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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. Atheism is NOT healthy for our children and living things

    Prayer changes...

    January 29, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
  2. rusty

    Why are non-belivers so angry? Why lash our at someone for their belief? Since the begining of time Man has always believed in God, The fact is that God reveals himself to each of us, and either you accept or reject him. Either way, he is there and cares for you, and your denial of his existence does not change anything for anyone other than you. Relax and remember, "the greatest of these is LOVE!"

    January 29, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
    • AtheistSteve

      Since the beginning of time man didn't exist, but since mankind emerged he has struggled to make sense of his surroundings through the creation of many many gods. Only very recently has the belief in the god of Abraham overwhelmed all the other gods of old. Call it successful propaganda. There is no more reason to believe in that god than any of the other gods created by men.

      January 29, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
    • Steven Capsuto

      "Since the begining of time Man has always believed in God." Actually, towards the beginning humans believed in multiple gods and in human sacrifice. Are you really advocating an "older-is-better" approach to belief? In any case, the existence of many millions of atheists and agnostics, now and in the past, disproves your generalization.

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

      "Non-believers" can sometimes be angry when fervent believers believe so very fervently that they insist everybody ELSE believe as fervently as THEY do, and then they want our government to enforce that fervent belief by making our kids pray in schools to your concept of a god. That is where the anger comes from.

      January 29, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
    • Ron

      I am not angry, just confused at how otherwise functioning intelligent people who long ago realized there is no Santa Claus, could somehow never get over the fact that religion is also a big fairy tale designed to control the masses. Put the fear of God into them so they won't misbehave. It was written by people who had ZERO science. People who BELIEVED that the world was flat.
      Otherwise intelligent people should not be so stupid. Some look at "other" religions as foolish, but wholeheartedly believe in their own, when it is JUST as foolish. Scientology? Mormons? COME ON. Religion is also responsible for more deaths by violence than ANYTHING.

      January 29, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
  3. Agnostic

    FUUUUUUUUCK ALL DIRTY J.E.W.S!!!!

    January 29, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
    • Susanna

      Ha ha ha...isn't that cute...someone pretending to be an agnostic saying bad things to make it look like agnostics are bad people. Lame.

      January 29, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
  4. Mahesh

    There is definitely God. If you think of God as the sum total of all knowledge in this universe that we do not know yet, that is God. Has any human seen God, no! But by having faith and humility that this is an interesting world and there is so much out there, you expand the circle/sphere of knowledge for all mankind. You will also recognize that all things around you are expressions of God and you will see God in everything around you.

    January 29, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • kateslate

      IYour post is your opinion and interpretation. Other people might come to different conclusions based on their own life experiences.

      January 29, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • Ron

      That is idiotic

      January 29, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • George

      You believe in Santa Claus too? Easter Bunny? You should! Your parents told you to when you were little. And MANY little kids still believe in them. Christian kids. And they have proof too. They go to bed, and next day, while EVERYONE was sleeping, Santa came by, ate the cookies, drank the milk, and left them tons of toys... Proof! Proof? Yeah, Keep telling yourself that. Blind faith will make the world blind.

      January 29, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
  5. Jim Mc

    "There is no god. There is no heaven. Try to enjoy your life and your family."

    Again like the crazy Jehovah witnesses, some people inject their absolute beliefs on eternity.

    I'm 100% certain the I'm not 100% certain on anything.

    January 29, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
    • JD

      that was awesome....the only one on here I agree with...

      January 29, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
  6. steve`

    to all those who don't believe in a creator, i would venture when each of your are on your deathbed, I bet you will al "reconsider"!

    January 29, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
    • rick

      i would wager that those that see the creator as a judgmental being would be more fearful of death than those who don't

      January 29, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
    • Ariko (&) Sofia

      Ya I agree... so it will be better for us to consider it right now. I wont be late ! :)

      January 29, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      If I have to fear some being on my deathbed, why would I want to worship him? If such a being is so vengeful, what point is there in attempting to appease him?

      January 29, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
    • Steven Capsuto

      The atheists I know remained atheists to the end. I've also known people who renounced their faith shortly before their deaths. So although such conversions work both ways, I don't think your bet is as safe as you think.

      January 29, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • hmmmm

      I will feel a sense of accomplishment knowing that I overcame a fear based idea of god as a personality in outer space. This is purely insane, and I feel lucky to have realized that it is not true and is built out of fear. I left the christian system, a truly sick system of religion. If you look at society it is apparent that the closed mindedness and fickleness which people subscribe to in order to make their families accept them – is fear.

      You beleive it because your parents did and you were too lazy to seek real truth. This will be what is going through the head of intelligent christians on their death beds. Buddhism is much more intelligent.

