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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. Don Husar

    Love is why we have families. Families are love. We are taught (hopefully) how to love by family. Very nice writing.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:56 am |
  2. Julie

    What a beautiful article. I have never commented on anything else I have ever read. I cried when I read this, it moved me deeply. Thank you.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:56 am |
  3. Danielle

    So true! Continue your good work Kerry.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:55 am |
  4. Debra Roffo

    Thank you Kerry for your insight to valuable information for all. Hopefully this will help people to know that family is very important,and to cherish the time you have on earth with them.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:55 am |
  5. RichardSRussell

    I was sitting by my mom's bedside reading, 2 days before the colon cancer got her, and she was drugged to the gills, totally insensible to the world around her. The biggest blessing in her life at the moment was the medical science that had learned how to prevent people from directly experiencing the excruciating agony that cancer supplies in unending abundance, and the medical staff that wasn't worried that they might be creating a life-long addict by giving her lots of morphine. It was about 11 at night. A nice young woman wandered in, I suppose the Kerry Egan of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, introduced herself as the chaplain, and asked if my mother had any religion. I said that she'd been raised in the Eastern (Serbian) Orthodox Church but had spent most of her adult life going to the Presbyterian Church that my dad belonged to. The chaplain had never heard of Orthodoxy (which made me wonder what they were teaching in divinity school) but offered to pray "with" my mom (as if my mom was going to be a co-participant while totally insensate). I said "Sure, if it makes you feel happy.". It apparently did. My mother never regained consciousness, so I'm equally sure it didn't bother her any.
     
    Like the rest of the staff at the hospital, the chaplain was clearly a sympathetic, caring person. Yay for that. And yay also for any comfort the chaplain was able to provide for the dying and the grieving. Didn't happen to apply in this case, but it was worth a shot, just in case.
     
    For my own part, I'm an atheist. In a medical emergency, please call a doctor.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:55 am |
  6. NG

    Beautiful article Kerry!

    I agree

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

    When people die, they don't say "Oh, God", they say "Damn it!".

    January 29, 2012 at 10:54 am |
    • Dude

      Hey Howash, Are you dying? Perhaps you lack of sensibility cries out: "I NEED TO BE LOVED!"

      January 29, 2012 at 11:11 am |
  8. gusboy

    EVERYONE HERE WILL BOW DOWN THE KNEE TO JESUS CHRIST!!!!! LIKE IT OR NOT.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:54 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      How about amputees who don't have knees? Why won't god heal amputees? Maybe you could google it.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • David

      Wrong.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:58 am |
    • Johnny Salami

      When you use all caps, the baby Jesus cries.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:58 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      My mother and father were both unconscious and bed-ridden when they died. I don't think 'bowing knees' was even a distant thought for them.

      But do post more drivel AND IN CAPS!! IT MAKES YOU LOOK LIKE A REAL AUTHORITY!

      January 29, 2012 at 11:01 am |
  9. Amber

    I am an atheist, but I cried when I read this article. Thanks.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:53 am |
    • Juan

      Very emotional story. Can't believe the professor. I would feel betrayed and humiliated.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:03 am |
  10. Nell

    i'm an atheist, but I found this essay to be very powerful and moving. Thank you. Whether we use the name "God," or not, it's the love that matters.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:53 am |
  11. Lila

    I was a nursing aide when I was a teen and was present at some deaths. For me, death was suffering, fear and a lonely personal experience for the patient. They don't talk about God, family or anything else. They seemed to be more focused on with what they are going through and the desire for relief from it. Forgiveness is over rated and makes more sense when everyone is healthy . I always thought when someone is dying, it was the wrong time to get into family problems or looking for healing. It can be better to just avoid them and let them die as peaceful as possible.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:53 am |
    • Tom Foolery

      Think about what you're really remembering...do you honestly believe that a dying elderly will talk with a teen punk about their life?

