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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. Mike

    Kerry, people who fervently live their faith, are the people who are asked about eternity and how (even then), things can change for them so that they leave earth knowing that they were redeemed. If you think that you are being disrespected, I would suggest that you re-examine your calling in life.

    January 29, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • Mike

      ...sorry, I should have said "can change for those who are dying......"

      January 29, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
  2. MATTHEW

    .....anbody got a watch on??....every time you tell time you acknowlege Christ! it is : 10:20 am 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 1:20 pm |
    • AtheistSteve

      Actually the modern method is BCE and CE. Before common era and common era. Get with the times(pun intended)

      January 29, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
  3. Montello

    This gal gets it. The professor was the shallow, uncaring one.

    January 29, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
    • Rev. D.W. Goodwin AFC

      Yes she does, and arrived there without the close minded teacher, all on her own.
      I applaud her for her wisdom, and compassion, and you for your support of her.

      January 29, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
  4. The truth

    W

    January 29, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
  5. Louis

    Atheism is the worst thing in human history. I feel bad for children who grow up with non-believers because they don't know they will not go to heaven if not believe in God. I hope their parents die so they could be religious and enter kingdom of heaven

    January 29, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
    • Montello

      Another compassionate christian heard from. So how are you any different from the likes of the taliban?

      January 29, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
    • George

      There is nobody as anti-atheist and anti-secularist than I am, but I certainly don't wish anyone dead. Remember that even unbelievers can convert. Though I also feel sorry for the children of unbelievers.

      Your post is awful.

      January 29, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
    • Susanna

      Another bit of evidence that religion is a pox upon humanity. How many atheists go around wishing children's parents would die? None I know of, yet it seems a common sentiment expressed by theists.

      January 29, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
    • rick

      yeah, children of non-believers don't get taught that god is an angry, petty, vituperative being. what a burden on them

      January 29, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
  6. dicerotops

    "To love another person is to see the face of God." – Les Miserables

    January 29, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
  7. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things
    Prayer ushers in eternal peace
    Prayer is speaking with God
    Practice prayer here to better enjoy prayer there
    Prayer ushers in eternal joy
    Prayer eases the transition
    Prayer changes things

    January 29, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
  8. Itsmelee

    Sorry, but this is not a duplicate comment you detected - I just wrote it!

    Wonderful article. Thank you. I agree with it. Many times I have told God that my best blessing is family. Not perfect, but human, like me.

    January 29, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
  9. chacha

    No al, I said ideal, because I meant god is an idea – I am implying (albeit unsuccessfully, given your question) that our notion of god is a concept, something that we are taught and upon which people build. Is that clear?

    January 29, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
  10. Itsmelee, Wyoming

    Wonderful article. Thank you. I agree. Many times I have told God that my best blessing is family. Not perfect, but human, like me.

    January 29, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
  11. blaqb0x

    Nice article. Take out all the BS God assertions and it would be a Great article.

    January 29, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
    • Mahmud/Michigan

      May Allah kill you

      January 29, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
  12. Mahmud/Michigan

    May Allah kill everybody who don't believe in God insallah

    January 29, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
  13. smum

    hen will people understand that religion and spirituality are not the same thing? The same goes for morality. But no surprise that the religious fanatics criticize "humanity" as being synonymous with being an atheist. If an after-life really exists (I'm not arrogant enough to day it does or it doesn't) a huge number of the so-called religious, christians, family values, morality patrol crowd will be surprised to find what God really thinks of them.

    January 29, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
  14. Barb

    Excellent, clear and realistic perspective of what people feel and value at their core. When life events are at the most extreme and tangible, theory is not what people relate to.

    January 29, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
  15. unbeliever

    Very insightful – what would you all talk about if you were on your deathbed?

    January 29, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
  16. Grandma

    Atheists are the most uneducated people in the world..... they can't even be in congress and run to the white house LOL

    January 29, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
    • jag

      Who are the atheists in this article? By the way, two of the kindest people I have ever known were nonbelievers. They did what they did not for eternal reward, but becsuse it was the right way to live.

      January 29, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Atheists can't run to the White House? What about the marathons that are run in DC all the time? I'll bet there are lots of atheists who are perfectly capable of running to the White House! I'll bet some of them can run to the Capital, too!

      /Gilda Radner

      January 29, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
    • Canadian_Observer

      Grandma you hit it right on the nail. Your congress and white house are sure doing wonders for your country. If there is not a more selfish bunch in the world could you please point it out to me. And yes i am an uneducated fool do i believe to tell you the truth i donno perhaps i am just agnostic, Raise a roman catholic got the biggest complex in my life when the preist was abusing boys in the parish but would not touch me. what was wrong with me. I am sure a good christian will tell me the answer and also tell me i should practice my writing please be forgiving english is my third language.

      January 29, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  17. Nickolas Epsilantia

    How could my submission be censored; when the following submission got posted?????????

    Agnostic

    FUUUUUUUUCK ALL DIRTY J.E.W.S!!!!
    January 29, 2012 at 1:08 pm | Report abuse | Reply

    January 29, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
  18. John

    I HOPE ALL ATHEISTS AND NON-BELIEVERS GET THE MOST SEVERE CANCER AND DIE!!!! I AM SICK AND TIRED OF THEIR CRY BABIES THE MOTHER F.U.CKERS

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

      Oooh, lookit dee leetle troll.

      Ees weeery tinyyy...

      January 29, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
    • Suzette C

      Another Christian speaks out in understanding and compassion. No wonder I don't follow any religion.

      January 29, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
    • Grandma

      Suzette who cares if you don't follow any religion... you will go to h.ell not me :)

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

      How Christian of you.

      January 29, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
    • Bertolucci

      You are pretty twisted.. Obviously not religious to spread such hate to others. I'd like to know of what religion promotes that.

      January 29, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
    • Canadian_Observer

      Eh John you talking about your LOVING god right

      January 29, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • rick

      john....take a 55 gallon drum of KY jelly and your bible and make it a long weekend

      January 29, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
    • rick

      grandma: you shore got a purty mouth. are you gonna use it to "praise" jesus on your knees in front of the messiah?

      January 29, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
  19. Linda

    What you must have learned through your great work is that We, collectively – are God. We came from ourselves through a power around us we cannot see. But we are all intertwined in that power and make it God. We come into the world through it and we go out touching it and becoming part of it again. Humans need to be loved and to love not only on Earth, but through eternity.

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

      When you get to hell, you're going to find out..."Ooops, I guess I am NOT God."

      January 29, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
  20. NY Jew

    Non-believers don't want to be saved.... they deserve going to hell

    January 29, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
    • Mark

      Cram it!

      January 29, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • A Christian

      I thought Jews didn't believe in hell.

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

      I'm a believer, but still – cram it!

      January 29, 2012 at 1:24 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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.