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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. HotAirAce

    Nice article and I don't think her professor did understand. That being said, I think concluding that people talk about their god(s) by talking about their family is a stretch and a rationalization by a believer to support their own beliefs. Many times things simply are what they are – in this case, people may not be talking about their god(s) because they really do not believe, or they have things more important things to talk about. No religious shaman will have to figure this out when I die as all religious cult leaders would be banned from my room.

    January 29, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
  2. justpasssingthrough

    I hope that professor was eventually shown to be the ignorant, insensitive hack he was and retired in shame living the rest of his life seeking redemption for the damage he did to promising, young divinity school students. On his death bed, I hope he talks about his family...But if he was just as much of a jerk to them as his students, I imagine it will be to lament his lost opportunites and estranged loved ones.

    Nice article.

    January 29, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
  3. sebasten raffal

    Beautiful, loved every word.

    January 29, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
  4. Terry

    Thank you for this beautifully written piece. It has provided insight and comfort for me and my family. Our mother is dying of cancer...

    January 29, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
  5. Maura

    I and my sister had the ultimate blessing of helping our father die at home in our house on November 2 last year. He was a devout Catholic and never once, in the time he was dying, did he ever mention God. I absolutely believe God was with us during his passing but believe firmly what Kerry says about family in this article. We as his family and the family of my father's who had passed, were who he reached out to and talked to in his last 48 hours. Thank you Kerry for confirming a belief that I sometimes doubted since his passing. Love you always, Dad xoxo

    January 29, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
  6. humberto

    I always thought taljung to a person of the cloth was to instill some sort of hope – all these born again Christians see is forgiviness , A right and power their teachers told them they aquired by proclaiming themselves as such- I got news for you, they lied.

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

      oh good i was waiting for your news lol... now go away troll

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

    Dying Christian: God, you gave me cancer. I am only 35 and will leave a grieving wife and two little girls. Why, oh Lord? I have been a good person all my life. My family and I have kept your commandments and attended church every Sunday.

    God: It’s all part of my “grand plan” for you. Your small mind cannot comprehend such matters.

    Dying Christian: But God, I am being robbed of the best years of my life. I think you owe me an explanation. I am truly frightened!

    God: I was moving in mysterious ways.

    Dying Christian: What the hell does that mean?

    God: Well, I kill millions of people with cancer every year. But that’s nothing compared to the millions of children in Africa and Asia I starve to death each year, flies crawling on their faces, because they are too weak to swat them away. Pretty mysterious, hey?

    Dying Christian. I can’t believe what I’m hearing?

    God: Yeah, it’s pretty rare that I speak so frankly. Look, if it makes you feel any better, tell yourself it’s Satan’s work. Satan gave you the cancer (or man, if you prefer).

    Dying Christian: But you’re god!! You can stop Satan.

    God: Ok, you’ve got me there. Look kid, the truth is, I don’t exist. I never have. Wasn’t it obvious to you that you made me when I seemed to love all the same things you do and hate all the same things you do? Haven’t you noticed that those who disapprove of you say I disapprove of you and that those who support you say I support you? Every culture that has ever existed has had its own gods and they all seem to favor that particular culture, its hopes, dreams and prejudices. What, do you think we all exist? If not, why only yours?

    Dying Christian: That’s a shame, because I intended to give you a free pass. To still believe in you despite my misfortune. I have been taught to believe in you and never to question it, and I accepted what they said when they told me it was wrong to doubt.

    God: Well, look at it from my perspective. How long would I last if I positively promoted healthy skepticism, independent thought and rational investigation? You people would see right through me in a minute.

    Dying Christian: Ok. I have to go now. My chemotherapy is really debilitating.

    God: Good luck. I’ll say a prayer for you. Hey – even I need a god sometimes

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

      God gave you free choice, and thats how you used it .

      January 29, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
    • CNN Rubbish

      It is all about you. Does that make you feel better?

