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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. Kim

    Thank you so much for this insightful article. Having just returned from the funeral of my brother in law, your words touched me deeply.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:47 am |
  2. Nicole

    I am a psychologist who also works with cancer patients at the end of life, and this piece resonated with me. Thank you for putting into words so eloquently what I see in our hospital every day.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:46 am |
  3. Scott

    I used to be fairly spiritual but as I got older I began to realize the only ones who had my back was myself and close family. I don't think a God enables anything, I believe each individual makes their own existence meaningful. And I hope that someday, when I am laying in my deathbed, I can close my eyes knowing I was accepting, patient, and supportive of everyone around me... both family and strangers alike.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:46 am |
  4. artybarbie

    A very touching piece. When my father, a religious man, was dying, he held on until all seven children were by his side as he took his last breath. He wanted to be surrounded by his loved ones.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:46 am |
  5. STEVE LEFKOWITZ

    THIS INDICATES THAT GOD IS ALIVE WITHIN THE ONES WE LOVE...WE TALK ABOUT OTHERS IN OUR FINAL MOMENTS NOT OURSELVELVES....WHAT A NICE CHANGE!!!

    January 29, 2012 at 10:46 am |
  6. Hank

    I used to be fairly spiritual but as I got older I began to realize the only ones who had my back was myself and close family. I don't think a God enables anything, I believe each individual makes their own existence meaningful. And I hope that someday, when I am laying in my deathbed, I can close my eyes knowing I was accepting, patient, and supportive of everyone around me... both family and strangers alike.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:45 am |
    • Michael in Indiana

      Well said, Hank.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:47 am |
    • MacDav

      And you believe in God

      January 29, 2012 at 10:49 am |
    • Hank

      Well, I don't think it matters if I believe or not... If I have to associate with something, I believe that I write my own story and I don't rely on anyone/anything else for that.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:51 am |
    • JohnR

      You were spiritual, but chucked the spirits when you decided that the spirits didn't have your back? I think you were missing the point all along.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:51 am |
    • Hank

      Ahh, this was the debate... what is the point? Everyone has a different response. I think it's a mess... always trying to find an explanation or a point to it. Every preacher, every church has a different message for the day and it became white noise to me. All I was trying to say was that I believe the power of life is yours and yours alone. I never believed in spirits, my parents convinced me they existed when I was young.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:55 am |
  7. richardhkelly

    Reblogged this on richard.h.kelly and commented:
    I suppose this highlights the importance of spending time with the people that matter most in our lives.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:45 am |
  8. gusboy

    IGNORANT PEOPLE!!!! NOT TALKING ABOUT GOD WHEN PEOPLE DIE DOES NOT MEAN THAT GOD DOES NOT EXIST, MUCH LESS TALKING ABOUT GOD DOESNT MEAN THAT FAMILY DORSNT EXIST!!!! MY UNBELIEF DOESNT DO AWAY OF THE VERY FACT THAT GOD DOES NOT EXIST. JESUS REIGNS.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:45 am |
    • JohnR

      And talking about god doesn't mean that he DOES exist, either.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:49 am |
  9. Grant B. Kenion

    Ms. Egan – thank you for a very profound article. It validates the 'God is love' professed by many, and encourages me and others to live our lives with that in mind.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:44 am |
    • Elizabeth LaDouceur

      Hi Grant, wow I just loved this article too. It shows how she did what was evidently right in real time but then became unsure of herself because it was against what her peers set their egos on as right. But she had enough connection to herself to hold on to the truth and go forward in strength with it and then tell us of her journey this way. I am beginning to see that love is the answer and that it is soooo hard to continue to believe in love, to know what love is, to express love, to even feel love....rather than anger, and hurt and hopelessness. It is hard to forgive when you are surrounded by only those who do not know how to give or show you love and sometimes that is only what our life experience is and when our chance comes to be loved we don't believe it to be true and pass it by.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:04 am |
  10. Louise

    Beautiful article. We all will die. It's important to know about this aspect of everyone's life. It's particularly important to know this when most of us reading are still vibrant enough to spend time doing the things that truly matter.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:43 am |
  11. Michael in Indiana

    I'll never forget the last words of my father – "Be careful, that thing might be loaded".

    January 29, 2012 at 10:43 am |
    • Elizabeth LaDouceur

      Ha ha ha

      January 29, 2012 at 11:05 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      It's times like this that I wish CNN made "Like" buttons available to us.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:13 am |
  12. julezhart

    This isan honest article that speaks volumes! Thank you. If we live our lives daily as if it's our last day, we will truly appreciate what living in the spirit means. We won't look back and wish we had lived a different life.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:43 am |
  13. Joe Shmo

    Excellent!! Clear , concise and and most clear version of philisophical thought I have read in years.Even as a middle aged adult male, I do not feel 100% confident in saying there is or is not a God, but I think most everyoe can agree that love of family is something we all know exists, even if imperfect.......

    January 29, 2012 at 10:42 am |
  14. howash!

    In their final moments, people realize that god is a lying cheat!

    January 29, 2012 at 10:42 am |
  15. t3chsupport

    I'm agnostic, but I still found this to be an excellent article. Very well written, very interesting, touching, and a very fresh and intelligent point of view.

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

      Thank you.....a much more civil and kind response than that from 'howash!' (which is probably supposed to spell hogwash).

      January 29, 2012 at 10:48 am |
  16. Stan

    As an agnostic (which we all are, despite the protestations of people who are NEAR 0% or 100& on the belief scale), I thought this was a beautiful article. It certainly demonstrates how those who put people first and theology second are doing a far better job of God's work than the obtuse preachers and professors we hear from so often. Thank you for this, Ms. Egan.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:41 am |
    • howash!

      No need to be agnostic. That's a very cowardly position to be in.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:43 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      I always thot that cowardice was a sadly under-appreciated virtue. In the immortal words of King Arthur from Monty Python and the Holy Grail: "Run away! Run away!"

      January 29, 2012 at 10:44 am |
    • MacDav

      What kind of postion is I do not know.Ofcourse we all believe in God.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:47 am |
    • Colin

      So Stan, by that logic, you are also an agnostic on whether Leprechauns exist? I know we cannot prove a negative, but when the liklihood of a god so approaches zero as to be indistinguishable from the liklihood of Leprechauns, I think one can safely call oneslf atheist.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:48 am |
    • vintage274

      I just want to say that I was touched by your post. As a student of religion, I, too, am an agnostic. I find great moments of joy in nature; I believe in the power of love and the joy of giving; and despite all, I still believe in the power of mankind to do good. But I still do not KNOW. There is nothing cowardly in being an agnostic. There is, instead, a deep sense of peace with not knowing. There is a willing acceptance to listen to what others have to say and see what the wold has to show us. There is a willingness to consider all the diferent forms a godhead can take and all the different strictures religions can impose and live one's life to the fullest without the absolute narcissism to believe that we can be absolutely sure.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:56 am |
  17. Aj

    Thanks for sharing this beautiful article

    January 29, 2012 at 10:41 am |
  18. Eric Brown

    Wonderful article!! This shows just how important family is to a persons life.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:41 am |
  19. howash!

    Reject religion now! Occupy heaven and trow out the rascal!

    January 29, 2012 at 10:41 am |
  20. howash!

    People are usually a little ticked off on their death bed. It must feel like being robbed (of life). And isn't god the one that decides who goes and who stays? No wonder they turn to their family and friends!

    January 29, 2012 at 10:38 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.