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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. Bubbles

    I don't typically read the GOD stories....but that was a very nice article.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:49 am |
  2. Warren in NY

    When a person knows God and knows Jesus, they are prepared when death approaches. They have no reason to not focus on saying goodbye to family. They know where they are headed.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • crazyvermont

      so simple but so true!

      January 29, 2012 at 11:54 am |
    • JohnR

      Sure, sure. That's why, in the midst of a really bad scene I once was in, when someone threatened to get a gun, it was the born again christian and ONLY the born again christian who totally freaked.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:59 am |
    • JT

      So, all that don't buy into your Jesus (Jews, Atheists, Muslims) are just doomed eh? How arrogant and smug that you are so sure that you are right and billions of others are wrong.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
    • toadears

      Lots of Jews and Muslims believe in God. Is it just Christians you hate, JohnR? How very politically correct of you!

      January 29, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
    • toadears

      Excuse me, JohnR. That comment should have been written to JT

      January 29, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
    • Oh please

      So I guess a parent of young children would find this thought so reassuring that he or she wouldn't mind leaving the children without one parent? The sight of sobbing, frantic children would be of no importance? Glad I'm not a Christian.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
    • JoJo

      Where are they headed?

      January 29, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
    • Jarod

      When they are cremated they are, in the form of molecules and atoms, headed for the sky. Instant recycling so to speak. When they are buried they are eaten by their intestinal bacteria and who knows else.

      January 29, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
  3. humberto

    God IS, regardless of the concept of tangible unbeliving living beings and their coins.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:47 am |
  4. donna

    a simple and beautiful guide to what is important about our lives

    January 29, 2012 at 11:46 am |
  5. howash!

    People need to grow up and stop giving in to religious hallucinations. You can't hide from reality, irregardless of what illusory nonsense you believe. Reality happens!

    January 29, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • TC

      Atheists – you need to real and quit thinking with arrogance how you have such certainty in things when you have no experience in spirituality.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • toadears

      And you, Captain control freak, need to stop going to religious message boards and posting inflammatory remarks. But you won't. What is wrong with you? I believe in God. Period. And I have never deliberately gone into a message board regarding atheism to argue with them about anything. I defend their right to believe whatever they want. The fact that you pick this story to sit in here and argue proves YOU have issues.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:51 am |
    • Question Everything

      TC – Please point me to the atheist that claims to have it all figured out. It's the theists who believe they have all the answers. Yet for something so massive they have zero evidence without suspending their intellect.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:52 am |
    • TC

      @ Question – Beleivers know that hardly know anything and much is a mystery – it's all you atheists who claim to know everything about the universe yet you have had zero spiritual experiences. Just like a dumb teenager – you think you know what youre talking about but have zero experience and little education.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:54 am |
    • Converted

      Why do athiests come to a Belief Blog when they don't believe? Do you really think you are that smart and that witty? There are plenty of athiest websites on the internet, go worship there.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:55 am |
    • GAW

      @TC Now you see why many of the atheists who post here can be far worse than the religious fundamentalists that they so disdain. They are giving atheism a bad name in the same way that Westboro Baptist gives Christianity a bad name.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:56 am |
    • TC

      @ converted – exactly – just arrogant agitators trying to further a failed agenda predicated on extremely flawed thought processes.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:57 am |
    • Kelly

      TC- it's funny that you say that about athiests- that has been my exact experience with the faithful and devout. I am often so turned off to their religious convictions for that reason alone, because they are POSITIVE that they are correct with total disregard not only to those who might not believe in a higher being, but more oddly, to ALLLLL of the other religious that span the globe.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
    • JohnR

      Why are so many christians, eg Converted, such illiterate boobs that they wonder why atheists come to a blog where questions of belief are explored?

      January 29, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
    • nicdy3

      Wow, that is a pretty hate-filled comment. A person's faith is their choice, just as you choose not to have a faith. I choose to be agnostic. In reality, we all seek to define the same thing; it's just that the definitions are different. All of our lives are inevitably heading in the same direction–I think everyone knows that. Why do you care if someone believes that we continue after death? Let them. You believe that life doesn't continue, and you should be left alone by the religious as well, as that belief is your choice. Personally, I will respect all faith, so long as religion is kept out of the government, per the First Amendment and the Treaty of Tripoli. As for the dying, let them have peace in whatever belief they have chosen.

      P.S. "Irregardless" isn't a word.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
    • toadears

      This one is to you, JOHN R. Christians are surprised that you hate them and God so much that you actually hunt them down to argue with them. Your 2 cents will not convince anyone to give up their faith anymore than our 2 cents will convince you to have one. The ridiculous part of your argument is why are you atheists and Satanists so determined to hunt down believers to call them names and ridicule their beliefs?

