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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. Rob

    THis is tragic. dying people need to be led, not to lead. They need to talk about the life they are about to enter, not the life they are about to leave. They need the gospel. They need to be told that they are sinners, and without Christ, they are lost. This well meaning author is completely lost. This is the dead leading the dead. Discussing family isn't discussing God. Surely people need comfort, but at this critical time they need biblical truth, which was completely lacking in the story.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:36 am |
    • t3chsupport

      They're about to die. They need to be able to get whatever off of their chest that they need to get off of their chest, because they won't have that chance again. If they know their faith, then there's no point in talking about it. Why bother talking about what the movie is going to be when you're sitting there watching the previews? The dieing person is the one who is dieing, therefore they are actually the one leading, the one going where the other party has never been before. Until you die, you cannot tell people what they need to be talking about and or hearing when they die.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:38 am |
    • ItIsSo

      That is ridiculous. If God exists, then he/she/it knows all about this person's life. The last thing a person should be told while they are dying is that they are a sinner. A person's death is a personal thing. Not a time to listen to another drivel on about what they believe the dying man or woman should hear in their last few moments on earth. Time to read a little Christopher Hitchens.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:42 am |
    • Mark Stacy RN

      Have you attended to the dying? Few of them are in a position to understand much more than their own feeling, their own circle of family and friends, and their own pain and suffering. Sure you might feel good reading scripture, but if the patient isn't listening, is demented and cannot understand, or is actively crossing over to death, then all you are is background noise. Acceptance of a religious belief structure requires a high level of awareness and concentration. And frankly, if they're dying, you're too late. You may even get a word of acceptance, but changing the heart won't happen.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:45 am |
    • Karina

      and you have been brainwashed by your man-made, fear-creating religious dogma. You can keep your sermon to yourself thank you!

      January 29, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      You don't get to decide what someone else "needs", you ridiculous boob.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:51 am |
    • bobbo

      Get a big AMEN for Rob! You got it brother, see you on the other side :-)

      January 30, 2012 at 12:46 am |
    • PT

      You make it seem like the Chaplain's job is to help the near dying cram for a final exam. The near dying are on board with this stuff or not. No one is going to create any meaningful redirection at this point. You (or anyone for that matter) won't understand this until you are on your deathbed. You won't be singing the praises of God or the gospel, you'll be reflecting on your life and the meaning of family.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:35 am |
  2. Thankyew

    This is one religious person I wouldn't mind at my deathbed ( though I'm an Atheist). It seems she "listens" and her mind
    is open to analyze and absorb and be truly compassionate. Sure beats someone pushing "Amway" on your way out the door.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:36 am |
  3. mujib

    Thank you for this article, Main thing is love,it could be God,family,friends,nature,people,planet.When you leaving some
    thing you love it is painful.But no choice we have to go.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:35 am |
  4. Mike

    Very powerfull article. They say faith works in mysterious ways. Very interesting to hear from someone who consoles the dying. Godbless you Ms. Egan.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:34 am |
  5. Geoff Harestad

    On the battlefield of life, Ms Egan must be one of the more precious chaplains we're so lucky to have, and anyone whom is like her, we're also so lucky to have walking amongst us. :)

    January 29, 2012 at 11:32 am |
    • Julie

      Thank you, Ms. Egan, for posting this message. You've given me incredible hope. I'm encountering your article at a time when I desperately needed spiritual peace and I now feel reassured. I agree with Geoff.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:55 am |
  6. Rita

    Most thought provoking piece that I have read in a long time. Thank you, Ms. Egan, for pursuing your profession and bringing comfort to so many.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:31 am |
  7. Amanda

    This is the most profound article I have ever read about death and dying. Having 2 grandparents at home who are on the brink, these themes are things we talk about on a daily basis. Thank you!