      January 29, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
    • Question Everything

      humberto - you do understand that accepting the concept of a god is contradictory to any belief or actuality of "free will". Are you philosophically in tune with why?

      January 29, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
    • john

      Oh man that was awesome. I've tried to explain how ridiculous the idea of God's mysterious secret master plan is, and I always encounter the same response. Something along the lines of, "God just knows so much more than you, you just can't comprehend it." That is a prime example of rationalizing, aka, making things up so you can continue believing what makes you comfortable. You little dialogue was a very effective way of showing how ludicrous some of this religion stuff is.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
    • Ronnie

      Life is better with love. Life is better with hope. Life is better with patience & kindness.
      If you still think cynicism is such a blast, read Marcus Aurelius.
      Life is short, live well.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
    • Eve

      Hahaha I like the analogy, very interesting, but I still believe and love God. I must have God in my life. Otherwise I will be so grumpy and lost.
      May you one day will be shown the true path

      January 29, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • jw

      Hey Colin, if you ever get off your cynical high-horse and read the Bible, you will find that God became a man, Jesus, to heal all our diseases, and destroy sin death and hell. God is doing something about all the destruction of this world, and has a solution–Faith in His Son Jesus Christ will get you forgiveness of all your sins, eternal life in an immortal body, and everything good you could ever imagine, both now and in heaven. Of course you will have to humble yourself and stop being negative enough to give God the benefit of the doubt. Read the Bible and see how much God loves you and everyone and how His plan is already going forth to do away with all that is evil and wrong in this world. But do make sure that you are right with Him, or else you will not get anything good for yourself. My Dad was an outstanding Christian, and died of a rare cancer he got from radiation exposure in the US Army. He looked forward to being with God and didn't complain one bit. Life has a lot of pains and injustices, and God sent His Son to destroy these. Pick which side you are going to be on–His or the complaining, unbelieving, cynical side, which in the end will be everything worse than you can even imagine.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:40 pm |
  8. lance corporal

    I believe god is love, I think we have little ability to understand much beyond that at this point and those who would define and codify god are arrogant fools doing harm in this world, I believe that the absence of love in anything is proof that it doesn't come from god, fire and brimstone does not come from god, unconditional love and acceptance does. the bible was written by man, god writes in your heart, it is more work to find and read the writings of god in your heart but there is no great book, no sermon, nothing of the works of man that can take it's place

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

      Wisdom

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

      Why not just let love be love? Or if you need to link love to something else, how about something plausible: Love is the emotional idealization of the mutual care that members of social species feel for other members of their in group and, as such, is the product of natural selection.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
    • lance corporal

      hi johnR – agreed in that I have no problem with letting love be love, I am not forcing the issue but rather have found the connection thru study and observation, I am using the word god as a convention, finding words....limited or clumsy... or my ability to use them problematic in explaining so we use the word god.... using the semantics of atheism I could say there are unseen components to us we have yet to quantify or understand but that there is indeed more to us than meets the eye and a connectedness that is hard to describe but is like concrete once you are in tune with it

      January 29, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • Johnny Hurst

      The human heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. Who could know it?

      January 30, 2012 at 8:38 pm |
  9. Mo

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful story.

    January 29, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
  10. iris651

    Wise words. Thank you for speaking your truth.

    January 29, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
  11. nytw

    The Bible is not about love or family. It is about the word of God. Liberals like this make me sick. How can this woman possible call herself a minister when she does not believe in the word of God.

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

      very forgiving Christian you are sir.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
    • lance corporal

      you have missed god in your heart you are to be pitied for your hate

      January 29, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
    • do i really need to say

      you sound like a dumb overweight or maybe ur a mexican or canadian

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

      Exactly. Liberals are so stupid. What's with all this love talk? Doesn't she realize that Jesus never spoke of forgiveness or love or any of that hippie bs? Fire and brimstone baby.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
    • Andrew G.

      The Bible is not about love? You're joking right? You clearly have never opened a bible.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
    • nc

      If the bottom line were the bible, you'd have been born with a bible in your chest, instead of a heart. Looks like your work is cut out for you to find it....

