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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. ANUBIS

    Your professor is right! What year did you say you failed Divinity School!? Most of my family is dead, when I die
    I want to hear about God. The greatest commandment God gave us was Love One Another! We already know we
    should be kind to each other. I think that book was What I learned in kindergarden, try reading the Bible. Better yet
    try another professon

    January 29, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
    • Epidi

      I'm not even a Christian and that has to be the most un-Christianlike stupid remark I've ever heard. The point of the article obviously went over your head.

      January 29, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
    • finkster

      You just don't get it do you?

      January 29, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • dave

      I agree , people need to hear about Jesus for if we really are Christians then we based it on a book called the Bible; new age and other books talk about a hippy jesus or a prophet but not the Savoir Jesus that the Bible talks about. Second Corinthians warns about a false jesus, a false faith , a false spirit.

      The Jesus of the Bible warned about judgement and hell. Most of all, the Jesus of the Bible exemplified love by paying for our payment of sins, on a cruel cross , out of pure love. If this lady thinks that there are other ways to heaven then Jesus did not have to die on the cross and she has denied the faith and has fallen for satanic deception- all the while thinking she is good.
      I too have been tempted to think of other ways but then God lovingly corrected me and I humbled myself and feared the Bible again. Many harden their hearts and refuse to listen to God, but then they will suffer for their rebellion.

      January 29, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • Epidi

      @ dave – she's not saying anything about Jesus not being the only way to heaven – did you read the same article? She's talking about what many people want to talk about when they know they are dying. Perhaps they already have the faith thing figured out and just need someone to talk to to sort out the emotional ties to this life so they can let it go in peace and with thier head wrapped around the idea of not needing to be in the physical planes anymore. Funny thing about many religious people is they are so busy focusing on getting the "Word" out that they aren't focusing on listening to any other words either – even if it's (heaven forbid) to make another's suffering more bearable. Who are you to decide what these people need to hear? If you want a sermon when you are on your death bed – then ask for one. Don't assume no one but you has the universe or the Deity thats maintains it figured out.

      January 29, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      dave, what makes you think you've got some sort of inside track as to what a dying person needs or wants?

      January 29, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
  2. J-Jay

    Nice!

    January 29, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
  3. Hypatia

    Sounds like that so-called 'professor' needs a few courses in teaching. Not to mention basic etiquette. And, yeah. People don't blather about God or religion. They talk to and about their loved ones. Get over it.

    January 29, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
  4. krishna

    what about people like me who don't have a family, no mother, no wife, no children.

    January 29, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
    • krishna

      and forgot to mention – no brothers no sisters

      January 29, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
    • Steven Capsuto

      The article defines family broadly, and specifically mentions the families we create by choosing our friends.

      January 29, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
    • ardale

      Family is in your heart and can be more than flesh and blood....all religious beliefs aside, go out and get some friends and be a part of something......and you wont need to ask this question.

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

      @ardale...thank you, beautiful, well said. you are my first family member.

      January 29, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • dave

      good point! "lets talk about your family so i can comfort you". "they dont visit me and have better things to do like video games, reddit, and playing with their toes." "ahh isnt that nice see Im saving you"

      January 29, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • The-law

      Next time you talk to a good friend of yours at the end of the day say thanks BRO, it was good talking to ya...

      January 29, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
  5. rjfarns

    Loved the article. I have been searching for God and this really helps know where to look.

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

      Deity – by whatever name you call it resides in all of us and in everything that exists. Many just forget where to look. :-)

      January 29, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  6. Ann Ecdotal

    I have been at the death-beds of 3 loved ones... 2 highly religious and 1 a non-believer.

    All there was to observe was several hours to 2 days, for one of them, of continuous horrendous death-rattle breathing, and then it stopped and they were gone. There was no awakening, reaching out or anything else... and no spirits floating around the room afterward.

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

      Then you got there too late in the dying process for the words or they simply chose not to burden you with it. This is why it is so important to say what you need to say to one another each and every day. The end may be, and usually is, too late for the sharing of such things.

      January 29, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • Ann Ecdotal

      Well, I can never know if they "chose" not to tell, but:

      1. I visited daily for three weeks before death. Her mind was nearly gone after oxygen deprivation to the brain. She spoke nonsensical phrases and showed scant recognition of anyone. Please do not try to tell me that there was mystical meaning in those words.

