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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. Cy

    Kerry, thank you for such a wonderful article. I have always been scared of death – not knowing whats waiting for me on the other side. I wish I could have someone like you by my side when its my time. I know my wife will be there to help me cross over and after reading this, I think it's not so bad to be next!! Thank you and god bless.

    January 29, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
  2. chrism

    Kerry seems not to have considered that it is things about her why people don't talk with her more about God. Perhaps it has to do with her own beliefs and the way she comes across. As a Eucharistic minister bringing communion to people in nursing homes, I encountered many people who would pray with me and certainly not mind hearing about God. Of course the two are not mutually exclusive. Kerry is right God is love and of course people experience God in loving others. But she and the article seem to ignore that people would acknowledge that. People do not mind openly acknowledging and thanking God.

    January 29, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Some of them do and some of them don't. You are making generalizations about people you don't know and will never meet. That's the point. It isn't all about you OR the chaplain in the story. It IS all about the person who is doing the dying.

      January 29, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • chrism

      I agree people are different and I agree with Kerry if I were a chaplain I'd most certainly listen to the person and try to minister to them as best I could where they are. I didn't say all people. I think Kerry is over generalizing in the first place to say people don't want to talk about God, so as I said it may be some to do with her and in my experience many are very open to praying and talking about God. In my experience it is most people.

      January 29, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
  3. Royalcolin

    If we are true believers of God and we have to ensure that what we have been believing has been the Truth as ordained by God and have been doing good we will see at the time of death Heaven the place we are going to, So when we see heaven our worldly posessions like family,wealth etc go into oblivion and we are not concerned the least about them since what we are now going into will dazzle us so much. But to reach this position we have to research and be convinced what we believe is the real Truth so thats what matters.

    January 29, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
  4. Ron Carter

    Kerry:

    Your article was the first thing I read this Sunday morning before going to church and I wanted to extend a special "THANKS" not only for the support you provide to those who actually need it most but also for your wonderful message for those family members who think they need to hear and understand it the least. The words "FAMILY", "LOVE", "FORGIVENESS" and "GOD" take on new meaning as a result of your insight into what should be extremely important for all of us to accomplish while we are living and then have a totally positive memory of the most important aspects of life before we die.

    January 29, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
  5. Andrew

    Thank you for this wisdom Kerry. I can see the heart of God in your work. Blessings :-)

    January 29, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
  6. Rev. Scott

    Kerry Egan observed something as a divinity school student that escaped her divinity school professor...that at or near the moment of truth\death, up to a lifetime of religious dogma evaporates, and only reality remains.  Ms. Egan learned what is available to be learned well before the moment of truth\death, and I highly recommend learning it early.  It would be nice for her dogma-immersed  professor to eventually arrive at what his student came to know so early in her life, that knowledge is gained from living life, and that knowledge can be more true right now than the human writings on the topic that only go back at most  5,000 years.  And there is so much more to come to know beyond Ms. Egan's article. Living life leads to the true meaning of existence, which is living life to the fullest and being happy doing it.

    January 29, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
  7. JT

    You really should start your sentence with "According to the mythology I believe, ".

    January 29, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • t3chsupport

      It's implied by the giant BELIEF header at the top.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
  8. L Parker

    This is so very true, I was with my Father when he passed, and it was the most precious thing I have ever witnessed. We all talked about family, and all of the family talked about my Papa. I hope that this professor has someone with him when he passes and shows him what you were talking about. I will pray for him. Thank you Kerry.

