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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 • My Faith

soundoff (4,493 Responses)
  1. howash!

    The article definitely reveals some facts: people don't want to be bothered by religious buffoons on their death bed. Really, the last thing people want is some religious charlatan chaplain imposing his religious views on them. Leave these people alone with their families! Stay away!

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

      Interesting, since the entire article is based upon conversations that a 'religion buffoon' had with dying patients. If they all were dead set against against having them by their bedside then why did they speak so much as to serve as the foundation for this story and the author's experiences? All this article states is what people preferred to speak about as they neared the end of their lives. The rest I think you are adding based upon your own beliefs.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:10 am |
  2. Jannet Walsh, Minnesota Native Daughter

    Reblogged this on Minnesota Native Daughter and commented:
    You might want to read this story on faith.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:03 am |
  3. SA

    Great article, i hope who ever read this will give more love to their families and friends. Express love more often or send a note to a lost friend because we know once we are there it will be too late for us to send a note or express our feelings.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:03 am |
  4. Ergee

    Do you talk about what happens after they die? Do you ask them where the next thousand, million, or trillion years will be spent after they take their last breath? We are only on this "stage" of life for a very short time, and then there is eternity. Most religions, state that not all people go to paradise or heaven. Choices have to be made to determine whether a person goes there or not while they are alive here, on this earth. I feel part of the dying process is to help determine if people are comfortable with knowing where they we be for the "rest of their lives." It's true that we only live once, but that "living" doesn't end on planet earth. When people die, I think a justice is served to them by discussing with them if they have trusted in "The Way" to get them to an eternal heaven. "The Way" stretch out His arms and died for each of us, all we have to do is accept HIs invitation, before the curtain falls on our time on earth.

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

      People need to stop fooling themselves about "the other" life. Nobody has come back to report on it. Maybe that's clue?? ;-)

      January 29, 2012 at 11:05 am |
  5. W M

    Beautifully written article that brought me to tears. It reminds us that at our death we don't worry about the work we did, but the love we gave and received.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:02 am |
  6. Mark M

    Thank you, Kerry,
    As a Presbyterian minister myself, I too have been there for many a dying person. We have talked about one's faith and about one's family. Yes, the conversation does return to family since family is also present around the dying person. Sometimes I ask the dying person if there is anything he or she wants to tell someone in the room. With tears in their eyes, they look toward the person who is need of words. Usually, the words are of comfort and forgiveness and sometimes words of pain. Words nonetheless. I believe that I am there to help the dying person and/or the family to let go and to help usher him or her from this earthly life thru a threshold to God's realm. "In life and death we belong to God." from the Brief Statement of Faith 1983 PC(USA)

    January 29, 2012 at 11:02 am |
  7. jdpjr

    Re. "Sooo..."
    Is that what you think the article is about? Wow. What a shame.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:02 am |
  8. Colin

    I can think of nothing worse than having to put up with a Bible-cuddler in my last hours. Looking up and seeing a religious simpleton in my room would be enought to make me kill myself, even if I was only in hospital with a broken arm.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:02 am |
    • howash!

      I think it's horribly imposing myself.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:07 am |
    • Steven Capsuto

      Generally, a chaplain visits only at your request or your family's request, and will leave if you ask them to.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:38 pm |
  9. Pat H

    God is Love – beautiful article – beautiful person who shared it. Thank you!

    January 29, 2012 at 11:01 am |
  10. Paul Karner

    Excellent perspective, and an excellent article.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:01 am |
  11. gusboy

    SOME PEOPLE HERE KEEP SAYING THAT GOD DOES NOT EXIST. PROVE IT!!!! QUESTION... HOW CAN A TOTALLY BLIND PERSON PERCIEVE COLORS??? CAN ANYONE HERE GIVE ME AN ANSWER?? A PERSON CAN ONLY PERCIEVE COLORS BY SIGHT, JUST LIKE A PETSON PERCIEVE HOD BY FAITH. GOT IT???

    January 29, 2012 at 11:01 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      "I" before "E" EXCEPT AFTER "C", ding-dong.

