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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 • My Faith

soundoff (4,493 Responses)
  1. shelnil

    Very good article,its true I was attack with acid by an unknown lady,while I was in ICU on my death bed all I could remember is me talking my family but the whole time I was talking about my loved ones I had god in my heart beautiful article it brings back memories and tears to my eyes

    January 29, 2012 at 7:56 am |
  2. Severinus

    Or maybe it is because they care more about real people than about abstract and unprovable ideas...

    January 29, 2012 at 7:56 am |
  3. Tom

    I encourage anyone reading this article to research more into dying words and other people's experience with the dying. This article only proves the writer has very little to no faith in Christ. People who are dying and speak they way she is discribing are people who never searched for God in their lives. My own father knew he was dying and told us he knew Christ was with him the night he died. At his funeral he had an extrodinary large grin on his face. There was no talk of mommy or daddy didn't love me enough. The reality is there are many broken homes and many broken families. If faith is not found more and more will die clinging to the pains of that broken family.
    Everyone is free to accept or reject Jesus Christ, no one should be forced to have faith. Yet, do you want to be on your death bed crying about your parents or have peace you know what's coming next?

    January 29, 2012 at 7:56 am |
    • John G.

      Everyone has their own needs at the endpoint, and it is more appropriate for a chaplain to meet them wherever they are and give them whatever they need, irregardless of their faith. It must be hard enough to die, let the person there to help be full of love and acceptance. If the dying individual wants to talk about Christ so be it, if not so be it.

      January 29, 2012 at 7:59 am |
    • warren

      We will see what happens when you die.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:19 am |
    • Karolyn

      Totally agree, Tom!

      January 29, 2012 at 10:04 am |
  4. MsMello

    Truth is I was an atheist until I started working with people at the end of life. I have sat with many people at the end of life and what they have taught me was the beginning of my spiritual quest. It did not matter what religion they were (if any). I have seen them reach out to the other side. I have heard them describe to me what they see and what they are told by passed loved ones that awaits them. I have had people that had not been able to talk, suddenly able to do so. I have seen eyes that have not focused on anything in a long time become clear and understanding. The end of life process is often a beautiful process filled with love. It is an honor to help someone transition. Great article.

    January 29, 2012 at 7:53 am |
  5. richard

    Thank you for a great article. I'm fighting a personal battle over "work/life balance" and am losing. I really needed this.

    January 29, 2012 at 7:52 am |
  6. Jetacast

    Family and love really is a precious gift, but before we sing Kumbayah to loudly, let's recollect how families often fight over the inheritance ( or spoils ) even before the poor soul dies. My point being we must have our trust in something eternal, that being love in its purist form, God. However, our self will defies non-negotiable commandments.

    January 29, 2012 at 7:51 am |
  7. Maybe Not

    ...and some folks just slip away without the need to unload a lifetime of regret to a complete stranger.

    January 29, 2012 at 7:50 am |
    • Steven Capsuto

      "A lifetime of regret?" How is people discussing their loved ones about "a lifetime of regret"? Maybe that's your experience of family. It certainly isn't mine.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:34 am |
    • Maybe Not

      "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."

      January 30, 2012 at 8:49 am |
  8. James

    The last place I'd expect to hear about anything Divine would be a liberal university classroom. Universities have rejected "religion" outright and as a Christ follower, so have I. It's not ABOUT religion – it's about a relationship. True "religion", according to James 1:27 is to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. It sounds like the subject of this article very much understands the need to serve those who most need service. Thank you for the article.

    January 29, 2012 at 7:48 am |
    • Medic

      Depend on the University that you attend whether or not they talk about religion. Some of our best known prestigious colleges were founded by Christianity. Your statement is moot. I bet you never ever seen someone die on you anyways.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:05 am |
  9. Lori

    If you need proof that there is a God then you don't have faith...

    January 29, 2012 at 7:47 am |
    • scott

      you hit the nail right on the head! Couldnt agree more

      January 29, 2012 at 7:58 am |
    • faith

      This is a statement of the obvious: since there is no proof of god, one could only maintain that god exists by clinging to faith. Why should someone cling to a belief that can never be supported?