    January 29, 2012 at 11:31 am |
  8. Doug T

    The professor you talked to was a horse's ass. Typical of most.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:30 am |
  9. Mike

    This column brings up some good points, not the least of which is that people tend to discuss what is important and real to them when their time is limited. They want to know their inspired people and remember the times when people inspired them. There is nothing anywhere within the construct of a religious belief system that limits ones faith to a mythological story. Look at certain cultures who have an obsession with the dead/spirits. While it may be a stretch to think that your deceased father is responsible for the rain or the sun coming out, the lessons your learned from him that you pass on your your children are in essence an extension of his life. Too many people worry about the mythological "afterlife". You want to live past your time on earth? Then make a difference in someone's elses life while you are here and they will remember you long after you are gone. Only the selfish get on their knees every Sunday and beg forgiveness so they can improve their odds of entry to heaven. Why not just ask God who to bet on in the Super Bowl?

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

      I'm really interested in how it not only shatters the myth that everyone becomes a deathbed convert, but completely turns it on its head. Not only do atheists not suddenly start crying out for Jesus in their last moments, the faithful want to talk about the reality of their lives.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:35 am |
  10. Frances

    Mike the Atheist-I agree with you. I was actually wrapped up in that delusion for many years and even attained my degree in Bible and Pastoral ministries. I did something that many pastors don't do. I read my bible. I read it over and over, cover to cover, forwards and backwards. I studied apologetics (because you need to do that to help explain all of the discrepancies . Although none were able to reconcile the 4 gospel accounts of Jesus's life and death.) After years of that, I had no choice, but to accept the truth. There is no god.
    @ gusboy: I'll quote a famous scene from Spongebob Squarepants, because that seems like an appropriate level.
    Squidward: People speak louder when they want to seem more intelligent.
    Plankton: CORRECT!!!

    January 29, 2012 at 11:30 am |
    • t3chsupport

      Bah, don't let the crazy ol' bible ruin you on some tasty agnosticism. It's so much less dogmatic than atheism. The only thing you can ever be really sure of is that you can never really be sure of anything.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:42 am |
    • Mike

      What exactly from your years of study and apologetics led to your conclusion that there is no God?

      January 29, 2012 at 11:43 am |
    • Trey

      I believe it was in the movie Easy Rider, while in a bar one of the characters points to sign that says " If God was not real man would have invented him." I have always thought that to be an interesting sentence.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:45 am |
  11. Annie

    Thank you for remaining true to your mission to help people. Shame on the arrogant "Professor" who thought we need doctrine more than compassion.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:29 am |
  12. Chuck

    thank you for your beautiful and moving essay, and thank you for not listening to your professor. Religion is the last thing the dying need. Empathy and willingness to just let them talk is a very loving gift.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:28 am |
  13. Joe

    Thank you for the lovely article. My family was blessed with being part of the reconciliation of my dad's life while he was dying. Though we are still grieving, having gone through this with him makes the thought of death much less scary.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:28 am |
  14. Ismael Arredondo

    Wow! This article is so true, love is found in the home. It took me 11 years to figure out how much, I love my wife and how loving and supportive she has been throughout our marriage. I'm grateful for this article to show me that I need to start now and not when my time comes to leave this earth. Thank You

    January 29, 2012 at 11:27 am |
  15. Skeptic

    What people talk about before they die?
    Don't shoot.
    Take your foot off my breathing tube.
    Let go of my throat.
    Dr. Murray, too much propofol.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:27 am |
    • Dave

      Great article – and cynical but very funny comment.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:29 am |
    • Karina

      There is always a smart a-ss lurking somewhere. This was a simply beautiful article and we can all only hope we have someone with Kerry's compassion and understanding by our side when our time comes.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:43 am |
    • Jupiter

      Man...this cracked me up so good...still rolling..laughing

      January 29, 2012 at 11:44 am |
    • Donna

      How wonderful to have someone like you to be there for the dying. Yes, one would talk about their families because it s also a way for them to tell you things that they wouldn't say to their families. It's like a form of confessing. You are their messenger to their families. We can tell them what their love one said at the end. Plus it gives them peace of mnd, knowng that someone knows what they really feel. We can sometmes tell a total stranger things that we would not tell our family. Bless you for continung listenng to the dying and not taking what that feeble mnd professor said in class to heart. Plus if one wants to pray with someone, they will ask for that. Listenng means so much more. I can tell you for a fact, hearing someone say, "You know your Mother loved you so much because she told me." means so much once they are gone when you really didn't know.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:55 am |
  16. LH

    Such a good article. You don't need to believe in any type of God to get something from this.

