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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. humberto

    Poobah .. keep your mouth shut in public too.

    January 29, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Or what?

      January 29, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
  2. QuietChild

    My father died just the other day on January 17th 2012. He was 83 years old and just one week before his 55th wedding anniversary. He died just how Kerry described: reaching out into the air in front of him, staring into the ceiling and calling his mother as if she was right there.

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

      The brain, combined with emotional stimuli and degradation due to age can do some fantastical things in the users final moments.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
  3. RightTurnClyde

    Most of us realize that your family is the most important thing you will do on this earth. They are the only ones who will know you were here or be sad you are gone. With every so many more (billions) we have ever so much less meaning (except to out family). Your co-workers forgot your name two weeks after you stopped working. Clubs don't notice you stopped coming (hey what ever happened to that guy with white hair?) You preacher forgets you when he leaves the cemetery. You can count on one hand who will even know you existed. And it is mostly your family.

    January 29, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
  4. james

    "Rosebud"

    January 29, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
  5. FunkmonG

    Wow, very deep, yet simple. Love should be easy and forgiveness more readily given and available, especially for the ones we love.

    January 29, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
  6. pbck

    Relictus...get off the bullet train to negative town at the next stop! Family isn't so great....look elsewhere...volunteer, put yourself out in society and you'll find your "family". Jesus hung out with the lowest in society and found a loving family of disciples that kings' would have killed for. But it's up to you and you have to make the change and take the first step...prayers for you.

    January 29, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
  7. mike

    The professor was/is an idiot. He'd rather the chaplain spend time reciting empty glorified poems than helping the patient recall their lives and families? This is why I have so little respect for so many so-called religious types. Too many put philosophical bureaucracy ahead of the intended purpose of all that mumbo jumbo: happiness.

    January 29, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
  8. Howard

    God Bless !!
    Listen.
    Listen.
    Listen.
    Hold.

    January 29, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Five, six, seven, eight, and kick, turn, kick, turn...now jazz hands!

      January 29, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
  9. Daisy-Mae

    It's very true. I am a testimony to the fact that a person can be a survivor of child abuse at the hands of an unspeakable parent and yet as an adult (with much therapy) become a loving, caring, giving human being. Even without feeling loved or properly touched in childhood years, the human spirit understands the corruptness of it and seeks to heal itself in future years. To learn how to love properly.

    January 29, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
  10. Michele

    A really beautifully written piece. And those who criticize it for not being about God have really missed the point. God – or whatever you can believe in greater than yourself – is in all of us with the power to love and forgive. Heaven and hell are here on earth.

    January 29, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
  11. Rational

    What a bunch of BS. Another pitch of the religius stablishment that shameless acknowledge the abouse they do on the weak and ill. Their only presence there should be forbiden. If sombody really wants a chaplain or alike, should be their own prerogative. Otherwise is paid by evrybody else, you want it or not.

    January 29, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • Ummmm

      Me thinks you should kearn how to spell, otherwise your post comes across as unintelligent, which it was.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • Rational

      Ok I will "kearn" pretty soon, smart guy!

      January 29, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • Les

      Troll.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
    • RightTurnClyde

      It's your choice. Just have them wheel yo into a mop closet and turn the lights out to save money and let you croak alone in the dark.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
    • Only child

      Perhaps when you aren't busy hating, you could take a bit of time to work on your grammar and communication skills.

      January 29, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
  12. Gary

    My father said "I love you" as his last words, 12 hours before he passed..... the nurse who was there and heard him too told me that was a gift that very few get.....

    January 29, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
  13. alemaporez

    I found the article moving. As for the "according to the mythology you believe" responses, we all have a mythology since no one has any scientific proof of what happens after death to our consciousness. The only one without a mythology is the person who states I don't know. No need to repeatedly insist that one belief system or another is unreal.

    The heart of the matter here was that the writer was validated in their realization that the conversations that they witnessed were about family. They then used that awareness to validate their faith and connection to their god – and while I don't share the same belief system as the author I can understand and appreciate the significance of the dying focusing on their relationships during their life and how they handled loving and being loved.

    I was quite moved by the article and found the information was thought provoking and had me taking a look at my family and seeing how my relationships balance. Thank you.

    January 29, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • Al

      It's not a 'mythology' to assume that once your brain dies all that was your consciousness dies with it, and there is scientific evidence to suggest this.

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

      I disagree that we all have a "mythology".