    January 29, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
  9. Tom - Canada

    Hi Kerry:

    Thank you for your article. I actually agree with what you have to say about the discussion of the topic of family, love and forgiveness with your dying patients. However, you have totally missed the point of your professor when he asked you "do you talk about God with them?” What he meant – and what you so greatly miss is that a demonstration of love and forgiveness without showing God's great love towards them (and all human race) through the cross of Calvary, with Jesus being nailed on it for the forgiveness of human sin is absolutely worth nothing and nor is salvific. You are either intentionally or ignorantly – both then and now, i.e., 13 years later – are depriving those patients whom whom God of love is putting in your path to use your divinity school knowledge and your biblical faith experience to guide the path of that talk towards the absolute truth related to the love of God – i.e. true love which stems from God by giving his only Son for whoever to choose to believe on him to have "everlasting life" by having his/her sins forgiven. In fact, by failing to do so, you become a culprit by not probing their minds to make sure that whether they are aware of this biblical truth and hence being perished and away from that everlasting love for eternity – and for this very reason and negligence or misguidance, you will be responsible and accountable when you meet with your creator God of love whom he also loved you so much that if you were the only person living on the face of this earth and planet, still he would have come and died for you and the forgiveness of your since and loving you unconditional. But the key is to respond positively for this great unconditional sacrifice and demonstration of such a great love by God himself – the author of love and forgiveness – through his Son Jesus Christ. Further, you are failing demonstrate this love for those who mention in your article that have never experience that love. I urge you to think about his…

    Blessings,

    Tom – Canada

    January 29, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • t3chsupport

      People who want a chaplain when they die already have an idea of where they're going, and how to get there. That's why they have the chaplain. If they don't want someone giving them a religious lecture while they're trying to die, they should not have a religious lecture shoved down their throats. That is the opposite of compassion. If you really trusted in your god, you'd trust more in your god.

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

      I think Kerry gets it, totally.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
    • Charles

      Tom, what you are saying,I think,is that the writer should (must?) think like YOU do. Sad.It seems to me that she is more of a spiritual person,than a religios one.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • Bob

      So well put. The reason people don't talk about Jesus is usually because they don't know Jesus, don't have a relationship with their Creator, their Father, their Savior. Its easier to say nothing I guess. The walls do the same. But is that going to help these ignorant people get into Heaven? Is there anything more important in your life than where are you going to spend eternity? The time here on Earth is miniscule compared to eternity if you can appreciate the most fundamental mathematics. That's the challenge of life: To see if we can see beyond the world around us, up to our Father with faith, with humility, with trust and patience, seeking wisdom, and imparting it on everyone who will listen. Most will not, but that's OK. Its exemplified in the sowing of the seed parable. Sow your seed believers. And set a good example of a Christian. We learn by example. Remember the example of the mirror in James. :) We haven't changed much since those words were inspired by God and written down 2000 years ago. If we had changed it wouldn't be fair to those before us. God is fair. We can't understand the world but He is fair. He knows what we would do given the situation. How people will be treated in Heaven that haven't had a chance to live long on Earth, we don't know. But our Father is a fair and just God who wishes us all to seek his comfort, peace, serenity, guidance and spiritual abundance and who demonstrated sacrifice by sending His son Jesus who endured great pain and suffering so we could be free indeed. Because of your spirit isn't free, you're just in an invisible, restrictive cage. Forgiveness frees you from past sins. That allows you to stride forward in assertive Grace. Its a perfect system if only we would embrace and learn it. Shalom.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • Al

      If I were dying soon, the last thing I would want hear is a sermon by Tom or anyone else. The person is about to die. Let them use THEIR short amount of time as they wish.

      January 29, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
  10. Relictus

    Great, "Life is all about family". Well, the family that I was born into isn't that great. I cannot start a family of my own because I have never known either romantic or unconditional love – not ever. So, basically, my life has no meaning at all. I am 45 and my life is worthless. Thanks, BeliefNet.

    January 29, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • Steven Capsuto

      The author of the article defines family broadly as including "the families we make through the people we choose as friends." You don't get to choose your birth family, but that's not the only source of love in this world.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      Feel free to join a religious cult. You will have all the friends you want, real and imaginary, to love you as much as you like, and to there when you die.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • t3chsupport

      I guess there's always 'regular' god...
      ... or counseling.

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

      Sorry, but you can make a difference in someone life. Go down to your local food bank or homeless shelter. As you serve others you will find the love and family you are searching for.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
  11. Steven Capsuto

    What a beautiful, inspiring essay! It reinforces that, in the end, what is important to most of us is those we care about. It's worth keeping that in perspective as we live our day-to-day lives. It's so easy and tempting to get side-tracked by other things (working longer hours than necessary, seeking possessions or status, etc.) and not spend enough time with the people we love.