      2. I was with him 24/7 for 5 months. During the final month his previously brilliant brain was rava.ged by cancer and he had the same behavior as #1.

      3. Death within hours from a ma.ssive stroke. No awakening or responses at all.

      January 29, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • Ann Ecdotal

      p.s. I do agree with the second part of your post, however.

      January 29, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
  7. The truth

    WHITOUT FAITH YOU CANNOT BELIEVE IN GOD. WITHOUT SIGHT YOU CANNOT PERCIEVE COLORS.

    January 29, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
    • Nodack

      With blind faith you can be led around like a sheep never questioning anything doing whatever you are told. No wonder there have been so many religions.

      January 29, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • md2205

      To Nodack: Please read the following article and then tell me people who believe in G-d are blind believers:

      chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/108386/jewish/Proof-of-Gds-Existence.htm

      I would post the article but cnn doesn't allow entry of comments longer than about 14 lines.

      January 29, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
  8. The truth

    AN ATHEIST WONT GO TO GOD FOR THE SAME REASON A THIEF WONT GO TO THE POLICEMEN.

    January 29, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Still haven't found the caps lock key, huh?

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

      ...what?

      Is that why Christians won't acknowledge Quetzlcoatl as their rightful lord?

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

      LoL that was a good response.

      January 29, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
    • McAfee

      All hail Quetzlcoatl!

      January 29, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
    • Fact

      Not true. When Christ died he died for Jew and Gentile, believer and non-believer.Because of his death we no longer live under the wrath of God, but God's grace. What is grace? Grace is love and mercy bestowed upon another even though it is UNDESERVED. Thieves won't go to policemen for fear of being punished. Atheists should know that even though they do not believe, God still believes in them, waiting for them to accept his grace. God is not out to get anyone.

      January 29, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
  9. Hockeyn109

    God loves all, even atheists.

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

      Atheists love everybody including believers!

      January 29, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
  10. Beverly Dekker-Davidson

    This I believe.

    January 29, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
  11. Max

    Wow, who knew that an article about love would generate so many replies with so much hatred. I feel sorry for those of you posting those types of messages.

    January 29, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
  12. Dylan

    The meaning of life is evolution of the self.

    January 29, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
  13. The truth

    OK NOW. ANY ATHEIST OUT THERE PLEASE TELL ME HOW CAN YOU PROVE TO A BLIND PERSON THAT COLORS EXIST????????

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

      I would explain to them that colors are reflected frequencies of light that can be perceived by a properly-functioning pair of eyes. Of course, they wouldn't have a clue what I meant on an experiential level, but they'd be able to find plenty of objective scientific research on the subject.

      The really funny part is that there's also a scientific explanation for the physical experience of intense prayer. We can actually see which parts of the brain "light up" when someone is involved in a deeply religious moment. So I can completely understand, on an academic level, what happens to you when you experience communion with your god. What I can't understand, on any level, is why it makes you so darn self-righteous.

      January 29, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
    • jake

      @deadlyserious–How can you explain light when a blind person has never seen light? Your logic is incorrect.

      January 29, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
    • The truth

      With your explanation... A blind person will still be not experiencing colors. Silly you need sight to experience colors not an explanation of what colors are. You need faith to believe and KNOW that there is a GOD

      January 29, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
    • Nodack

      I can't prove to him because he can't see it. I can so I know it's there. You obviously talk to God on a regular basis and therefore know he is real. I on the other hand have never spoken to any God and therefore you can't prove to me he is real.

      You say that all life started 2000 years ago. Science says the Earth was here 6,000,000,000 years ago. Dinosaurs were here long before us and you say that we are just imagining that there were dinosaurs. Here are at least three religions before Christianity where there was a Messiah that spoke to god under a burning bush who was persecuted, killed and then resurrected. It's like a song that was ripped off three times and now the third guy claims it is an original song when we all know it's just another remake of the same thing.

      January 29, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
    • iamdeadlyserious

      Jake,

      Ever heard of photons? There are classes taught on the nature of light. Even if a blind person will never truly understand what it's like to see, they can still be taught what it is and shown objective evidence for its existence.

