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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. Columbia

    I'm an atheist, but this article is excellent. Love is what's important.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:58 am |
  2. David B

    A chaplain who doesn't talk about God?

    January 29, 2012 at 11:58 am |
    • Steven Capsuto

      That's not what she said.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:22 pm |
  3. Petra

    I hope I will not get this person as my "chaplain" when I go home! He actually said it: If I were a better chaplain maybe I could talk about God. God is a very real being! When I read the comments I am so sad that people do not know Him! How can you go through life and taking everything for granted?? The earth, the air, nature, life – what, all a big coincedence?? No, when I die, I want to hear that I am going home! That I will be coming face to face with the almighty God that created me and you (even if you do not believe it) and we all will face His judgement as well. As the bible tells us – one day every knee will bow. Only if you think that God is not real and refuse Him now – I am worried about your eternal life. Hell is a very real place as well! Please I beg you – read books from former ateists – like Lee Strobel – if the bible does not speak to you now, maybe it will after reading what this man has to say. Google him and "the case for Christ" – then pick up the bible and let God speak to you. What do you have to lose?? Eternity – where will you spend it?? I will pray for you.- and I will pray for that Chaplain that he may find the true reason why he is a chaplain! He has the opportunity (maybe the very LAST opportunity to bring people to Chirst! If you are a chaplain and do not do that – please find another job!!

    January 29, 2012 at 11:58 am |
    • Converted

      Read the Gospels... this is exactly what God is about... Loving others. Because when you love others you love God.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      If I engage a painter to paint my house and when he gets there he starts telling me the color I want is wrong and that what I really need is a new roof, he can go pound sand. The chaplain is there to serve MY needs, not yours. If you want a chaplain to talk about God to you, fine. If he doesn't, tell him to leave and send someone else. You don't get to decide for everyone else what a chaplain "should do."

      January 29, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Petra's another dimwit who fails to realize that chaplains are NOT always Christian. There are chaplains of many beliefs.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
  4. lesia

    Very true, people talk about their God, when they are in serious pain, otherwise they talk about their family. They worry more about how their death will affect their loved one, or they tell stories about their families. This chaplain was correct when she answered that question from his professor.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:57 am |
  5. patw2100

    Another example of how liberalism is ruing America. The Bible is the word of God. It is not a bunch of liberal babbling about family.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:57 am |
    • Oh please

      Not getting the point, are we?

      January 29, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
  6. Tom Estill

    Straight Up Kerry,
    My children and I were with my wife when she passed on from cancer. We really didn't speak of God much, but we spoke of family often. At the moment of her death, I whispered in her ear to reach out and take her mother's(who had passed on years earlier) hand, and that I would take good care of the children, and that I loved her very much. It wasn't until after she died that I spent much time thinking of heaven and asking for God to watch over her. And after reading your article, I know my wife would have liked having you by her side at the end.

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

      Tom,
      This is one of the deepest things I have ever read on the internet. Thank you for sharing this with us...

      January 29, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
  7. CanOnTo

    I was interested in this article until I read this: "....people talk to the chaplain about their families because that is how we talk about God." Unbelievable! When people talk about their families, it means they talk about their families. It doesn't mean that they talk about football, God, dinner, shopping, music, angels etc. It's not any secret code that they talk about God. If I order a salad at a restaurant and the waiter brings me lasagna, I will not accept his explanation that in their little twilight restaurant when people order a salad, they actually mean to order lasagna. This is exactly why religious people are having difficulties coming to terms that there is no God – they construct an "evidence" for God because they simply desire to do so; they do so when it is not supported by logic and/or despite logic.

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

      Spot on.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:58 am |
    • Jason

      Nobody knows for certain what happens after death. I think you tell yourself there is no god as a way to bring yourself comfort just like the people who say there is a god.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
    • Converted

      It was on the Belief Blog.... what else did you expect? duh!

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

      @Jason
      And you're telling yourself there is no Zeus why exactly...?

      January 29, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  8. Jeb

    Smart student. Lousy professor.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:56 am |
  9. Roma

    Beautiful article. Love is the foundation for everything. Family love is the greatest love of all. Without it we lose perspective of what life truly is. We lose respect and hope for each other. Lack of love creates wars and hatred. We become numb and lifeless.

    Your article says it all. Thank you for sharing your personal knowledge and beliefs. Love will conquer all.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:56 am |
  10. bob malloy

    Beautiful, concise, moving...and a breath of fresh air! A point of view that provides instant clarity for how we all should strive to live... before we realize we are dying. Thank you!

    January 29, 2012 at 11:56 am |
  11. Brendan

    That professor is a terrible person...