      January 29, 2012 at 11:03 am |
    • Lila

      Teen punk? All my patients loved me and I felt the same way about them. I still think about them today, they were wonderful people.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:39 am |
  12. Jeremy

    This is beautiful.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:53 am |
  13. Johnny Salami

    What people say before they die: "Oy, my heart..."

    January 29, 2012 at 10:52 am |
    • howash!

      More like "OH, sheeeeeeeeeeet!"

      January 29, 2012 at 10:53 am |
  14. pennywrites

    What a beautiful story. Thank you for sharing it.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:51 am |
  15. 21k

    my family is my religion. i will miss being with them, but we all have to go sometimes. i am glad that i will not have to spend eternity with a god that didn't stop hitler, even though according to some he created the entire universe and everything in it from nothing.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:50 am |
  16. Farrok

    I grew up in a loveless family and received love from no one. What I learned as the most important lesson is You must Love Yourself. One day I said to myself, I am hear in this World and I must Love and take care of myself. I does not matter what the rest of the family does. I need to Love and take care of myself, which I started to do. Now I have my own family and if my children never receive any thing from me, they all know thy are loved. I went from an unloving family to a very loving family my life's Work................... I am happy now (:

    January 29, 2012 at 10:50 am |
  17. gusboy

    PEOPLE THAT DONT TALK ABOUT GOD IS BECAUSE THEY DONT KNOW HIM.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:50 am |
    • howash!

      They don't know him because "he' doesn't exist.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:52 am |
    • Come on, be honest for a change..

      here come the delusional. Get therapy please.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:55 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      Hey, Gusboy, are you aware that SOME people will form their impressions of what True Believers are like from the example you're setting?

      January 29, 2012 at 11:02 am |
    • Yeesh

      @hogwash – It's just as ignorant to 'know' that there is no 'God'.
      @Gusboy – Looks like your Caps Lock is stuck, and your grammar/spell check is broken.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:03 am |
  18. Sooo....

    Was the whole first half of this story to teach us that religion is not important? I thought the article was about what people talk about before they die, not how you are angry with your college professor because you felt he was too religious.

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

      You missed the whole point. Re-read the article. If you don't "get it" now, you will, someday.

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

      I think you should read the article more carefully!

      January 29, 2012 at 10:55 am |
    • Tom Foolery

      I guessed you weren't paying attention when your literacy teacher was teaching about writing...it's called the "introduction."

      January 29, 2012 at 10:59 am |
    • sanjosemike

      I think you entirely missed the point. Many "religious" professionals are so invested in mythical dogma that they are no longer human. They have only stressed what they learn in the mythical book, the bible.

      The truth seems to come from near death experiences, which for most are not religious in the least. It's not surprising that church leaders would find that threatening.

      sanjosemike

      January 29, 2012 at 10:59 am |
    • L.O.

      No, the first half of the article was to put the rest in context, and to show how foolish and out of touch with God organized, professional religion often is.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:02 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      Let me guess. You're an NBA fan who figures there's no point tuning in to the game for the 1st 46 minutes, right?

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

    No wonder they turn to their family and friends! People must be 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?

    January 29, 2012 at 10:48 am |
  20. steve19

    Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was (Matthew 22:34-40) and he answered that the first was to love God with all your heart and the second was to love your neighbor as yourself. What a beautiful understanding this woman has of these truths and the importance of family. She has written an incredibly insightful and moving piece on what human beings desire and need at the most fundamental level. May I have the wisdom, love and courage to put this into practice as she has.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:47 am |
    • howash!

      People definitely turn away from God in their last moments. Like God wasn't there?

      January 29, 2012 at 10:50 am |
    • sanjosemike

      While I do agree that her article is inciteful, please don't quote the bible to us. Many of us find that actually offensive. Where was your "Jesus" at Auschwitz?

      sanjosemike

      January 29, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • Yesp

      They're saying goodbye to their family so they can go in peace to God.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:15 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.