      January 29, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
    • Mark

      I think you are missing the point of the piece. Its not about the living, but the dying. Like it or not, you won't be able to pick who is next to you at the moment of your death. Who are you going to want there? Someone so worried about what they believe to let you deal with what you believe or want to reconcile yourself with in your final moments of life? Last thing I'd want on my death bed is a preacher trying to get me to say the Sinner's Prayer arguing with an Atheist who is telling me there is no God. I could handle Ms. Egan. At least she will let me think about what I want, indulge me in any final words I have, spare me her beliefs until after I'm long gone. Can any of us ask for better?

      January 29, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      toady, your posts won't convince anyone that believers are anything but obnoxious. Why bother to post except to argue a lost cause? Atheists don't wish to 'convert' anyone; they simply want people like you to butt out and leave them alone. That's why they're here-you and your ilk can't do that. You insist your way is the only one.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
  6. Mark

    Very well written piece aimed perfectly at its target audience, the "professors" of the world, who feel the need to project themselves and their prejudices upon those leaving it. The reply was to her professor who belittled her experience of the dying as "shallow" because she acted as a patient and caring observer. The reply could also apply to many who commented here, who reject her beliefs. The last thing I would want in my last moments of life would be to have someone proselytizing to me on how I should approach death. It's my death, and I'll think about what I want to, be it family, friends, God, or an empty void marking the end to having to listen to all of the BS crammed down my throat from the living. My death will be MY experience, and what I liked most about Ms. Egan's piece was that she respected that. Her professor did not. Her observations were for the living, specifically those like her professor, who think the living have the power to foist their prejudices on how they think the living need to guide the dying to death. The only experts on death are the dead.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:46 am |
  7. NDW1982

    This is a cool article. We spend much of our lives focused on things that do not really matter and then it's over and we're left to feel a sense of emptiness and regret. Loving one another (family specifically) unconditionally and teaching love by example is far more of a noble focus than spending much of our time obsessing over and trying to please a god whom there is zero proof of existence. I hope to have a room full of family surrounding me when I die. When my husbands Nannie died, the room was packed with family and it was one of the most beautiful moments of my life. She had done well...

    January 29, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • crazyvermont

      connecting and serving is what God is all about. I've never felt a need or fear of trying to please God or that I'm going to be punished for not doing something right.....I'm forgiven, not perfect, but God puts a desire in my heart to serve thise that are less fortunate.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:57 am |
    • JohnR

      You need god to put that desire in your heart, crazy? That's kinda lame. Oh, and you may or may not be forgiven. We can never fully know, no matter what doctrine you subscribe to. Doctrine isn't about knowledge based on logic and evidence. It is about belief based on hopes and fears.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
    • toadears

      OK this JOHN R person just wants to argue with anyone who will argue. Bleep! Snert alert. Teenager.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  8. jimmy joe

    wow. beautiful

    January 29, 2012 at 11:44 am |
  9. howash!

    The idea that some religious buffon has to abe around dying people is preposterous. Leave these people alone Kerry! The fact is they don't need you or any religious imposter!

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

      Why comment with your failed atheist agenda in here with believers. Go to your atheist forums and support each other in your arrogant ignorance

      January 29, 2012 at 11:50 am |
    • toadears

      Oh, I get it. You are a child or teenager pretending to be an adult. Go the bathroom with a picture of Katy Perry and spend a long time leaving us alone.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:53 am |
    • JoJo

      Speak for yourself. The fact that you don't need or want a counselor at death, isn't important to anyone but you. This article was about family: the love of family. And, sometimes the tragedy of family life. On your death bed I hope you are really prepared to leave your family. And, your family is at peace with your death.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
    • JohnR

      Hospitals give you a choice whether or not to see a chaplain. When I was recently in the hospital for heart failure, I marked off that I had no religious affiliation and was left alone.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
    • Smiley

      I was under the impression that chaplains are offered; you can say no can't you?

      January 29, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      I'll comment wherever I wish, TC. You're not the owner of this forum or of CNN. If you were, you'd be able to proofread a lot better than your posts indicate you do.

      You keep yammering about a 'failed agenda'. What, exactly, are you burbling about? What "agenda"? After you explain describe it, enumerate the ways in which it has 'failed'. Thanks in advance.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  10. Susan

    Beautifully, beautifully written, Kerry. Thank you so much.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:42 am |
  11. Amit

    Thank you. What you have shared is very important to me and I will try to learn more from it. I hope the people you have met had some peace because they met you. I hope you have felt that too.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:41 am |
  12. Henry

    Obviously, they talk about their families because they don’t know God, otherwise they would be glad to live this world and be with God where there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain.

    Instead of talking about their families you should preach the gospel of salvation to them, and save their souls from eternal damnation in hell.

    Jesus said in Matthew 10: 37-38, “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”

    January 29, 2012 at 11:41 am |
    • iamdeadlyserious

      Or maybe in that last moment, when the veil is lifted, they start to realize what's actually important.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:42 am |
    • Dave A.

