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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. Tony

    nytw said, "The Bible is not about love or family." I'm sorry you feel that way, and that you feel the need to unload on "liberals."

    The Bible is ALL about love and family, how we were created out of an act of love by God and are called to love Him and love each other as part of God's family. It's about our repeated failure to live that love, and the love of God that redeems us and makes us whole as a human family. Yes, the Bible is the word of God, and it's entirely about love and family.

    January 29, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
    • Relictus

      I never found love. I read the bible a couple times, but never did I find love. Your God is cruel, and I will not serve a cruel master.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • MikeTheAtheist

      "ALL about love and family?

      Ok that is really pushing it.

      You start with a creative act, true ... followed immediately by a death threat (gen 2:17), followed soon after by the death of the entire planet (except a boat full) by DROWNING. In the same testament, you have genocide ordered multiple times, where this loving god says to leave alive nothing that breathes.

      In the New testament, you have forgiveness. But by what means? Torture and death.

      I'm not even going to touch on the idea of whether these stories are true. But I don't find it remotely possible to read these stories and come away saying the book is all about love and family.

      Keep in mind that this is supposed to be an OMNIPOTENT god, capable of acting in ANY way he chooses. If you wanted to punish your offspring, would you do so by death threat? Genocide? Mass drowning? And if you wanted to forgive somebody, would you do it by having your son tortured to death?

      And would you choose these methods if you were omnipotent and were capable of choosing any OTHER method?

      If you were capable of choosing any other method of punishment and forgiveness, and you chose this kind of barbarism, could you reasonably expect to be considered "loving"?

      January 29, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • Tony

      @MikeTheAtheist, you missed the part of my post about our repeated failures to love and their consequences. And I said the Bible was all about love and family. You know as well as I do the terrible things family members sometimes do to each other and, hopefully, the power of forgiveness – if not, the destructive result of the failure to act in a loving manner.

      January 29, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
  2. Ann Gomes

    What a great story! My hope is that when that professor is passing-on, he has someone like you to listen to him.

    January 29, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
  3. Bugsey

    What a beautiful commentary on the process of dying and what is important in life. Our lives are about love, acceptance and trying to do good. It's not about Canon Law, Religious rules or condemnation. It's all about love for one another, love or our world and acceptance of our nature. I hope someone like this lovely woman will be with me as I pass on.

    January 29, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
  4. Don Camp

    Most of the people I've talked to as they were dying have the issues of faith and hope in God settled. There are few deathbed conversions. They either believe in God's mercy and are at peace or they do not. But they have been concerned about those they are leaving. The whole range of things the author mentioned is on their minds. That is true of those who are dying in hope of God's grace or thinking they are simply going to cease to exist.

    II have, however, talked with a number of people who learned that they had a disease that would soon kill them who were concerned about the future. They wanted to be sure of the love and mercy of God. They wanted to leave this life in peace and hope, not uncertainty. And they, for the most part, either called me and asked to talk or (in my work as a hospital chaplain) brought up the question themselves. I have rarely needed to bring up the faith in God issue.

    January 29, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
  5. jw

    If I were dying I would talk about the ones I loved, but since I love God and would be meeting Him face-to-face soon, I would be talking about Him and rejoicing that I was going to be with Him. It just depends on who you had a relationship with on earth. It is a time to reminisce but also to look forward to the eternal place you will be. It is necessary to not only listen, but to ask if they are certain they will be with God, and if they do not know for sure, to aid them in knowing how to make sure their sins are forgiven. All that listening is wonderful, but it will do them no good if after they die, they find themselves in hell, and you who had a chance to tell them how to avoid it, just sat there, not really caring about their eternal destination, or how you could really give them true peace. "Except a man be born again, he shall not see the Kingdom of God." The death-bed is the last chance to make peace with God. "It is appointed unto man once to die, but after this the judgment." A chaplain's job is to lead people to Jesus Christ and to comfort them in knowing that they will soon be with Him. At least give them a choice whether to believe or not. It is a terrible tragedy if a chaplain is there, and one really wants to know where he or she will be after death, and the chaplain remains silent. The chaplain is disobedient to Jesus' command to go into all the world and preach the good news to every creature. Why be a chaplain unless you are there to do God's will? When my husband was a hospital worker, he would sense the Holy Spirit speak to him about certain patients on their deathbed, and then he would ask them if they knew for certain where they would be after they passed. If they didn't know, he would ask them if they wanted him to pray for them. All said yes, and he would pray with them. They all thanked him gratefully, and many made the decision to put their trust in Christ to forgive all their sins, and made peace with God. The chaplain should at least do this, because it is their job before God to do this.

    January 29, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
  6. Truth

    Peace be to all. God bless :)

    January 29, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
  7. Nanette

    Thank you Kerry for the difficult work that you do. God Bless.

