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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. Mbs

    What a beautifully written article. Brought tears to my eyes. Thank you forbexpressing it so well.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:29 am |
  2. il capo

    5*. Absolutely true, correct, succinct. I see Christ in this narrative. Reminds me of the following "Then shalt thou and all thy city meet them there, and we will receive them into our bosom, and they shall see us; and we will fall upon their necks, and they shall fall upon our necks, and we will kiss each other;" (Moses 7:63)

    As for the professor, well, 'nuff said. Reminds me of this: "Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth" (2 Timothy 3:7)

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

    Thank you for giving this cynic one more ray of light.

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

      In what sometimes seems to be an overwhelming sea of evangelical fundamentalism, this calm, thoughtful, deeply respectful perspective on what gives value to our lives, ... I'm right there with Andy. This too cynical reader also welcomed Kerry Egan's piece – and will be sharing it with others.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:35 am |
  4. alexis

    Why do Christians have to forgive everyone? Some people are not worthy of being forgiven. Would you forgive a child molester for abusing your child? A murderer who killed your husband? I don't understand why christianity preaches that. Another one of my favorites: 'the golden rule' treat others the way you want to be treated....how about...treat others as they treat you? Religion is weird.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:27 am |
    • il capo

      Alexis, forgiveness is one of the major steps in approaching the character of the Savior.

      "And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you" (Ephesians 4:2), and "Wherefore, I say unto you, that ye ought to forgive one another; for he that forgiveth not his brother his trespasses standeth condemned before the Lord; for there remaineth in him the greater sin. I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men" (Doctrines and Covenants 64:9-10)

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

      It's because we all make bad decisions, or sin. This is what makes Christianity so lucrative as a business.

      YES, a business. One that doesn't have to pay taxes I might add.

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

      The Golden Rule is basic common sense long forgotten. Today people believe that respect is earned, in truth it's disrespect that's earned. If you treat people with respect many times they will do the same. If they must prove they deserve respect they won't care if you respect them or not. Do you deserve respect? How would they know that? Start from a position of respect you believe you deserve.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:40 am |
  5. jon

    As someone who worked in a hospital for over 20 years, I can say for certainly the majority of people find at least some faith in their final moments. The ones who do are at peace, the ones that don't are generally very sad

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

      Another claim of baloney. There are many who have the same job as you who reveal most who DO speak of religion before they die, have religious persons coaching them at their bedside. These coaches are NOT listeners as the dying patient needs, but are looking after their own self needs of proving to themselves the myths they know are ridiculous inside just hoping the dying will help them "believe" the unbelievable. Try going to a hospital that is NOT a religious shrine and you will find much different results. Try actually just listening yourself and you will realize their family and even their pets trumps your religion hands down. The sad part about what you have to say is, when persons are there to preach, the dying gives some of their last energies to help THEM feel good instead of taking these last moments to reflect on their loved ones. This is a dirty and selfish shame.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:41 am |
    • JollyGreenBud

      If you really had faith, you wouldn't be lying right now...

      January 29, 2012 at 10:55 am |
    • Mr. Chekhov

      You work in a hospital and you think that gives you some sort of special knowledge?

      My mother was a devout Christian. She was angry and in pain and terribly sad in the days before she died. God wasn't any comfort to her that I could see, and neither was her minister.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:07 am |
  6. Danno

    Your divinity school professor sounds incredibly Christ-like.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:26 am |
    • il capo

      Trolling? Or, maybe you wouldn't know the man even if he washed and annointed your feet.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:37 am |
  7. Achraf

    No God is Love???
    people talk about love and familly when they are dying because that is the most important thing in their life, if it were God they will talk about God, if it is business they will talk about business and if it family they will talk about family.
    You should not come up to conclusion easily especialy about God, that is the Prophets' job to tell us about God.

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

      Thank you for that. Too many arrogant, egotistical know-it-alls in this country. Laughing at ancient wisdom thousands of years older than this nation. Ridiculous, isn't it?

      January 29, 2012 at 11:12 am |
  8. trustworthy1

    Kerry, thank god for sending you a professor like that one, someone who pushed you to look deeper into yourself and to come to the conclusions you have through time and valuable experience. This article is profound, compelling, and something a lot of lost souls and found souls could use. I appreciate the work.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:25 am |
  9. Wes

    Thank you for your post. I find it offensive when a hospital "chaplin" or "minister" comes to try and comfort our family. They don't know the slightest thing about us and act as though they do. When they offer to pray, I ask them to leave.

    In this day and age... people need to realize that friends and family are most important to the dying. It's not about trying to convince them to accept a "Jesus" so they will be spared the fires of hell or rewarded with a mansion in a far away place. The most disquieting thing I have experienced is having these fools around while we are in some of our most serious and painful moments.