      Christianity is only saved because people are inherently good even when they lie to themselves.

      January 29, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  7. brian

    Dear Kerry

    Your experiences with death coupled with your faith touches my heart. The main points you make about Love and Forgiveness manifesting with in are families is truth. For many; Love is the hardest lesson to learn in a world filled with hate and greediness.

    Thanks for the reminder kind lady.. I do believe there is still hope for us yet, demonstrated by your insights… Ps 63:3 Because your loving-kindness is better than life,
    My own lips will commend you.

    January 29, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
  8. ethansdad

    The chaplain's experience is so personal to me. When my grandmother was dying from cancer, I visited her as much as possible before she was gone. She would talk about how much she loved her family and that that type of love could not die. She was a deeply religious person who served as a deaconess in her church but never mentioned God in the end; I think that was assumed. The last time that I saw her, she opened her eyes and talked for some time about my own son and how important it is for family to take care of each other and how blessed she had been. She passed several years ago now, but when I see my son I often think of her words. He has disabilities and can be a handful but is the greatest thing that has ever happened in my life. In the end all that we have is our family and the love that we gave and received while here.

    January 29, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
  9. Paco Melo

    This is one of those rare reconciliations of our stubborn disconnect of God and the human condition.

    January 29, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
  10. MATTHEW

    There are those who think that the Christian religion is what we should smile at rather than hold fast, for this reason, that, in it, not what may be seen, is shown, but men are commanded faith of things which are not seen. We therefore, that we may refute these, who seem to themselves through prudence to be unwilling to believe what they cannot see, although we are not able to show unto human sight those divine things which we believe, yet do show unto human minds that even those things which are not seen are to be believed. And first they are to be admonished, (whom folly has so made subject to their carnal eyes, as that, whatsoever they see not through them, they think not that they are to believe,) how many things they not only believe but also know, which cannot be seen by such eyes. Which things being without number in our mind itself, (the nature of which mind is incapable of being seen,) not to mention others, the very faith whereby we believe, or the thought whereby we know that we either believe any thing, or believe not, being as it is altogether alien from the sight of those eyes; what so naked, so clear, what so certain is there to the inner eyes of our minds? How then are we not to believe what we see not with the eyes of the body, whereas, either that we believe, or that we believe not, in a case where we cannot apply the eyes of the body, we without any doubt see?

    January 29, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • MATTHEW

      This tract was thought spurious by some, but is known to be St. Augustine's by his mention of it in Epistle 231 ad Darium Comitem. It seems to have been written after 399, from what is said about Idols, § 10; for in that year Honorius enacted laws against them.— From Bened. Ed.

      January 29, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
    • MATTHEW

      .........anybody got a watch on???....every time you tell time you are saying there is a Christ!!! it is 10:16, 1-29-2012 AD!

      Anno Domini (abbreviated as AD or A.D.) and Before Christ (abbreviated as BC or B.C.) are designations used to label or number years used with the Julian and Gregorian calendars. This calendar era is based on the traditionally reckoned year of the conception or birth of Jesus of Nazareth,

      January 29, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      You need to catch up, Matt. Many historians now use BCE and CE, not BC and AD.

      January 29, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
  11. Buffalo Bill

    Most Professors are idiots. A large % of them dont have any real world experience, just like almost all politicians.

    January 29, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • archmuse

      How odd that after reading such a beautiful article about love your response is to generalize and lash out at professors (many of whom do not fit your suggested profile). I think you may have missed the point. I wish you well.

      January 29, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
  12. Ariko (&) Sofia

    Beautiful articles ... give peace of mind
    Thanks You very much Kerry

    January 29, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
  13. watush

    Cogent, powerful, and moving.

    January 29, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
  14. Mike

    I had no contact with my 'family' for some 20 years, a small family of a brother and a sister. Then thanks to aweful Facebook my niece found me in 2008.........since then I have read daily many emails from my sisters drolling on and on and on about her terrible 2 kids and husband. She cama and stayed for a month in 2009 and 2011 for a month each time, I live otherside of the world to her. She went on and on and on about the same crap she writes daily about......how terrible her husband and kids are.
    I wish I had never been 'found' by them and could be left in peace instead of being told of the dramas in her family which are of no interest at all to me.

    Not all families are wonderful!!!!!!

    January 29, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
  15. Steven Capsuto

    When half the people criticizing an article brand it as atheist propaganda and the other half brand it as theist propaganda, you know it's probably a reasonable, well-written piece. :)

    January 29, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
    • kolbe

      After reading several comments on this, I couldn't help but bust up laughing when I read this. So true, so true...

      January 29, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
  16. Truth

    Peace be to all!

