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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. Understand This

    The last paragraph puts it all into proper perspective! We should all learn to forgive one another if we expect forgiveness by God. That is a given. But how sad to know that many feel they can simply write their own ticket and then in their delusion find out that life is so shallow and meaningless to that shallow-thinking person. Think about it. When you forgive another as well as yourself, you enter into the beautiful understanding that you are only part of the whole but now you're a bigger part. But when you are not able to release and let go, forgiveness cannot follow you and release you from your on-going pain and perhaps you will never understand why. But this is the reason!

    January 29, 2012 at 11:23 am |
  2. Penny Stanton

    Before my father died from pancreatic cancer 25 years ago, one of the last things he said to me was "life is a joke." A true statement - I wholeheartedly agree.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:22 am |
  3. gusboy

    NOBODY HERE CAN PROVE THAT VOLORS EXIST TO A TOTALLY BLIND PERSON! PEOPLE HERE WHO WALK IN DARKNESS CANNOT FIND GOD FOR THE SAME REASON A THIEF CANNOT FIND THE POLICEMEN.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:21 am |
    • Bozobub

      Point of fact, colors do not exist for a blind person, period. Fail.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:24 am |
  4. Ann

    Beautiful essay Kerry, thank you. I'm glad that professor didn't stop you.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:20 am |
  5. Remember

    Well written! If you need to be reminded ... what were the last messages left by those who were in the towers or on four planes on 9/11? Messages of love to family and friends!!!

    January 29, 2012 at 11:19 am |
  6. Sara C

    Everyone is different. I personally would not be talking about "god" either because I don't believe but rather Buddhism. What would that professor say to that? Oh, no, it has to be christian? Close-minded fool.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:19 am |
  7. Clark

    Faith in God is relative. NO religon has all the answers. Out of fear, some cling on to a savior that may never come back and will wait another 2000 years for nothing. Love your family, love your friends and appreciate the day. And and help your fellow human being.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:19 am |
  8. TwilightzonePaul

    Twilightzone as I am one of those not certain about God and religion. I believe in something, but not sure what. Not religious and not aetheist.

    There are many in this group of which I am just one.

    This article was very enlightening and did more to make me think about God and religion than most. For that I applaud Mr. Egan. So many religious well intended people want to impress God and religion upon others with various beliefs and arguments that include you will, "burn in hell if you don't" or other not so harsh or threatening consequences.

    They forgot what Mr. Egan explained in the most simple, yet profound manner.

    In the end, it is Family, love and how we treated others that seems to matter most I would think. Mr. Egan's experience seems to verify this.

    As I understand Mr. Egan, the foregoing is where God exists in us all. His inclusion of those of us in the Twilight Zone or maybe those of us even further away was heartening.

    Mr. Egan has done more in his short article to bring me towards faith as he included me and those like me. He was not a person that excludes. He is a person that doesn't see religion from the ivory pulpit.

    Thank you Mr. Egan.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:18 am |
    • john

      Kerry Egan is a female.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
  9. tony

    Nice thoughts. We are born with love for people, but without any idea or need for a separate god. Sounds like we all die that way too.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:17 am |
  10. Jeebus $aves

    Religion is a smile on a dog.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:16 am |
  11. sanjosemike

    Suffering and death remain a very difficult concept for organized religion. They must try to find SOME way to rationalize terrible suffering and such "grandiose" physical pain that it is almost impossible to describe. In most cases, death is NOT dignified in the slightest. That's for the movies. Reality is entirely different. It is the failure of organ systems and bone metastases. The pain of bone metatasis is like Dante's Inferno.

    Reality is that massive doses of narcotics, to the point of complete ablation of consciousness is the ONLY solution to suffering, not a clergyperson or even a well meaning family member. Just hope that your care providers are willing to allow you this, despite their uncaring masters at the DEA.

    sanjosemike

    January 29, 2012 at 11:15 am |
    • Sue

      Spot-on post, sanjosemike. A breath of fresh air amongst the religio-pollution on the subject. Thanks.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:27 am |
  12. TB

    Beautifully written article. Thank you very much for sharing your experiences and observations with us. Your points are well taken.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:14 am |
  13. Ohyeah

    That was best , most candid article I've read from a religious person. It strengthens my resolve not to resent the phonies
    I've met through the years. This writer is the closet I've come to someone "spiritual."