    I am convinced people need to re-think their acting as though they know things about the beyond. They don't know anything more than the other 7 billion persons on this planet. Yet christian U.S. citizens... especially... ramble on and look like idiots to a growing percentage of the population that are free-thinkers. Those who make claims of knowledge of religious things during our greatest times of suffering, indeed, make me feel most sick inside and they are not welcome.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:25 am |
  10. howash!

    People need to grow up and stop giving in to religious hallucinations. You can't hide from reality, irregardless of what illusory nonsense you believe. Reality happens! And nothing could be more real than facing death. That's why people get it and refuse to dwell on inconsequential things like religion and god.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:23 am |
    • toadears

      And so you come into a belief room and spout your arrogant American crap. Well, good luck with that. And the next time there is a 9-11....please go get drunk and worship Buddha or something because your belief in God in this country is based entirely on your current events.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:29 am |
    • Pilgrim1

      What people really should stop doing is..... using the word irregardless!

      Before you start criticizing others, why don't you take a little time to memorize the dictionary, dumb a$$.

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

      I believe that upon death we become what we were before conception. If this chaplain were to visit me close to death I would talk of family.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:44 am |
  11. jeani

    Very Nice and in the South yes we would pray. We know who we are about to meet and figure we better get things straight before it is too late. Most of all, we pray our final prayers for the ones we are leaving behind.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:23 am |
    • Wes

      If you were a truthful person, you would admit you know nothing of the beyond. Your believing it so does NOT make it true. It isn't enough for those of us who have actually read the bible and find it a book of horrors. Being humble was what I was taught at a young age Christianity taught. As I get older, the Christians I meet are the farthest away from being meek and mild. They instead are haughty, prideful, and dishonest.

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

      The book of horrors you describe was written by......wait for it......Jews. Next.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:31 am |
  12. Bob

    I was at my fathers bedside to hear the last word he ever spoke. the word was Mother just like she was there to welcome him.

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

      That is so beautiful in so many ways.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:32 am |
  13. ChristianF

    Thank you so much Kerry ...You say things as you experience them. I was moved to tears when I read your lines and know in my heart the truth that you share.

    This is very healing and should be known widely. Your contribution is so needed. Thank you!

    January 29, 2012 at 10:22 am |
  14. Alex

    It's hard for me to get past the arrogant comment the divinity professor made. I think religion is something people think more about when they are contemplating death as a relatively healthy person. When you are actually dying however, its clear what is truly important - and that is not following some ritual and wasting precious time.

    I was more spiritual people were like the author of this article. She seems to be more in touch with the divine than 99% of clergy.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:21 am |
  15. Dan Faber

    Will written. Thank You for the insights of the wise, in knowing whats important in life, and God.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:20 am |
  16. J. Mank

    OMIGOSH, that was beautiful. I am absolutely certain that dying people can see things we can't, like long-lost relatives and friends coming for them. I watched both my in-laws pass, and especially my father-in-law did just want to talk about his family. His father died in 1930, but his hatred of him was just as fresh in 1995 as it was then. His love for his long-passed brothers and sisters was just as great. My mother had abused me to a great deal, and although I had forgiven her, I felt nothing when I saw her her lifeless body (I was not there when she passed). I was told that the last thing she said was "I won't," but earlier, she had expressed a great deal of anxiety over going to hell over "bad things she had done." I assume it was what she had done to her family because of her drinking. Yet, she had been a great mother in many respects. It is very, very important to forgive a loved one who has wronged you before they die, if only for your own well-being. It took me six months to realize I had not really forgiven her, and I suffered a nervous breakdown on my 50th birthday.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:20 am |
  17. Dana

    CNN. Please stop this religious "news". Keep your fairy tales to yourself.

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

      Nah, lets only report something you non-beleivers agree with. Please go away Dana!

      January 29, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • usmc1

      Don't read it if you do not like it.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:32 am |
    • Mike

      Dana, why should they stop? You have the power to simply not click on the link. Don't read these stories if they bother you, but why do you feel your belief system or lack thereof should take precedent?

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

      Many people think that journalism means “news” and nothing else. In fact, it also encompasses features, sports (a particular type of news, ’tis true), opinion (from both editors and readers), analysis, humor (including comics), and advertising. Done properly, it’s like a banquet with a lilttle something for everyone.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:38 am |
    • toadears

      Write the editor and find a more suitable message board. How old are you again? 12?

      January 29, 2012 at 11:17 am |
    • Steven Capsuto

      If the topic doesn't interest you, don't read the articles.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:53 pm |
  18. ironage

    Some people become so educated....they become fools.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:20 am |
    • Slop Eater

      While others are consistently fools... fools as children, teens, young adult, and old f a r t s.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:27 am |
  19. Leucadia Bob

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JYDFutp5ZxE&w=640&h=390]

    January 29, 2012 at 10:20 am |
  20. cats22

    I agree with the chaplain. And shame on the professor and the students in that class. It may be too late for the professor, but maybe the previous students can learn something. Often the worse people are the ones professing to be the most 'religious'.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:19 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.