    January 29, 2012 at 11:55 am |
  12. Chris

    On my deathbed I'd make up some elaborate conspiracy confession. Might even lead them on some goose chase. Could be fun.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:55 am |
  13. Walter

    A well written article. Having worked as a firefighter for over thirty years, having worked as a grief counselor for over five years, having experienced lots of pain, suffering and sorrow as a hypnotherapist, to allow those in grieve, to be able to share their feelings and emotions in a non-judgmental atmosphere is huge. Letting those in emotional pain or suffering from traumatic stress able to 'off load' their story is the biggest gift we can give anyone. And, it's in that 'off loading' that many times a opening is made for those suffering to be able to see that they are connected to something bigger than them. And, it's in that connection that allows for a new beginning, a new normal to show up in their lives. Having just watched my father die after a long illness and being bed ridden for more than two months, I witnessed what some might call the 'circle of life' before me. My father and I didn't have what might be called a 'close relationship' early in my life. Through my 'life process', I realized that my father's life was filled with disappointments and pain. As I became older and more experienced in 'life issues', I was able to forgive my father for his misdeeds and become his friend. And, in becoming his friend, I dropped all judgement, all my past pain and replaced it with love and forgiveness. Now, the question I always ask myself in any situation is this: "What would Love/God do?"

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

      Appreciate your comment, and have shared a similar experience.
      I expressed in a euology I wrote for my Dad (below).
      Peace my friend :o)

      "My Dad taught my brothers and I many things in life.
      Two of the most prominent were, “don’t buy what you can’t pay for”, and “whatever you are, whatever you do, be the best at it”. I don’t care if you’re a garbage man he’d say, just make sure you’re the best garbage man in the world.

      Through his example, one of the things he taught us best, was how to hang in there, be tough, and provide for our families. He woke up each and every morning at about 4:30, tired, sick, happy, or sad. Didn’t matter. He got up and went to work; day in and day out, for years.

      You know the media likes to depict heroes as famous people who do famous things. But I’ve always said that no one ever sees the real heroes. That’s because they’re the mothers and fathers that struggle day in and day out to take care of their families. They put aside their personal goals and ambition in life, for those they love. Day in and day out they do it. Some do it quietly some not so quietly. Regardless, most of the world never notices these people. They’re born. They live. And when they die, other than their family and friends, the world never even knows. I’d just like you all to know, that by my standards, my Dad was my hero.

      What I’d really like to tell you about though, is not what my Dad taught me while he was living, but what he taught me while he was dying.

      My wife Sharron and I had the opportunity to spend those last few days with him. Sitting next to him. Holding his hand. Standing over him. Watching him fade. I’m sure more than a few of you are familiar with this painful scenario.

      It’s funny, because a few days before I arrived at the home I had read something. It was something about success. And at the time I read it, I considered it to be quite profound. Little did I know, that it would also turn out to be prophetic.

      It said “There is nothing which you now know, and nothing about what you think you don’t know, that will help you…The key lies only in what you don’t know that you don’t know”.

      Well I really thought I knew what I needed to know to be prepared. And I wasn’t. My Dad had to teach me. The hard way.

      As I sat there listening to the breathing and later the rattling. With feelings of helplessness, ambivalence, guilt. Hoping each breath would be his last. Praying he’d pass quickly, so both his pain and ours would be over. While I stood there, my wife by my side for each and every breath. Staring down at what was once one of the strongest men I ever knew, I had the opportunity to say many things to him. Some verbally, some not. Most of it was about regret. So many things I wanted to undo. So many points in time, I wanted to go back and change things. And although he was incoherent – couldn’t speak. I knew, he too was conveying many things to me.

      I remember it was at one point when I didn’t think I could take it any more. I was standing over him, weeping. Telling him how sorry I was about everything. When I opened my eyes, looked down and saw his right eyebrow move, and a tear in the corner of his left eye.

      And right about then I got this sudden sense that none of this stuff mattered. Not the regret, the anger, the resentment, the sorrow. Nothing. The only thing that mattered, was the love that we shared. Something that would never die. This was followed by a tremendous sense of relief. Like this giant weight had been taken off me. The weight of all that stuff. I had this feeling of absolute peace and happiness, wash over me. And at that very moment, I was never so proud of my Dad, and never loved him more.
      You know since his passing, many people have talked to me, and I never realized just how many have had a similar experience of watching a friend or loved one die.

      Just the other day, a woman I know told me of her Father’s passing. She said that her brother, this big strong guy, broke down at their father’s deathbed, crying. He kept saying “Please don’t go, I’m not ready for you to go”.

      People, not one of us knows when it’s our time to go.

      That’s why I’m here to ask you, whatever problems, whatever disagreements you may have between those close to you; anger, resentment, hurt. Whatever it is that’s eating you up. Don’t waste any more of your precious time on it.
      LET IT GO!
      I know it’s not easy, but you have to let it go. Block it out of your mind, and focus on what’s good, and what’s right. Remember, behind everyone’s eyes, there’s a story.
      Please – Forgive. Forgive. Forgive. Before it’s too late.
      Don’t wait till it’s over, when all that junk just washes away and the only thing left that is real, is love.