      January 29, 2012 at 8:05 am |
  10. Chris

    Thank you for being the incredible human that you are. At my deathbed I would want you by my side, not the pompous professor who shamed you in class. I have been to too many funerals where God was buried and the family left the service feeling colder and more bereft than before, How sad that so many cannot see that the family is where the greatest faith and the most beautiful grace can be found. We are here to love and comfort one another as you said through the worst of times family shows the greatest faith in their actions.

    January 29, 2012 at 7:47 am |
  11. tomcat

    Why do people always have to insert religion into everything? "People talk to the chaplain about their families because that is how we talk about God." Really? Did it ever occur to you that people talk about their families only because that is what is important to them? And you make the leap between this reality and God how? Nowhere does the author say that the dying themselves equate family to God–that is a connection she is making in her head. Don't try to transfer YOUR religious beliefs onto others. If someone actually said "I talk to God through my family" then this article would have some weight, otherwise it's just one author manufacturing–from no evidence–what she wants to believe.

    January 29, 2012 at 7:46 am |
    • warren

      I think you missed the point of the article.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:21 am |
    • Steven Capsuto

      Thank you! To assume that people are talking about their families because "that's how they talk about God" is to arrogantly imagine that one's own beliefs are universal and that everyone sees the world through a theist filter. On the other hand, if a hospital chaplain is going to intrude on my deathbed, I'd like it to be someone like this: a caring person who is willing to talk with dying patients about what is important to them, not what she thinks ought to be important to them.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:44 am |
    • Karolyn

      I actually agree with you, although I am a very strong evangelical Christian. What this article describes is nothing to do with God. Talking about families is just that ...talking about families.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  12. Dan

    As a rabbi and a chaplain, I must agree and applaud you. I find very few patients who want to talk about God at the end, mostly they want to talk about who they were and where they fit in. Is that God? I do not know but it is not my place to steer them somewhere they do not want to go within their last few moments. Professors in ivory towers (in so many disciplines) think they know so much more than they really do.

    January 29, 2012 at 7:46 am |
    • dgkdgk

      Thank you, Rabbi. For your comment, and your service to humanity.

      January 29, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
    • Irisheys

      As a Christian pastor, I absolutely agree with you Rabbi Dan!

      January 30, 2012 at 9:39 pm |
  13. Sarah

    Isn't it interesting, how many of CNN's articles subtly attempt to relax one's stance on the importance of relevance of organized religion? It is noticable and disturbing.

    January 29, 2012 at 7:46 am |
    • Yes

      Organized religion should decrease in relevance....progress.

      January 29, 2012 at 7:56 am |
    • Satan

      Of course! It's all part of my Evil Plan........bwahhahahahahaha!

      January 29, 2012 at 8:08 pm |
  14. Wayne

    I don't see this article as "dismissive of religion". God created this world and put us in it! He gave us all our families and friends. He reveals himself to us thru this world that he created! Jesus said that we should love one another as he has loved us.

    January 29, 2012 at 7:45 am |
    • Mark Taylor

      I don't see it as dismissive either. My note was in response to a couple of postings in this article. People like to take the easy way out I think, they read a book by a guy like Richard Dawkins and that's it, they accept it. It's the easy way out. Pursuit of God – real pursuit – is not something simple as some of those postings imply. On the other hand, unquestioned religion, i.e., religion by habit or generational tradition, isn't really a pursuit of God, it's a tacit acceptance with almost no spiritual benefit.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:03 am |
  15. Mark Taylor

    One cannot find God through scientific method. That is a fool's errand. Richard Dawson and ilk have wrought so much damage on so many without offering a single shred of empirical evidence in their work. One can dismiss the God of the Bible and Koran, or the gods of the Bhagavad Gita or any other specific faith. What you cannot prove is that God is imaginary and make believe. There are thousands upon thousands of scientists that will say the same as I've said. The lead scientist on the Human Genome project, or Theoretical Physicist Paul Davies for example. On the other hand, religion should not be so stubborn as to reject and argue scientific findings, in the end (Galileo is the finest example) it does far more damage that good to any faith. These two things cannot ever really be reconciled; however, when one considers that post-big bang expansion had to happen at precisely the right rate; if the decimal 15th place in the number that represents expansion were off by 1, hydrogen would never have formed from particles. No hydrogen, no fusion and no stars, no stars, no super novae, no super novae, no earth elements and eventually – through evolution – people. That is a pretty miraculous thing. People do not realize what a miracle it is that they are an organization of little strands of energy together have form consciousness and can contemplate their origin, destination and purpose. I'm sorry if you are without this sense of wonder and I hope by some way it comes to you. When you read Dawkins, it's important to question – where's your empirical evidence dude? It's also important to read a contrary point of view. Keep asking the big questions, never assume you've got all the answers because you don't.