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

      Agree totally whatever your religion or whether you are a non believe. The joy of life is loving and feeling loved.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:43 am |
  17. FTUProfessor

    It's amazing how supposedly wise scholarly individuals demean the greatness in those who are trying to learn from them. Obviously Kerry Egan came to understand what the Professor that ridiculed her did not! Excellent piece on spirituality.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:26 am |
  18. sherry

    What about leading them to the Lord? That is the most important thing. So they will die with peace. They need to know that there is a God and there is a Heaven. Doing a disservice to them.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:25 am |
    • iamdeadlyserious

      Yeah, it's definitely doing a disservice to someone when you don't try and make their last moments on earth completely unbearable. I know that the last thing I want to see is some condescending idiot leaning over my bed and telling me all about their dear and fluffy lord.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:29 am |
    • Ryan

      she just got done saying that the love they expressed was God, you are still in your head much like the professor

      January 29, 2012 at 11:33 am |
    • Searles O'Dubhain

      At the moment of death, people are closer to deity than at any other time intheir lives. They are beyond words and ideas and are experiencing the spiritual awakening and release that only death can provide. One should listen to them, support them and share in that spirit rather than bombard their passing with rhetoric or dogma.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:36 am |
    • JohnQuest

      Your moral compa-ss is so Jacked Up you can't find your a-ss with both hands.

      If you are right (I think you are wrong) and dying in peace is the most important thing to take with you to an Afterlife, then the right thing to do is let the dying person clear the Guilt, Bad Feelings, and any other negative poisons out of their heart and soul.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:37 am |
    • Thankyew

      The great mystery of "Fluffiness" will only be known after death.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:42 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Who says they "need" what you claim they do?

      Honestly, some of you are so unable to comprehend that others need something different than you do. Why can't you shut up and respect those needs?

      January 29, 2012 at 11:53 am |
  19. supernova

    If I am dying, I want to talk about what I want to talk about – these are my final moments, let me say what I want to say. When my Father was dying, he talked about his career in the US Army and that was fine with me. I guess some people want to "prepare their souls" before they kick the bucket and talk to a priest – that's fine too. But let that choice be up to the person getting ready to die, not somebody who thinks religion takes precedent.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:25 am |
  20. John

    There is NO god. After you die, your family just going to suffer because of your lost. So think about your family instead of this so called "god".....its not real.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:24 am |
    • gusboy

      HEY YOU FOOL!!!!! THERE IS NO GOD????? YOU ARE LIKE A BLIND PERSON THAT SAYS..THERE ARE NO COLORS!!!! YOU CANNOT FIND GOD FOR THE SAME REASON A THIEF CANNOT FIND THE POLICEMEN.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:29 am |
    • Cindy

      Ditto that John!!!

      January 29, 2012 at 11:30 am |
    • Pray for John

      John,I pray you find God before you die or you are headed straight for hell

      If you blame God for your crappy life, go look in the mirror instead, it is YOUR fault your life sucks

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

      "You cannot find god for the same reason a thief cannot find the policemen."

      Ladies and gentlemen, I'd like to present the nominees for 2012's "Dumbest Metaphor of the Year" Awards...

      January 29, 2012 at 11:33 am |
    • Roger Samudio

      John, I understand why you can say this. God promised us an illusion to overtake us if we dont believe in the signs and His Son Jesus, for being so ignorent He promised that what ever we think about against Him this He will stubbern in your heart and mind. God rules, and we hate it because we are instruments only to Him but he is a God of love not murder or hate. You say God is not real and sound 100% sure, are you? You better be right on this one John.....better be 100% right.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:33 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      I've never heard a blind person say there were no colors, Gussy. Maybe you should find smarter friends.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
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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.