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

      I'm sorry, did you ask for me to figure out how to make a blind person experience colors? Because last I checked, your very capitalized demand was for someone to explain what colors are.

      January 29, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
    • md2205

      To Nodack: Science cannot prove or disprove that G-d does or does not exist. Much of what a scientist says when it comes to the origin of the universe is weakly based extrapolation, starting from what we see now and going backwards to try to imagine what the starting point was. In advancing these theories they disregard factors universally admitted by all scientists – that in the initial period of the "birth" of the universe, conditions of temperature, atmospheric pressure, radioactivity, and a host of other catalytic factors were totally different than those existing presently, including the fact that we don't know how single atoms or their components would bind and consolidate, which involved totally unknown processes and variables, as single atoms behave far differently than conglomerations of atoms.
      A person would have to believe either atoms came into being somehow by themselves, and somehow combined to form the universe; or that they existed forever – both of which are beliefs and cannot be proven. If he says the atoms were created, why then not a planet or the universe, for the same logic. Assumptions along these lines are what atheists hang their hats on, but assumptions lead to false reasoning, and in any case, they base their view on beliefs, even though they don't recognize it as a belief.

      January 29, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
  14. Well now

    Dear supreme being(s)...please consider me as maintaining an independent, moderate stance on all of this. The rest of them are all nutz lol.

    January 29, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  15. PanamaJon

    Wonderfuly insightfull article, thanks for sharing.

    January 29, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  16. jas35

    I worked in many nursing homes and have found the same thing out that the article says. Even a couple weeks before people die they begin to look for there loved ones that have pasted. We even had a German lady in our nursing home who began to speak German again and would be talking to her dead husband as if she was having a conversation with him everyday for about two weeks and then the day before she pasted she said,"My husband wants me to go with him"! Should I go? Then she died. You cannot tell me that there isn't another place where we go and that our loved ones aren't waiting for us. This kind of stuff happens all the time where I work.

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

      Because the idea that a dying person's brain starts functioning differently is completely ludicrous, right?

      January 29, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      "Pasted"? Is that with a glue stick? Or were they drunk?

      January 29, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
  17. Gene

    Burn her at the stake. The last thing a true Christian should do is pass up one last chance at indoctrination to instead show compassion.

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

      *giggle* Great comment!

      January 29, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
    • George

      Because all Christians are evil, right? You atheists have no compassion. Some people believe in God and want to be comforted.

      January 29, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      What comfort do you think your posts provide, George?

      January 29, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
  18. George

    This article was very painful for me to read since I recently have gone through the process with a loved one. I don't think that talking about God and talking about family are mutually exclusive. While I don't think that a chaplin should preach, a dying person needs to know that God loves them and is waiting for them on the other side. The chaplin should also talk about other things the dying person wants to talk about such as family. I understand that chaplins are busy, but there some things that shouldn't be rushed.

    January 29, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
    • Ms ro

      a person with true faith would not really need to be told God is there waiting for them, they would know this. I care for the elderly and have also seen this when people die.....the people I have taken care of cared more about the people they were leaving and seeing those who had died before them, than any need to be told God was there....people with faith KNOW He is

      January 29, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
    • George

      @Ms ro

      People who are dying are scared and the process of dying can shake the faith of even the most faithful. I find your comment highly insulting. It basically says that people who are scared of dying just don't have enough faith. I hope you remember that when you are on your death bed.

      January 29, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  19. 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 1:21 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      News flash, honey. Historians don't all use BC and AD. It's BCE (Before the Common Era).

      January 29, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
    • iamdeadlyserious

      To be fair, Tom, CE is still based off the purported birth of Jesus. Of course, that has nothing to do with acknowledging Jesus and everything to do with the fact that the current calendar system is a creation of the church. But let's not get bogged down in facts, Matthew. They hurt the brain.

      January 29, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
    • Steven Capsuto

      I've always used CE and BCE. "Anno domini" only makes sense in Christian contexts.

      January 29, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
    • McAfee

      BCE and CE

      January 29, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      I concede the point. However, all this means is that Christianity has been the dominant religion thus far. It is not yet written that this will always be so.

      January 29, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
  20. The truth

    Any

    January 29, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
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