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

      Gus, glance just to the right of your "A" key. See if you can find the bright shiny one that's only been used once. Press it again to see if it's working.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:06 am |
    • Steven Capsuto

      We don't *have* to disprove your claim. You have to prove it. A theory presented without proof can be dismissed without proof.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:40 pm |
  12. howash!

    The idea that some religious fool has to be around people when they are dying is preposterous and callously imposing!

    January 29, 2012 at 11:00 am |
    • gusboy

      YOU ARE BLIND!!!

      January 29, 2012 at 11:02 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Gus, if he's 'blind', you should ask him if he "percieves" (sic) colors.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:04 am |
  13. Serge

    Thank you... you are so right...I am 70 years old, married, father of three and grandfather of four... and I am asking myself how I want to leave this world when the time comes... and what you say is what comes immediately to my mind... Life is nothing whitout these relationships... and they follow us in eternity...
    Keep on listening... and sharing these precious moments...

    January 29, 2012 at 11:00 am |
  14. Mary

    A beautifullly written essay! Why so many who have made comments missed the point is beyond me. At age 72, knowing that i'm in the last act of my play of life, i appreciate what this young woman has learned from her student days to now a more mature chaplain. Love of Family is loving God and by loving family and friends we are showing our love for God. Pretty simple folks.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:58 am |
  15. Sean

    A very well written piece from someone who, has obviously, experienced our Creator in the midst of the trials and joys of life. Our western churches have just enough watered-down message to retain congregations and make them feel obligated to attend. The business of church and it's Greco/Romain influence in the early centuries has created division and a message that moves and/or touches too few. It's one of exclusion and separation. Take the word denomination. The root is to separate. You think Satan has had a field day with that! Separate the body of believers and make them feel that they are all correct and cannot work with anyone (other church) that has slightly different interpretations of the same book.

    We can glorify God by the small things in our everyday lives exactly how the author mentioned, Thru family, friends, co-workers and in love and forgiveness. To the unbelievers – you can defile and attack the message all you want. In reality, you are probably broken, unloved and unforgiven, like most of the body of believers. Maybe all three. There are too many of you in this world and His heart breaks for you. Fortunately, a day is coming in your life when you will not be able to deny Him. All will be made new! Not in this world but in the Kingdom. Blessings (even to those that will slam me) :)

    January 29, 2012 at 10:58 am |
  16. howash!

    Really, the last thing people want is some religious charlatan chaplain imposing his religious views on them. Leave these people alone with their families! Stay away!

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

      How do you know what [all] people want?

      January 29, 2012 at 10:59 am |
    • howash!

      Kevin, have you read the article? What do people want?

      January 29, 2012 at 11:01 am |
    • Kevin

      Yes. I did. That still does not change the question. How do you know what all people want, the key word being _all_.

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

      If 99.9% want something, that's pretty close to all.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:09 am |
    • nurse

      Not once in this beautiful article did she push her thoughts or opinions on anyone, let alone the dying...she's there to listen if anything has to be said...and by the way it's "hogwash" not howash.

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

      There are 6 billion people on this planet. Thousands die every day. This is an excerpt about what the people that this person dealt with preferred to talk about near the end of their lives, not what they did or didn't believe, who they wanted by their bedside, or anything else.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:12 am |
  17. Charles

    So, when people say Family, or Mommy, or Daddy, they really mean God? Why can't one take things at face value and think that when people miss their family, they actually miss their family. God need not enter the equation.

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

      Take a pause and perhaps re-read the article. Comprehend it the second time.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:04 am |
  18. shelly

    This is a very touching article and well written. Yes, I can understand how our family is a reflection of God's love. We will not be known for the hours we spent at the office and the awards we display on our walls but the loving family member we were and how we loved. Blessed memories last a lifetime.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:57 am |
  19. Tifstr

    Thank you for this article. What faith and a belief system all comes down to is how you use it within your own little world. Of course people talk about their families. This is how they have experienced, processed and grown through their lives. The Bible so often talks about family relationships because that's what our relationship with God is. He is our Heavenly Father and He teaches through the imperfections of ourselves and our families to trust Him more because He is perfect.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:57 am |
  20. MT

    Finally a spiritual leader that understands that it is not all about God.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:57 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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.