    January 29, 2012 at 11:14 am |
  14. Kristen

    To say that a person speaking about their family is an expression of their love for god is so far fetched to make god exist as I've seen so far. People speak about their family because family is their expression of love, those people who were in their lives that made it worth living. God is not that. He does not comfort you in good or bad times, you do in your brain making you think it is god. The day we actually believe this as a species is the day we are free from the idea that something external of us controls our lives. We are human. If that isn't good enough for you then take a look in the mirror and ask why.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:14 am |
    • Converted

      Go away troll. If you don't believe go away you have nothing relevant to say.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:28 am |
    • Joe

      To write a post claiming there is no God on a CNN religion blog seems foolish. Would you go to a sports blog to state that you don't watch sports? And your lack of belief in a Higher Power saddens me as you are walking a lonely path that can easily be filled with unbridled love and compassion simply upon your command. A Higher Power does not "control" our lives but provides a steadfast hand when one is needed for guidance. Remember, no man is an island.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:33 am |
  15. bjk

    I hope the professor who so disrespectfully mocked that young student read this article. He was wrong and his ridicule could have ruined the future of this compassionate young chaplain. For the sake of everyone she helps, I'm glad she ignored his hubris and went on to help the dying in the manner that they need, not what someone else thinks they need.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:13 am |
    • CJ

      I had the exact same thought. The teacher should have learned from the student.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:20 am |
    • sanjosemike

      Students in an academic environment do NOT have the freedom to criticize their professors. That could lead to being cut from the program, or refusal of a thesis. All they can do is listen and curl their toes in anger.

      Later on, when you have an opportunity for real freedom of speech, you can write a letter to them and tell them what you REALLY think but it is always dangerous to burn career bridges.

      It's a shame, but that's the way it is. In your mind, and perhaps in articles like this, you can tell your professor to ***you. I hope he reads it.

      sanjosemike

      January 29, 2012 at 11:20 am |
  16. elizabeth

    hogwash, ths is my first post and it is to you.

    Is the truth in your name?
    Would I be foolish to believe what you have to say?
    yes, I know so for you seem to question even yourself
    ?

    January 29, 2012 at 11:13 am |
    • tony

      Sounds like you and you master need to get thou behind us Liz

      January 29, 2012 at 11:20 am |
  17. Crankee

    This is probably the best piece I have ever had the pleasure or reading here on CNN. Thank you, Ms. Egan.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:13 am |
  18. gusboy

    ONCE AGAIN.. CAN ANY ONE HERE TELL ME HOW CAN YOU PROVE THAT COLORS EXIST TO A BLIND PERSON?????? REMEMBER..GOD CAN ONLY BE KNOWN BY FAITH.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:12 am |
    • rabulla

      Please stop shouting.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:22 am |
    • fofotavour

      In another word, by fooling yourself.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:22 am |
    • MikeTheAtheist

      >ONCE AGAIN.. CAN ANY ONE HERE TELL ME HOW CAN YOU PROVE THAT
      >COLORS EXIST TO A BLIND PERSON?????? REMEMBER..GOD CAN ONLY
      >BE KNOWN BY FAITH.

      The more important question is not what a person can prove to a blind person. The question is what a GOD can prove (especially given that this proving and believing appears to be so important that he sent his "only son" to be tortured and killed).

      Let's compare what a god is ABLE to demonstrate and prove, again given the alleged importance, vs what is actually BEING PROVEN.

      It is this extremely wide gap between ability/importance vs actual UNAMBIGUOUS demonstration that should be cause for great concern of every rational believer.

      To say god can only be known by faith is to say that an omnipotent god is unwilling or unable to gain believers by direct demonstation. Given the abundance of (alleged) direct demonstration in the biblical past, and given the lack of demonstration in the (scientific) present day, again there should be great cause for concern by the rational believer.

      And so our only means of "knowing god" is via faith, which is not a means of "knowing" at all. It is simply a means of convincing ourselves that we should "believe". "Belief" is an independent sphere from "knowledge". It is a low standard that requires no evidence, no rational demonstration ... it just needs persuasion.

      The requirements for belief in a thing that exists are similar to the requirements for belief in a thing that is imaginary. A person can convince themselves to believe either. No need to venture into the world of real facts and evidence. Belief can be obtained without all that extra extraneous reality. Efficient, but let's not puff up the end result: What is obtained through belief cannot be (rationally) claimed to be "knowledge".

      January 29, 2012 at 11:28 am |
    • Mike

      The more fundamental question is: do colors exist? Since we can empirically prove that colors do indeed exist then the question is not whether blind people can see colors but WHY they cannot see the colors that do empirically exist.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:38 am |
  19. MikeTheAtheist

    The fundamental purpose or function of life, not just that of humans but of all living things, is to make more living things. Thus it makes perfect sense that people who are saying what is important for the last time will talk about their families and not their god. I have asked Christians many times, "what is the purpose of life", and so many are too quick answer with the religiously correct response, "to serve Jesus". And yet when it comes down to the final moments, when it gets real, when we have no more need for the societal benefits of religious posturing, we learn what is really most important, and the answer (given the real purpose of life, see above) is what we should reasonably expect: family. Not gods and religions, family.