      January 29, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
    • 1

      The bible is not about love? Really?

      January 29, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
    • MikeTheAtheist

      I can see how it could make you sick. What she is saying, from her own real experience, is that life is not about the Bible.

      I think she is most definitely showing her tendencies as a chaplain, though. She starts with a reality of people talking about family, and adds spin so it becomes talking about god.

      The truth, which you don't like, is that when people are at the end and are talking about the most important things, their families matter, and their Bibles do not.

      If only more people could live the preceding years of their lives with such excellent priorities.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
    • Andrew

      nytw:

      I'm not American, so I dont really understand your myopic and distorted political views, and how irrelevant that is to the heart of God. What I do understand is that if you take the words of Jesus (the person in the Bible whom your supposed to act like) John 21:15-17 Jesus gives direct orders on how to act. You may even call it a commandment. From what I just read, Kerry Egan is doing just that. How can you claim to be a follower or Christ and judge this author like that? You take something that is beautiful and holy, and twist it, distort it, and use political words like "liberals". Jesus also has words for people like you. Read Matthew 23:33.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • MATTHEW

      CHRIST is all about love! His disciples will tell you about that!!

      January 29, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • Sean Webb

      There is no god. There is no word of god. If I was dying I would want to speak to a chaplain about anything. Why would I want some stranger at my bed while I am dying if they can't prevent it?

      January 29, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
  12. FREEDOM

    I know I will be praying.... if God gives me a chance......, personally I think you will be praying too......as far as family goes take care of that now while you have the chance....You can start by saying a prayer for yourself....May peace enter your mind body and sprit and show you the way.

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

      You should change your handle to "Freedom to chain yourself in irrational fear".

      January 29, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
  13. candycane

    Kerry "gets it". At a very young age she has already received the Spirit's calling, and knows exactly what life is all about. Thank you Kerry, for such an awe inspiring article. We come from God, and we go home to God. And God's love is Universal. Religion is "chosen", but God's love lasts forever!!

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

    I wonder how many dying in a hospital told their families that they wished they would have spent more time in the office. Interesting how the most important things come to mind when we are about to die. sigh.

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

      I would tell them: "If you never laughed with me, don't you dare cry for me. Life is to be lived, not waited out."

      January 29, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
  15. Allen

    It could be that in that situation, the dying choose to admit the nonsense of religion by speaking of their family. Faced with the reality of death, people choose to waste no further time talking about something they know deep inside is and has always been a folly of human existence.

    January 29, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
  16. E

    Glad to see the author was not deterred from her path by a callous so-called 'religious' man. She truly understands what love and comfort mean. As an atheist, I would most willingly have this woman of compassion at my death bed. I admire her faith and what she does for the dying is a true gift.

    January 29, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
  17. Aaron

    Thank you for the excellent article. It really helps put the ups and downs of life into real perspective.

    January 29, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
  18. Karen

    A beautiful story. I enjoyed that...I don't believe in gf, but do believe in love and forgiveness.

    January 29, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
  19. humberto

    Their not supposed to betray the trust of the dying, the dying could have held a press confrence if they wanted to do that.

    January 29, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
  20. RonFromNM

    And if I was ever sick and dying, the last person I would want to meet is this moron of a professor who wanted to talk to me about his imaginary friends. If I'm sick and dying, I think what should be talked about is what I wanted to talk about.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:58 am |
    • Jorge Reyes

      I'm with RonFromNM.

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

      And what if the God who made everything, keeping all the planets and stars precisely in their orbits, and creating life anew every day, is obviously not imaginary? You will give an account to Him for your life. He will ask you if you accepted His free offer of pardon for the wrongs you have done. You will say, "No, because I ddin't think you existed." But now, it is too late. You will have to pay for the wrongs you have done. It is His universe, and it is His laws that keep everything going. And it is His laws you violate. and It is His salvation you neglected to accept. And He is the final judge. Think about this, long and hard.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:57 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.