    January 29, 2012 at 7:44 am |
    • Mark Taylor

      Correction: Richard Dawkings. Richard Dawson was an actor on Hogan's Heroes and the host of Family Feud – LOL.

      January 29, 2012 at 7:50 am |
    • Mark Taylor

      Correction: Richard Dawkins. Richard Dawson was an actor on Hogan's Heroes and the host of Family Feud – LOL.

      January 29, 2012 at 7:51 am |
    • Mirosal

      I was hoping your "Richard Dawson" was not a typo. I wanted him to come on out, kiss the women, point to the big board, and tell us what the "SURVEY SAYS ....!!!" :)

      January 29, 2012 at 8:11 am |
    • md2205

      Of course, it is impossible to create a full, complete and satisfying answer along these lines within the short space cnn gives a blogger to post, as longer answers do not get posted, but there are two good websites which explore topics such as what Mark brings up, which are chabad.org and aish.com.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:28 am |
    • Matt

      Realize Mark that proof is required for the positive case, not the negative one. Your comment is akin to saying "I have faith that there is a teapot orbiting Mars, and you need to prove otherwise." Its a ridiculous use of logic. I could just as soon ask you prove to me that Zeus does not exist, because otherwise he must due to there being lightning in the sky.

      We have already proven that the bible is incorrect on the story of how our world and species came into existence. It seems that some don't want to acknowledge the vast body of data that exists to back the current theories, because it is not aligned with the bronze age mythology that they subscribe to. Tell me again who is not looking at the "empirical evidence"

      Just because we don't yet understand something doesn't mean that "God did it" All it means is that we have more to learn and discover.

      January 29, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
  16. Michael

    Thanks for this article. I cried as I read it. As I read the comments here, I try to skip over those who simply WON'T believe that God is all around us. It's hard to reconcile the idea of a loving Father God with my own father, now gone but never out of my mind. I wished I could have had a better relationship with him and that he had not been so damaged that he couldn't be what I wanted him to be. The hurt I felt all my life as a child has followed me into adulthood, and even though it should be easier to hate him, even to this day I wish he had and that I could have shown him the love that I so needed to give and receive in my life. It's easy to become bitter, but as I move throughout my life, I still yearn for him and how it should have been. I personally believe in God, and believe that ALL THINGS will be made right in the end. When you come to the end of your life and ALL that you want to do is LOVE, then maybe you are 'ready'. I don't know. I know that I miss my father and my mother and my brother, all gone from this world. To those who STILL have time with their families, I pray that you say or do or call or write – open the lines of communication before it is too late in THIS world.

    January 29, 2012 at 7:43 am |
    • JJ

      I have the same feelings toward my mother, but I've come to believe she's not capable of giving love – it has nothing to do with me! I certainly connected with what you said! awareness of the issue is the first step – love to you and yours!

      January 29, 2012 at 7:54 am |
    • Jetacast

      @ JJ. Sometimes people can't say 'I love you' because they were never told that growing up. It's very awkward. That doesn't mean they don't love you dearly.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:01 am |
    • florence

      I cried when I read the articlle too and I hear what you are saying...I learned a long time ago that I would rather forgive and set others free and yet it was when I did that that I discovered I was freed of it...like st francis of Assissi lived so do I want to..I want to be a ligjt to others with God working through me...bless your heart

      January 29, 2012 at 8:06 am |
  17. john Ferro

    Funeral Director maybe, Chaplain absolutely NOT!!

    January 29, 2012 at 7:39 am |
    • Bobby B

      John you have no clue.......

