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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. Walt

    Kerry
    Please never be talked into your believes now or 13 years ago as what the professor did not and may never realize that you were the only one who was doing it right. Helping people die is by far the most difficult thing to do, spending their last moments on earth in a happy place talking about what they want to talk about is truly a gift from God. never ever preach to them, as that will change nothing as nothing will prevent the outcome however as they go in peace that will last an eternity.

    The last thing is I am religious or go to church or ever believed in an organized religion, but I would give everything I have to had for one last moment with my mother and wife to see me and know me as I did with my father to say good bye. I was not with them when they died and I regret it and always will.

    You keep up your GOD's work because that is truly the answer and the prayer of life. Thank you

    January 29, 2012 at 10:38 am |
  2. Colin

    It is encouraging that even the most deluded of people can ignore the infantile nonsense of religion in their final hours. If only they did so 30 years earlier, they might have wasted less of their lives trying to please a non-existent being so as to avoid the very thing they now accept as inevitable.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:37 am |
  3. Jack J

    Beautiful.

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

    It's always been about people and love and goodness to others and it is in the end too.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:35 am |
  5. Flooby

    Yes. Cling to family because 'Jesus' 'god' and religion ain't gonna do a thing.

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

    We shall all walk that road alone.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:35 am |
  7. _

    Why is liberal rag CNN so interested in what people say before they die?

    Perhaps they're girding themselves for the election results in November?

    What'll the libtards say as they realize the end is near?

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

      one story makes them sooooo interested?

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

      It takes a special kind of person to take a beautiful and positive message about love and turn it into a place to spread negative and irrelevant comments in order to further your agenda.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:52 am |
  8. Fia

    My father told my mother to shut up, then died.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:34 am |
    • howash!

      My wife told a chaplain to go to hell! ;-)

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

      Howash: U seem to be proud of u're wife.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:51 am |
  9. Mari

    Important article. everyone should read this.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  10. Jacob

    wow can you guys find anything MORE depressing to write about?

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

      What did you expect from CNN? Is there anything to cheer about with their champion Obozo in office?

      No, there isn't.

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

      You really think the world is full of happy things only? Better read it now than when its too late

      January 29, 2012 at 10:41 am |
    • Steven Capsuto

      Of all the things CNN reports on, the one you find depressing is the essay which says that in the end, love is what matters to people most? Do you really find it more inspiring to read about murder and war and the latest candidate debates? I find this story beautiful. If nothing else, it reminds us that spending time with loved ones is more important than working a 60-hour week to make the big bucks.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:03 am |
  11. howash!

    It's amazing that people, despite religious brainwashing, reject religion in their final moments.

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

      Can't wait to hear what you'll say in your final moment.

      It can't come quick enough.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:37 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      Let's not get carried away here. Just because they think that other things are MORE important doesn't mean that they've rejected religion. If it were important to them to say "I reject religion", then THAT'S what they'd be talking about.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:42 am |
    • toadears

      Why are you even in here? To stir up crap? How pitiful.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:23 am |
  12. Kerri

    Very touching and well written piece. Shame on the chaplain's teacher. I enjoyed this story very much. I pray that someday when I am dying, it will be my wonderful mother and father that I see and reach for also. I think this is how God comforts us...with family.

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

    I find it very interesting that the religious myth of death is that everyone calls out for a divine savior at their last moment. Turns out that when people are actually dying, they reach out for the important realities of their life.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:32 am |
    • howash!

      Even religious brainwashing goes only so far.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:34 am |
    • Klondike Yukon

      Were you paying attention when she identified herself as a chaplain? Doesn't seem to me as if she's perpetuating that myth.

      January 31, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
  14. McLovin

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iRwvd-Cp0qo&w=640&h=390]

    January 29, 2012 at 10:31 am |
  15. Joy Jones

    That was really beautiful. Thank you.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:30 am |
  16. Marian

    Thank you for writing this, it was beautiful, theraputic, it was just right...

    January 29, 2012 at 10:30 am |
  17. Olbap

    Ha! God is truly dead in this article.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:30 am |
  18. Ray

    This is exactly what Jesus taught and showed by example throughout his life, even forgiving when nailed to cross.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:30 am |
  19. David

    Liberal Massachusetts chaplain. Oh brother. Go for it CNN...

    January 29, 2012 at 10:29 am |
    • Tante Waileka

      Clearly she is not a Christian even though the calls herself a 'chaplain'. GOD is key in the minds of many people when they die ... my sister died and saw God then was resuccitated after minutes. The last thing she said when she died was Oh there is God!... so as far as I can tell from this story is that it is a 'fable' and I do not believe the professor said what this woman claims he did. She is in league with the devil and I pity the people who have HER at their bedside during their dying. May God cover those people with His Grace and surround them with Angels to keep back this woman who is clearly a member of the devil's minions. What do you expect from cnn, they too are part of the devil's agenda.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:40 am |
    • AK

      Notice how many of these 'god doesn't really exist, don't worry, be happy' articles the Communist News Network has been hawking for the past several years? Ted Turner and George Soros must be desperate to leave some kind of legacy before they spew their final breath.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:46 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Tante=nut-job.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:51 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      I am amazed at the number of self-proclaimed "believers" who don't know that "chaplain" does not mean "Christian". Get an education. Your ignorance is appalling.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:52 am |
  20. Olbap

    Ha...God is dead.

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

      You better hope so. I'd hate to have to explain the stupidity to St. Peter at the pearly gates if I were you.

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

      someday you will too :)

      January 29, 2012 at 10:47 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.