      And from Christ I’ve learned. Really learned, the definition of love.
      Love is sacrifice. Sacrificing your time, your desires, your emotions, your feelings. Hatred, jealously, envy. Whatever it is that’s eating you up. Pushing it aside and replacing it with love, compassion, understanding. And if you do this, I really believe, that at some point, maybe not right away, but at some point, the weight of all that junk will taken off of you too, and be replaced by a feeling of peace and happiness.

      I’m here to tell you today, that despite it all, the pain – adversity – hardship.
      It’s all good.
      It’s all okay.
      It’s all right.
      It’s all as it should be.
      “Thy will has been done”

      My Dad’s death, as painful as it is, has brought peace and happiness to both him and me.
      And for that, I am profoundly grateful to him and God.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
  14. Colin

    Who is most likely to think they will live happily ever after they die in a magic place where only good things happen:

    (a) A seven year-old girl who has just read Cinderella;

    (b) a ten year-old boy who has just read Harry Potter;

    (c) a Christian who has just read that collection of Iron Age Palestinean mythology we call the “Bible”; or

    (d) all of the above?

    January 29, 2012 at 11:53 am |
    • Don Camp

      C.

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

      Who fails to understand that our very existence implies a beginning and that Something or Someone started it?

      Colin

      January 29, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
    • yourdumb

      Your an idiot

      January 29, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
    • JohnR

      @Gregorio And that supposedly requisite someone or something implies their own beginning, and, by parity of reason, someone or something that started it, and so on ...

      Believers cry foul when people call them stupid, and then they write stuff like what Gregorio wrote here. It'd be sad if it weren't so damned funny!

      January 29, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
    • Gregorio

      John, you fail to see your own illogic. There HAS to be a beginning whether you like it or not.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Who says that 'beginning', if there is one, was brought about by an invisible being?

      Just because we don't yet know everything about the universe and its origins doesn't mean goddidit.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
    • Gregorio

      CS Lewis was a great thinker from Britain, far smarter than you or I.
      I suggest you read his book, 'Mere Christianity'.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
    • Gregorio

      I believe some of you are not REALLY thinking. Are you telling me that the universe just is and always was!?

      January 29, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Do you often have trouble with reading comprehension, Greggy?

      I repeat: just because we do not yet know how the universe began does not mean goddidit.

      People used to believe that illness was caused by 'bad humors' in the blood, and that the earth was flat and the sun revolved around it.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      And C.S. Lewis is just presenting one opinion among many.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • Gregorio

      Tom, Tom, was Jesus Christ a real person?

      January 29, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
  15. Mi Poo

    I'm sure that dying people who wish to talk want some pompous jerk forcing them to pray. The author's professor clearly had no clue as to how to bring comfort to someone who is dying. His ridicule shows his lack of understanding, compassion, and faith. I'm glad that the author rose above that level of "instruction".

    January 29, 2012 at 11:53 am |
  16. KenG

    It was heartening to learn that in the end, that most people chose to talk about what was was truly important to them...family, rather than wasting the last minutes of their lives discussing the comforting fantasies, but fantasies nonetheless, of god, jesus, heaven, etc.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:53 am |
    • il capo

      Empty. Your heart is empty. But your head itself is full of fantasies. . . . . . . .about reducing yourself to the level of a free-range (you probably also fancy yourself a free-thinker like Wes) animal. You're better than that.

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

      I agree. It is a shame the chaplain needed to add the unnecessary religious interpretation and spin, saying that people who talk about family are talking about a god.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
    • KenG

      I do consider myself a free thinker, but I actually prefer the term agnostic, perhaps even atheist, and I also consider myself little better than a free range animal. Good call on that for you! However, The difference between myself and those who profess to be God's chosen is that I don't delude myself with the anthropocentric nonsense that humans are masters of all other creatures on this planet (as well as all creation), we are merely and momentarily at the top of the food chain. We can be snuffed out by our own avarice or the indifference of the cosmos and no "god" will intervene to save his so-called chosen creation.

      January 29, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
  17. humberto

    Why still attack and mock God, because of some tangible person imposing their criminal will upon you when you were warned of the evil ?

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

      God wears pantyhose! And army boots! And ... and ... sunglasses in bars ... at night!

      January 29, 2012 at 11:56 am |
  18. Eric

    For me, the best opinion piece I've read on this site in a long time. Both relevant and inspiring to be a better parent and a better son, while I still can be.

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

      Well said kind Sir...

      January 29, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  19. sarahmac

    I hope your former professor reads this and is ashamed of himself, like he should be.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:52 am |
  20. Emily

    This is an absolutely beautiful article. Thank you for sharing this and shedding light on what truly matters in our lives: love and family.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:51 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.