      Henry. You have no heart. I feel sorry for you

      January 29, 2012 at 11:44 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      I hope nuts like you will stay far away from people who are dying. You're a menace.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • TC

      You are very misguided and obvously really don't understand God or love or you would not have made such an unempathietic comment. God is not just about following rules – you need to go deeper than that in your faith.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:52 am |
    • lance corporal

      you have missed the point in this article and you have missed god in your life and in your heart

      January 29, 2012 at 11:56 am |
    • Bob

      Who made you the arbiter of truth? Do you and god chat often? Your type of mindless "faith" has caused more than it's share of suffering in this world. Who the hell are you to be telling people how to live? This woman is a saint. What have you done lately, Henry, to relieve someone's suffering? Quote scripture?

      January 29, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
    • bobbo

      Henry you are absolutely correct. If you aren't talking about God what are you doing there as a chaplin? Get out and let the FAMILIES be with them. Your resposiblity is first their salvation second their comfort, because how comfortable are they going to be eternally if you just skirt over their need for Jesus and forgivness. Be a social worker not a chaplin.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
    • JoJo

      Is your family not important to you?

      January 29, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
    • JohnR

      Congrats, Henry, you united believers and non-believers in their utter disdain for you.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
    • Oh please

      If on my deathbed I want to talk about my family and some chaplain starts preaching at me the way some people have preached at me for years, I will request that person be removed from the room. The Chaplain doesn't get to tell me how I'll spend my last minutes.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
  13. humberto

    What a bunch of political religious fanatics.
    If your child was kidnapped by government officials, they would abide by the same propaganda that allows them to preach and enrich themselves .

    January 29, 2012 at 11:41 am |
    • toadears

      Loon. Everybody knows the people at the top of world governments are either atheists or satanists. How ridiculous your remark is.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
  14. KRIK

    Thanks so much for sharing your experiences with the dying – and as an atheist, allow me to say that your former professor sounds like a self-righteous, insufferable prig.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:40 am |
  15. Irene

    My parents are older now...so I wanted to read this article. Makes a lot of sense. I've read many articles regarding the senior experience. Most of their reflections in life have been not how successful they were in the job market, how much money they made, it was usually about the relationships that were formed in life, especially their loved ones.

    And for the person above that commented there is not god. We all can believe what we want...no god, our own belief of who or what God is. To each his own. I have not believed in God at times in my life...and now do. My God is very loving...no fear of the life after. Love...Faith...and Strength in life.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:40 am |
  16. Joel

    You say John there is no god, your a fool!. God is love and God does exist.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:40 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Ask him to help you out with punctuation and grammar.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • Question Everything

      "You're a fool" But thanks for supplying empirical evidence for such a massive claim. The ultimate trump card, "god did it"

      January 29, 2012 at 11:49 am |
  17. Megan

    Wonderful article, thank you!

    January 29, 2012 at 11:38 am |
  18. David

    At least talking about family isn't a complete waste of time. Talking about something that is real, not wasting a dying person's last breath talking about the fairy tales of "God", Jeebus, Allah, Krishna, Odin, Zeus, Vishnu, Ishtar, Osiris, or whomever else.

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

      Again atheist – go somewhere else. No one cares about what you think and your failed agenda.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Wrong, oh, pompous one. I care; speak for yourself.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:49 am |
    • toadears

      Pssst... tom tom is a child. You are arguing with a person who is between the ages of 12 -21, regardless of what it might say on his birth certificate. Read his responses. Infantile and baiting you to argue. Don't feed the trolls.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      What is your problem, toad ears? My response was to the original poster.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
  19. Ed in Sidney

    I found the story very sincere and touching. Having witnessed the death of my own dad, killed while falling off an extension ladder and having a large oak tree land across his mid section, bounce onto his chest, then bounce across his temple as it came to rest, he was gone. Having been raised through the era of "spare the rod spoil the child", I guess I'm not spoiled. But there is a lot of truth in this article, we must forgive in order to understand the love that prevailed in our later years.

    Over the years I have witnessed various christian views, the theologian differences, the commercialization and emphasis of money in the local church over that of worship or faith, it is understandable why so many in our culture have fallen away from the morals and values that once made this nation great. Regardless of your views, I still have my personal faith, you may condemn me as simple minded or living in a fantasy world, but having witnessed first hand good triumphing over evil, I shall leave you to decide your own journey in life.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:37 am |
  20. Mari

    In a nut shell this article said it all. Life, family, love, pain, redemption, forgiveness and happiness, all of this is GOD. You do not need to blindly follow a priest or a church for the answers on what GOD is, just live and pay attention, it is all around us. It is what it is it's that simple, God is everywhere.

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

      You mean that the very notion of a god is more of a concept than a tangible, living being?

      Couldn't agree more.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:38 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.