, now I understand why.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:13 am |
  15. If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

    The fact that dying humans talk of their family & not religion seems completely natural given that natural selection / evolution is all about passing on your genes to the next generation. The most important thing to naturally be on your mind would be whether you've successfully passed on your genetic information. That's how we live forever!

    January 29, 2012 at 10:13 am |
  16. Ellen

    I'd bet money the professor was an athiest who feels spiritual beliefs are beneath him.

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

      I certainly am. Sky-fairies are for children and weak minded adults.

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

      Read this again and carefully. Ridiculous comment

      January 29, 2012 at 10:17 am |
  17. derp

    Can I arrange to he you around in about 30 years when my clock runs out?

    January 29, 2012 at 10:12 am |
  18. Julie

    I really agree with this article and I cannot believe the comments against God, saying this is proof that he doesn't exist. You clearly have missed the mark and DO NOT get this article. God is all over it, He is LOVE. The Love that the chaplain speaks of is a deep, profound, real and true, tangible thing. We as humans experience here on earth. The love a mother or father has for a child or that a child feels for a parent, or the love a husband has for his wife or a wife for her husband is a mirror of God's love for us. We lost our dad almost 6 months ago. We were there as he took his last breath, comforting him and reassuring him that God was with him and that we would see him again. It was the hardest thing we have ever been through. I came home and was in deep despair, so hurt that I wasn't sure how anyone survives the loss of a loved one. How is this humanly possible when the pain is so unbearable? Such a deep bond and connection, I realized that this is how God loves us, soooooo deeply. He shows us a glimpse of it in how we love parents, children and spouses. That love is taken to heaven. God is a realtional being, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He created us to be the same and the way he shows us is in family. Our comfort is in knowing our dad is in Heaven and we will see him again when it is our time too! The bible says, "generations will gather will their forefathers" a recognition of family in heaven. God is LOVE! And he lives here on earth in the souls of all that have loved, give love, recieve love, and are love. Family is created by God. Through family we can see how He loves us.

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

      This article is about love. If you tack on the utterly unmotivated premise that god is love and love is god, then you can pretend it's all about god. But if you simply accept that love is love, then you can understand what is really going on here. The author ALMOST does.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:19 am |
    • howash!

      It's all nice and touchy, but the fact is that God is a myth created by people. It's the equivalent of using drugs – and escape reality.

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

      Love is chocolate. Chocolate is love. Therefore chocolate is god.
       
      And similar exercises in "logic".
       
      No backtalk, now, from you heathens who keep insisting that caffeine is god.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:29 am |
  19. Cuttlefish

    When my brother was dying, the least useful person in the entire hospital was the chaplain, who seemed to be more concerned with finding the right religious rite to follow than with the family in front of him. Ms. Egan is clearly better at her job than this chaplain was. We soon simply sent him out of the room; there was considerably more dignity there once he was gone.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:12 am |
  20. connie kolita

    I am sure I am a freak, but it is not people who make me feel love. It is not my family because I feel I have never really had one, not even to this minute. Humans can be so cruel. It is the love of animals that gets me, that makes my eyes well up every time I even think about it. From my dog to even a hamster, I love animals. I feel totally cut off from people and all I aim to do is make it through each day without being hassled – at work, at home.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:11 am |
    • Willa

      dear connie:

      so sorry to hear this. like you, i love animals. they love unconditionally and make no judgements or demands, except for food and water and to go out. trust me, there are people in the world.. who love without judgement and ask very little except for love in return. to find it? be what you want. express this way and it will come back to you. there are good people in the world worth this time and effort.

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

      Your love of animals and your appreciation of their love for you is great! I share that all the time. As I just said in another post, when I was facing the very real possibility of dying due to heart failure just before xmas, I mostly thought about my own animals, those that had passed on before, but even more the ones I still had. I was concerned for them and wondered if they would ever I understand why I left if I did die. This is all to the good. But in my work as an animal adoption advocate at the county shelter, I meet people all the time who try to impress me with how much they hate people, because people are the source of so much misery. Yes, we all are to some extent and many are to horrifying extents. But I constantly meet great people, on the staff, among the volunteers, in the rescue groups, among our adopters, not to mention the people who race in to reclaim their stray animal and would NEVER casually let them go. Maybe you should find some friends among fellow animal lovers and you can reconnect with your own species a bit!

      January 29, 2012 at 10:27 am |
    • todd

      I love u Connie

      January 29, 2012 at 10:39 am |
    • Amy

      Connie, you are NOT a freak! Interacting with animals can offer us the purest kind of love and joy, because there is no hidden agenda or complicated emotional baggage. They live their lives more openly and are less violent that humans (even the most ferocious tiger kills to survive, not to intentionally hurt another being). And some species are far more capable of unconditional love than humans. As the saying goes, God is Dog spelled backwards!

      January 29, 2012 at 10:54 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.