    I think this article does a great job exposing us to the truth of the chaplain's real experience, which is that when people have a last opportunity to talk about what is most important, they don't talk much about their religion, they talk about their families. There is the core truth of the article. But then we get the embellishment. The chaplain seems unable to accept that simple truth on its face. She spins it, until the dying are not just talking about their families, they are talking about their GOD by means of talking about their families. She is putting words into the mouths of the dying.

    I would have preferred that the truth of her experience remain unvarnished. What the dying do not say speaks volumes, as does the chaplain's religious embellishment.

    It is fascinating that she began her career seeing the truth, encountered the professor who insisted that there was insufficient religion in her role, and eventually added a dose of unnecessary religious spin.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:12 am |
    • gusboy

      HEY YOU!!! PROVE TO A BLIND PERSON THAT COLORS EXIST!!! YOU ARE BLIND AND CANNOT FIND GOD FOR THE SAME REASON A THIEF CANNOT FIND THE POLICEMEN!!

      January 29, 2012 at 11:15 am |
    • fofotavour

      Very well said.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:20 am |
    • Bozobub

      Er, many thieves have no problems finding policemen, silly.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:26 am |
    • EmeraldCity

      Excellent. You nailed it- especially about the fact that her observations highlight the superfluos nature of religion and the fact that she just can't take the info at face value but still needs to put a Christian spin on it.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:30 am |
    • EmeraldCity

      Excellent. You nailed it- especially about the fact that her observations highlight the superfluous nature of religion and the fact that she just can't take the info at face value but still needs to put a Christian spin on it.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:31 am |
    • elizabeth

      Hi Mike, it was nice to read your input and thoughts. My brother to is atheist even though we were all brought up with
      basic religion and your words made me think of my dad. I have something to say or share with you, but my respect for your belief will be held in the highest regard.

      When dad reached the end of his life, cancer had reached his brain and made a mess of things. He lived for 18 months with liver cancer, and in the end it spread to his brain. He had no clue what was going on, or who we were and there was 7 of us kids.
      The eve before he died, my sister was the in a cot beside his bed, she woke up to dad talking to someone in the corner of the room. I'd say 'something' but there was no object in the way of his view. She sat up and put her face in front of his, and said 'dad?' because he hadn't talked or moved in two days she thought he was getting better and returning to himself.
      All dad did was remove her face gently from his view and say to her 'not now maureen' and he continued answering whatever it was. He said 'yes, yes, I would like that very much' and thanked the corner of the room. She said
      he was relieved. Dad said these words before it ended, ' I would like to come with you very much, thankyou, thankyou'
      and he laid back down and that was all there was to that, nothing more except the next afternoon my dad passed away.
      We all knew that dad was going and in the last few days, he was going throught the process of death and didn't speak, move or recognize us, for the exeption of sitting up in bed calling my sister by her name and removing her face from his view as if he was perfectly healthy again.
      That is her experience with the death of our father, and it is in my humble opinion that he was visited by someone.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:58 am |
  20. FULVIC ACID

    Dying is a moment of reconciliation with ourselves in things not accomplished, if does not happened suddenly.
    When someone is dying of Natural death has enough time to think about on unfulfilled dreams or desires and reviewing what he/she has done with their lives then anguish or pleasure of fulfillment will be present in every second of the rest of their lives.

    If anguish, then a priest/Missionaries/Pastor even a bible will be the best medicine for that tormented soul. Forgiveness from people that were offended will helps too and so on. Do not hurt no one and the contrary on helping other. If you do then you will bring Hell to Earth in the time of you dead and certainty you will need a Preacher/Pastor/Priest/Bible in the last day moment of your life.

    If this person fulfilled in the best of his/her ability then this soul will dye smiling, quiet and full of positive energy that in his surrounding will be peace as if Heaven came to Earth. Families will cry for this love one. The one who comforted, supported, advised, them will leave them soon and their emptiness in their souls and lives will be felt by them as death itself.
    The loss will be felt locally or regional or nationwide even worldwide depending on the person who is dying or dead. Is someone there who sees this values on dying in peace and also not being forgivable as worthy in the last moment?
    If so then put your acts together. Loves your families, neighbors, friends, and any body who come across your ways and you will see that it will happen to you too. Be honest in all of your dealings. So many things that we can do to bring peace on the last moment of our lives but if we do, then it is so worthy.

    I would like to have a peaceful dead too. I will continue practicing what I described above until the end of my life. Maybe I am a dreamer but a lot of you will join and agree with me in our own journey of our lives.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:12 am |
    • tony

      You sound like the last person I would want die beside.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:22 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.