      January 29, 2012 at 7:50 am |
    • Steven Capsuto

      Why? She said she talks with people about faith if that's what they need and want. She said she leads prayer and administers rites and rituals to people who want that. But the thrust of the article is that this doesn't seem to be on a lot of people's minds as they're dying in the place where she works. What would you have her do? Missionize the dying? That would be cruel and disrespectful. I can think of no more depressing, uncomforting way to spend my last moments of life than having some earnest, well-meaning preacher trying to win one more adherent to his or her belief system. I find it comforting to know that there are clergy out there who are respectful of others' needs and views.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:58 am |
  18. Billy Stewart

    This is so true what a great article. Your Professor in College was blind by the light what God bestow on you. Keep doing GODS work. Familes is the most important thing we have. Threw him(GOD)is first then family. Bless you

    January 29, 2012 at 7:39 am |
  19. Milton

    My first experience with death was giving CPR to my grandmother at the age of 14. The day before she died she handed me a copy of her memoirs. She told me she would die very soon. The memoirs were all about family without a mention of god or faith. This might not be surprising except that she was married to a minister for 40 years and then remarried another minister for 20 more. Religion wasn't part of it. I watched my mother take her last breath. Her last cogent words were about family always...the daughter of a minister didn't mention god once or prayer once. Maybe because living isn't ever really about god because we don't see god. You can get more insight about how to spend your life from Harry Chapin's song "Cat's Cradle" than you ever can from a Bible. I know the last thing I ever want to see or hear on my deathbed is some Chaplain trying to sell me on god. If god exists (and I believe that's a "no"), you aren't going to be enlightened by somebody else that is still alive. They don't know anything more than you do. Trust me. Listen to Harry Chapin, not the Bible. Human connections are all we have. If you want a transcendental experience, make long and lasting connections with people. This will be your salvation and your immortality-not trying to connect with the afterlife.

    January 29, 2012 at 7:38 am |
    • ayo

      Milton – you are mistaken. Not only is there a God, but I have experienced his supernatural power. I was a former atheist myself, and I asked God to prove Himself to me, and He did – He literally revealed Himself to me and I felt Him, He poured out what seemed like living fire water on me and He told me "I love you more than you could ever contain or understand" And he instructed me to read His bible, and I did, and it all began to make sense. To deny His existence does not help you or anyone. We should thank Him for the gift of Life and praise Him daily and love others. Death is inevitable due to our sin nature, but God also sent Jesus to pay the price of sin and to offer us eternal life. Without Christ, we are separated from God and doomed to eternal destruction. We are eternal because breathed life to Adam. God is eternal so the breath of God which is the human soul and spirit is eternal. Hence we can have eternal life or eternal death. God loves you, do not risk your own eternal destiny due to your limited human thinking. God bless you and I pray you make the wise decision

      January 29, 2012 at 7:50 am |
    • md2205

      Ayo, it is impossible to make sense of and understand the Bible the way it reads in English because it has been badly mistranslated. It needs to be learned in Hebrew, its original language, to be understood, because no language can be accurately translated as there are ideas in the Hebrew which English doesn't convey. There were mistranslations because the Hebrew letters have markings on them that are part of the language that were not translated. And, there were some intentional mistranslations because once you have mistranslated one part, another part doesn't make follow correctly, so you have to adjust something in an attempt to make sense. Notice that I didn't say you have to read the Bible in the original Hebrew – it has to be learned, with someone who knows how, and that would be a Jewish Orthodox rabbi. There is one book which translated a few sentences from Genesis with the markings and with explanations of those ideas in Hebrew which don't correlate to English words. If you read this book, you see for the first time what the Bible really means, and it is an eye-opener which shows the relevance of the Bible as applicable to our times. It is called "The Bible Unauthorized". Please try to find it.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:37 am |
  20. Dennis

    Kerry, thank you for having the courage of conviction to see and practice what you observed firsthand and not be dissuaded by people who never walked your walk. And thank you for sharing this story with the rest of us. Family is the metaphor by which and through which we see the expression of God during our lives. Keep doing exactly what you are doing.

    January 29, 2012 at 7:37 am |
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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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.