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

      I do not have people that I love in my life. This article is a cruel reminder.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
  12. Chris

    Wow Ms. Egan, just WOW. :)

    January 29, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
  13. GetReal

    Your snooty professor obviously didn't realize how much courage it takes to talk to dying people. Just being there helps them.

    January 29, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
  14. toadears

    I am surprised at the amount of derision and down right hatred directed at believers in God here based on nothing but media influenced bigotry. Enjoy it while you can. If Islam is successful in taking over the world, which is their self-proclaimed purpose, all this open dialogue will cease. If you were to criticize their religious beliefs as you have your own countrymen, you would be a candidate for execution. So enjoy the freedoms fought for by your country's forefathers, many of whom were Christians. The time clock is ticking against your rights to free speech, bigoted and angry though it may be.

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

      Blah, blah, blah y blah.

      Toady, if you don't like it here, you can leave. Or scroll on by the posts you find upsetting. Don't you have some hungry people to feed? Some homeless to shelter?

      January 29, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • Steven Capsuto

      I find that the affability or hostility of atheists to believers is usually a function of how much prejudice, harassment, oppression or outright hatred that atheist has experienced at the hands people of faith. This is a two-way street.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • awasis

      Get a grip and stop the "oh poor us religious folks always being persecuted". Some people and their “I'm a victim mentality”. Got news for you, Christianity is the largest religion in the world, so please spare us the complaints of how you're endangered.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
    • tbeareair

      I do not hate God, I have complete faith in God BUT God is not into Religion because Religion is man made and twisted and distorted to suit their own agenda. I only trust God, not anyone who claims they know what God has in store for you as long as you follow THEIR plan or way of believing, the true path to God is spiritual and not Religious. Many books written for Religion actually touch on the subject which is Love and being NON JUDGMENTAL because there can be no human that can tell me they know exactly what God is only my faith and love towards myself and my fellow Humans is an expression of his love not the intolerance or hatred that is spewed out in the name of God, God is ABOVE all of that CRAP PERIOD.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
  15. Leslie Holben

    Beautiful article, Kerry! Keep up the important work!
    Leslie W&L 95

    January 29, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
  16. Question Everything

    Like Jennie's comment. This myth irritates atheists, because it tries to make a virtue out of preying on people’s weaknesses in order to sell them a lie. If you heard a marketer brag that he targets people who’ve been diagnosed with terminal illnesses because they’re easier targets, or a guy say he likes to cruise funerals because grieving women are easier to pick up, you’d think that person had no morals at all. But targeting people in moments of weakness to sell them religion is regarded as a normal and even virtuous strategy for proselytizing. It is incredibly sad and for some reason christians have not figured it out yet, even worse, they accept it.

    January 29, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
    • CNN Rubbish

      A comment failing to examine intent.
      Makes me question your intent.

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

      Sell them a lie...now praying for dying people is trying to sell them a lie??????? well, allah ackbar, Yanks. I'm moving to a country with an atheist president soon where I can practice my religion without being exposed to so many vicious bigots.

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

      What harm is there ?

      January 29, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • Jeff

      atheists are nothing more than people who have nothing better to do, other than try to annoy people, trying to make everyone live in an atheists world. I believe in God and i'm offend that atheists are trying to tell me that i'm wrong, that my family is wrong. atheists needs to back-off leave people be and focus on making the world safer and a less of a time try to changes peoples minds about God.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      There's plenty of harm, not to mention an utter lack of respect, hummy. Why should any dying person be subjected to some bozo prattling on about his belief when the dying person wants to talk? Why don't you get that?

      January 29, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • humberto

      I should have expounded, about asking what harm there is, the only harm is from man and his free will, as God hasn't judged yet, only tested.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      I don't want to change anyone's mind about God. I just don't want you telling me that what you believe should be the basis of the laws of this country or that I must do as you think is "God's will." And that includes insisting that a chaplain "must" inform me that I'm going to burn in some lake of fire as I'm dying.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
  17. Ray Yule

    At 65 and healthy. I confirm you experience as only true love is family - not an abstract figure.