    January 29, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
  8. Vasmikey

    If a person decides to be God-fearing and has a relationship with Him, it would not be an extraordinary thing to be noted at the time of death. There is no such thing as a death-bed conversion. It should be a long-standing part of a person's life that includes one's final moments. What kind of name did they make with God during the course of their life?

    January 29, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
  9. Diane

    The difference between spirituality and religion. Too bad most of the "religious" leaders in this country don't care about spirituality.

    January 29, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
  10. Linda McAllister

    Kerry Egan, you are a gentle and thoughtful soul. I imagine you have brought comfort to many many people who are 'reviewing' their lives as they lay dying.. Jesus was all about the day to day minutiae of life and he talked to people in 'real ' terms, not theological doctrine. How do you love others and God is the greatest commandment and it should be no surprise that as people are going to meet God shortly, they are wondering 'how they did this life?"

    January 29, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  11. Nina B from western North Carolina

    My great big 26 year old son just sent a link to this, with a very loving note that said it had immediately made him think of my father (who passed away in May) and of the rector who was there for all of us, throughout the several months of Daddy's dying. His note said " I just want you to know that I think we all have a good thing going for us and I don't think I'd have it any other way. I love you guys." He understood completely what the author here had to say, enough to want to share it with his mother and brother. Our rector was there to listen to Daddy's ramblings, to listen to our emotional ramblings as well. He was there to offer whatever help, whatever support and love we needed, regardless of religion. Daddy talked to us, with clarity and without, and talked as well to those who had died long ago – his mother and father, his aunt and uncle, old friends. He expressed his unconditional love for me, said that "angels come in all shapes and sizes". This was a time of great sadness, but also a time of exquisite beauty. God was there amongst us, seeing that we all receive the grace that comes from sharing and expressing love. Thank you for writing this lovely article, thank you for publishing it. Thank you.

    January 29, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  12. Nanette

    That Professer was an ASS.

    January 29, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
  13. DeakonPadeakon

    Thank you for a beautiful essay. Your professor was a fool and I suspect the least truly religious person in the lecture hall that day.

    January 29, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
  14. david

    That was a very touching story and it is true. I work in the medical field and I see it all the time. The pain and suffering with the love and emotion. And it does not matter which ethnic or religious background you come from – at the end you are surrounded by loved family members.

    January 29, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  15. JR

    The author is completely, utterly and absolutely right. As someone that worked with the critically ill myself, people talk about the people in their lives. Some do pray. Some have families that pray over them or with them, but the focus is on the human relationships. As to the instructor, I would have to say that he's not spent much time at the bedside of those who are dying.

    It is one of the most spiritual places that I've ever been. I'm not a very religious person in my daily life, but those were some of the most spiritually clear moments that I have had. Tending to someone during death is very much a churchlike experience.

    Thing is, the author should invite that man to be at the bedside and experience it himself. He might be responsible for resultant epiphany...

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

    God is a fantasy. Family is real. When it comes down to it and our time is up, it is telling that we reflect on what is real and not some societal delusion called religion.

    January 29, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
    • Nanette

      GOD may be a fantasy to you, but for many...for most, He is very much real.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
    • santaclaus

      True that!

      January 29, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
    • Tooth Fairy

      There is no Santa Claus.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
    • Janice

      God is not a fantasy!! God is real!! It is because of Him that we have family and the Love that comes with it.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • Tooth Fairy

      Atheists don't have families? Alert the media! Any atheists claiming to have families they love are lying.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
  17. Doug Philips

    This article demonstrates what I've said for a long time; people really don't BELIEVE what they think they believe with regards to gods. Their beliefs are habit instilled from a santa claus-like introduction at birth that basically goes unquestioned and unexamined for their entire lives. That's why their minds are focused on what real and important to them as they approach death , instead of some imaginary sky daddy that their subconscious never really bought into.

    January 29, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
  18. egheaded

    That professor sounds like a jerk. Good thing Kerry Egan didn't get too discouraged by his snobbery. Sounds like she's done a lot of good.

    January 29, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
  19. UniversalTruth

    When I was younger I was very curious about what made successful people tick, so to speak, especially self-made people. What I struck by the fact that they were more interested in talking about their families, their kids, their lives. They didn't talk about business or their successes. When they did talk about business it was more the people they got to work with, more than the accomplishments. After realizing this pattern, i focused less on "success" and instead pursued things I enjoyed and made sure I had time for my wife and kids. I know I am a happier person. This story reminded me of this.

    I have studied business, engineering, and have a degree in evolution. I believe in science as much as I believe in God. All of my experiences strengthens my faith in God; Just because someone wants to talk about their family doesn't mean their is no God. Our capacity to know God also allows us to love others and call out "Mama" when we are dying.

    January 29, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
  20. Carol Pierpont

    Thank-you Kerry Egan for a beautifully written testimonial to human love and our capacity for it.

    January 29, 2012 at 12:11 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.