    Jesus is love :)

    January 29, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
  17. MATTHEW

    For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,

    Word/Name
    Hebrew
    Meaning
    "Gift of God"

    January 29, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
  18. EtheBaptist

    The professor simply lied about or misunderstood what she said: she was not the one talking, she was listening… and the people dying, at least THEY should have the right to talk about what they want to :)…
    As far as what the dying are talking about: I think that it all depends on who/how they were while living…if people are not religious while living-if they don’t really have a personal relationship with God-if they don’t believe in Heaven and in going there after dying, then they would certainly not be talking about God/Heaven etc… so it seems to me that the majority of the people this chaplain sees happen to be nonbelievers… they see her out of tradition or just because no one else is there for them… talking about family is basically the default option for everyone…. because we are our family and our family is us!… but if one is also part of God’s family then I assure you, one would be talking about meeting one’s Heavenly Father.

    January 29, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • Cynthia

      One would not necessarily be talking about God near death, even if one is part of God's family. People are not cookie cutters, each death is personal, and God is great enough to forgive a conversation with a chaplain not being about Him.

      January 29, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
    • MikeyZ

      So in a world that's 90%+ theistic, she just happened upon the remaining ten percent?

      If it's all the same to you, I'll take Ms. Egan's conclusions over yours, thank you very much.

      January 29, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • EtheBaptist

      @Cynthia... I agree that God does not care what one says on their death bed.... my point was a different one: if the findings show that people tend to talk about their family before they die, then the people who are part of God’s family (and thus have two families) would definitely be inclined to talk about BOTH of their families, especially as they are about to meet their Heavenly Father who is… GOD! Would you find this meeting trivial?

      January 29, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • EtheBaptist

      @MikeyZ… Nope! If the world was truly as you say, the findings would be different, don’t you think!? Just saying there is a God does not make Him someone’s family… That's the main question here: is He your Father?... if so, you would probably be mentioning Him on your death bed. if not, don't worry about it... :)

      January 29, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
  19. Thing55

    One of the things I find incredibly sad about people in general is their eagerness to pacify themselves with delusions. Why must God be added to the equation? Why not accept the fact that people who were dying merely wanted to express their love or their feelings of melancholy for the lack thereof – and just leave it at that? Why inject things we couldn't possibly know: the existence of a creator, especially one conforming to the dogma of one or another of the competing religions of today? We would be much better off if we all concentrated on making the world a better place for others, including those who will follow us. One can marvel over the beauty of nature and the unknown and one can express love and compassion without arrogantly asserting that we know things we couldn't possibly know.

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

      Well said.

      January 29, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • Memester

      Your comment is a good example of a non-believer not attacking faith based people but expressing the qualities of a non-believer which can be just if not even more noble.

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

      i agree. well said

      January 29, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
  20. Sean Webb

    There is no god. There is no heaven. Try to enjoy your life and your family.

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

      Keelp your delusions to yourself.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • JayJ7

      Well said.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • just sayin

      God and heaven make life and family enjoyable

      January 29, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      There you, justlin'! Where've you been? Looking for the answers to the questions I asked?

      Do you really think that people who don't believe in a God like yours or an afterlife don't have families? That they don't enjoy them?

      Why don't you show some proof for that claim?

      January 29, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
    • Memester

      ^ no just sayin' reality, your family, loved ones, living in the moment does.

      January 29, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • just sayin

      tom go screw yourself you foul mouthed word twisting troll

      January 29, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      And there it is, that wonderful Christian behavior.

      January 29, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • Ariko (&) Sofia

      It wont take to long to us to prove that there is GOD :)
      just say, its only about 70 years of life max for us not to believe it and its OK for God ... the rest o it ... we have to take every thing God have said whwn we meet Him in the next life :)
      May peaceful always come to our heart :)

      January 29, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
    • gailcarlson

      I hear ya bro....people are soooo silly

      January 29, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      I wonder, justlyin', what words you think I 'twisted'. But I'll bet you won't answer. Your screen name is apt. You do a lot of 'saying' but not much else. You want everyone to just take your word that whatever cra p you post is an absolute truth and then you get pi s sy when you're asked for any evidence to support your as sertions.

      Why post if you don't expect to be questioned or challenged on your statements? Or are you just here to show off what a good "Christian" you are? Do you think God reads CNN?

      January 29, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
    • Jim Mc

      He has a right to express his opinion but remember its just one opinion. I have not lived his life so I cannot say why he came to this conclusion. If I lost a child to cancer or I was injured on September 11 attacks I may share his views, but for now I'm living an average life with many good days and a few bad days.

      January 29, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
    • Boman

      Good grief Tom, just shut up. The only one that lis interested in your rant is you.

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

      Yet you found it so compelling you had to write a response!

      BAZINGA!

      January 29, 2012 at 1:38 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.