      The basic conclusion among those who study such things in a rigorous and controlled (intellectually responsible) way is that consciousness is based upon brains. Manipulate a brain and you manipulate thoughts, responses, memories, etc. Observe damage to a brain in a particular area and you observe damage to associated function. Massive damage to a brain results in death.

      The mythological exercise is to leap beyond these observations and conclude that there is some non-physical basis to consciousness. In ancient times we didn't have good observations to ground us in reality. In these modern times, there is no excuse.

      It is true that we all make mental leaps. No knowledge is 100%. But some of us make very small mental leaps BASED on evidence. Others make very LARGE mental leaps IN SPITE of and AGAINST evidence. It is intellectually dishonest to lump both camps into one and claim that we "all" have a "mythology".

      One camp has as high a certainty as can reasonably be expected (though always tentative and never 100% perfect), using methods that are designed to encourage testing and minimize (though not eliminate) error.

      Another camp pulls out faith and calls it "knowledge", skipping those intermediate steps of rational demonstration.

      There IS a difference between the two camps, and if you don't see it, you may want to study the former.

      January 29, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • Iski

      Well genius, by definition dead people would be unconscious. It would be news to me if any scientist measured "consciousness" post-mortem. Near-death studies are about the best we have and anecdotally I think that many people do report "conscious" experience whether that's due to anoxia or otherwise there is no substantial evidence suggesting the absence of "consciousness." I don't know that everyone would agree that "consciousness" is measured via EEG or MRI.

      January 29, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
  14. Brad

    I wish there were a way to contact Kerry directly. This article and her perspective on Faith is refreshing and very moving. I would like the chance to email her directly to share my appreciation.

    I know the trolls and "experts" will rip the article to shreads. That's too bad. Take your ilk somewhere else.

    January 29, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
  15. MATTHEW

    John 13:34-35
    New International Version (NIV)

    34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

    January 29, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • sybaris

      funny, you don't need religion or fairy tales to do that. If you must, the same message is contained in religions that predate the Jesus mans alleged musings

      January 29, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
  16. chacha

    I think the author makes a great point. For me, god is an ideal about how to relate and to love. That ideal cannot exist except in relations to others. I think that Terrance Malk's film "Tree of Life" makes this connection between family and inner belief in an impressionistic, and striking way. If the author has not yet seen the film, I highly recommend she does.

    January 29, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • Al

      But, by "God is an ideal", you don't mean that God is a literal super being, now do you?

      January 29, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
  17. Some words cannot be improved upon

    Somewhere I recall hearing the words: "Love they neighbor as thyself."

    To me that says (among many other things) that when someone is dying, you support them (love them) by LISTENING to them. By talking about what THEY want to talk about! What is IMPORTANT TO THEM at that moment.

    That is the best one can do for ones neighbor in that situation. Know-it-alls are not called for.

    January 29, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
  18. Rog

    While not normally drawn to these type articles I could not stop reading once I began. Your words hit a nerve and seemed to me so insightful. I hope others take away the positive nature of this article, especially the professor.

    January 29, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
  19. Tom

    If Kerry has not already done so, Kerry might want to read Miroslav Volf's book, "Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a World stripped of Grace." As Volf illustrates, "giving and forgiving" are the two primary actions of Jesus Christ. He gives us love, hope, peace, salvation...and the promise of eternal life. Equally important, he shows us the importance and necessity of forgiving (one's own sins, another's trangressions, etc.). These actions are for us to mirror, doing so with family, friends...even our "so called" enemies. By moving from "love" of family to a higher plane, Kerry might find a way to allay the innermost guilt of those she serves while also affirming the source of the love behind the familial love she describes, Jesus Christ.

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

      Wrong

      January 29, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • Al

      So, Jesus "forgives" us for not living up to HIS expectations? How is that valid?

      January 29, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
  20. nestor

    Its good to talk about the family, Somehow the first goal of any chaplain is to try to lead the dying person(If he/she is willing) to face the eternity with confidence. Reconciliation with God. If the person is already reconciled with her or his Creator. To make sure that the person forgives deep in the heart to all who have caused bitterness, including family members.
    Then talk to the person the wonderfull welcome he or she will have. Pray That God lift any pain that drugs arent calming.

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

      Says who? Since when are you the Grand Poobah of the Universe who makes the rules for everyone? If I don't want the chaplain to talk about God, that's my prerogative; it's none of your business.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • humberto

      Reconciled -

      January 29, 2012 at 12:45 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.