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

      Gee. So I have no hope of true love ever. My family loves very conditionally, and I will never start my own family. If anyone wonders why I hate God so much, this would be Exhibit A. I get to go through life alone – like the prisoners in Pelican Bay, except that I get to walk around. Thrills.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • Brittney

      :Hi Prep News Crew!I can’t believe the iorpmvement you guys have shown since your last news report.The backgrounds are very interesting. Where did you film your report?I thought that the host used a very clear speaking voice. In fact, everybody spoke at a good, clear pace.Perhaps next time everybody could make their voices just a bit louder.What a great effort. Keep it up.From Mr KT in the MLU. Hi There Mr KT,Thank you for leaving us a comment and asking us a question. We film the news report in the TV studio. It is very close to our classroom. Thanks for the idea of making our voices a little bit louder and next time we will make our voices a little bit louder just for you!!!Thanks again for leaving a comment and a question. We hope you enjoy our answer.Love From Isabella in Prep H.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:45 am |
  18. FineMusicSaves

    Lovely article. Ms. Egan, you are a far better theologian than that professor who mocked you. I'm glad you did not let him discourage you.

    My experience with my parents confirms what you say.

    ....Now that my ladder's gone,
    I must lie down where all the ladders start
    In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

    - William Butler Yeats, "The Circus Animals' Desertion"

    January 29, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
  19. tnmtl

    I find the conlusions drawn by the author sophmoric and juvenile. It seems like she is desparately trying to force the dying's last words to be about God, even though they are not, because after all they MUST be about God. If this makes someone happy, great, but I was expecting a little more depth and honesty from the article.

    January 29, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
    • JT

      What it really sounds like is that she is saying that love IS God and that God is love. As long as she's not telling these patients that they'd better find Jesus before taking their last breath or burn for eternity then I guess no harm done.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • t3chsupport

      Sounds more like you need to actually read the article.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • Soul mate

      I believe in what she says, it is true!! I just lost my soul mate this last Monday, he told me "I will love you forever" in a text message I was the last one he talked to...he wasn't sick he just died @ 49 :( The strange thing is he believed in God, but also he believed in true love!! My Aunt who was old @ 93 when I asked her about her life what did she want to talk about on her death bed, she talked about her love! Not about God, it's a given we know that in our heart and soul!! It's the ones we leave behind we worry about, what we should of done,could of done!! Thanks for putting this in the paper I feel better :)

      January 29, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
  20. Jennie

    When we are in dying stage, we will be shown if we go to heaven or hell in the next lfe. Also satan will come to you and want you to join him and he will resemble himself like your mom or dad. It is the last attempt of satan to lead you from the true path and most often they succeed.

    January 29, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
    • humberto

      You were born on that path.

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

      What is the ratio of Satan's successful attempts? Got any stats on that? I would like to see a pie chart and your source.

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

      You really should've started your sentence with "According to the mythology I believe, ".

      January 29, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
    • scott

      And you would know this, how?

      January 29, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
    • t3chsupport

      I once stole a unicorn from the Pentagon and used its laser eyes to shoot down Al Qaeda, who all burst into a colorful burst of heart shaped confetti.

      Prove I didn't.

      Also, why would your god allow something like that, unless... oh.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
    • Relictus

      I already know that I am going to Hell. There is no love for me here, why would I expect anything different after death?

      January 29, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
    • Mike

      Gosh I hope God's not like that. I hope that's not what life is all about. What a waste of a miracle, otherwise. I seriously question the credibility, and particularly the motives, of anyone who tells me specifically what God, Satan, or the afterlife are about, as though they alone are the sole keepers of that secret knowledge...

      January 29, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • Steven Capsuto

      "Most often they succeed"? You know this how, exactly? Are you communing with spirits or something, 'cause I'm pretty sure your religion considers that a no-no.

      January 29, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      @Steve– ;D

      January 29, 2012 at 1:31 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.