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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. Staring Horse with Tongue Sticking Out

    I am fictional, so I don't have to worry about death. But if I were a real horse I would just stare and stick my tongue out.

    January 29, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
  2. Gregg

    If the person wants to talk about family and expressions of love, then the chaplain should have the love and compassion to listen. Of course you add in expressions of faith and the Loving Presence on the other side. There cannot be one hard and fast way to approach such important times. You can't judge the matter from afar and say you should definitely do this or that. Each person has their own needs and only God knows what those are. So more than anything, the chaplain should be a person who is sensitive to the voice of God. If he or she is sensitive at all, then I believe God will come through loud and clear at that time. Perhaps this person needs a strong final witness and chance to receive Salvation, perhaps the person needs to know that they are forgiven for the things they regret, perhaps they need to hear that they are leaving a legacy of love, perhaps they need to know that they made a difference. Who knows? God does. And if you are the chaplain who is there, God will show you in that moment. It is not a time to be reserved. It is a time to let the compassion of a loving God fill your heart and give whatever comfort or witness is needed. Sometimes, as the writer says, it might be just listening with compassion. May God bless and anoint those who do this work, and any reading who may be the "chaplain" whether ordained or not, who is there.

    January 29, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
  3. Patrick Manley

    There is an error in the last line. It should read: The opinions expressed in this commentary are NOT solely those of Kerry Egan.

    January 29, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
  4. alcm

    This story reminds me so much of my own personal experience. In October 2011, my mother had Congestive Heart Failure, all her arteries were 100% blocked. The doctors gave her 0% of survival rate, her life was in god hands. Mom was still a young woman, 66 young with many years ahead of her. I felt so sick that day when the doctors told me. I prayed. I asked the angels to help. At that time I considered myself an Atheists, none believer. Every day this young Chaplain “Chris”, came to see me. He knew my mom was on death door. We spoke for hours. He came and prayed with me. He asked me about my family, moms life, her wishes, how she lived, funny stories. Every day this young man, was by my side, by mom side. He held her hand. He prayed over her. It was touch and go for so long. Mom spent 5 days in a coma on life support, nobody knew how mom would come out; but she did. It was nothing but a pure miracle that my mom lived and came out with no brain issues. My mom had died on the operating table for 20 minutes. The doctor didn’t give up on her. He held her heart in is hand and massage for 20 minutes keeping her alive. Faith, and having the young Chaplain “Chris” come and stand by mom side pulling her through the rest of the way, it helped save her live. I am very grateful for the Chaplain service the hospital offered. I was alone and needed a caring person to talk to. When my mom came out of her coma, “Chris” our Chaplain came to talk to mom still every day; offering his caring nature and prays and cookie recipes to her. They talked for hours every day until she was finally discharged from the hospital. I am not a religious person, but today I am a different person from that experience and very grateful for our young Chaplain friend, “Chris”.

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

    What a shame that this beautiful article about the power of love in our lives has generated the kind of comments (on both sides of the God/no God issue). My guess is that both people who have some religious belief and those who have none both experience and "believe" in love. I suspect love is no less real to an atheist than it is to a Christian, Muslim, or Jew.

    This article, about the need for love in our lives and the "reckoning of love" that may be common for many at the end of their life, brought tears to my eyes. It has nothing really to do with religious faith-it has to do with people's ability, in their final hours or days, to see love as way to understand their life and their relationships and find some comfort in that understanding.

    What a shame so many of the people who are commenting on this artle just miss the whole point.

    January 29, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
  6. My last statement

    This article is for all those "athiest in a fox hole" people that say everyone thinks of god before they die. Well, apparently a lot of people don't. They think about their families. Even religious people.

    January 29, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
  7. s

    ,,

    January 29, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
  8. Jason

    Just another example of how reasoned discussion is impossible in comment sections. But, with that said, I found this article quite beautiful, with truth shining through it. Even the person I worship as my Savior thought of his parents in his moments before death. Thank you, Kerry

    January 29, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
  9. Diane

    Excellent article–here, here!

    January 29, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
  10. ALM

    This story reminds me so much of my own personal experience. In October 2011, my mother had Congestive Heart Failure, all her arteries were 100% blocked. The doctors gave her 0% of survival rate, her life was in god hands. Mom was still a young woman, 66 young with many years ahead of her. I felt so sick that day when the doctors told me. I prayed. I asked the angels to help. At that time I considered myself an Atheists, none believer. Every day this young Chaplin “Chris”, came to see me. He knew my mom was on death door. We spoke for hours. He came and prayed with me. He asked me about my family, moms life, her wishes, how she lived, funny stories. Every day this young man, was by my side, by mom side. He held her hand. He prayed over her. It was touch and go for so long. Mom spent 5 days in a coma on life support, nobody knew how mom would come out; but she did. It was nothing but a pure miracle that my mom lived and came out with no brain issues. My mom had died on the operating table for 20 minutes. The doctor didn’t give up on her. He held her heart in is hand and massage for 20 minutes keeping her alive. Faith, and having the young Chaplin “Chris” come and stand by mom side pulling her through the rest of the way, it helped save her live. I am very grateful for the Chaplin service the hospital offered. I was alone and needed a caring person to talk to. When my mom came out of her coma, “Chris” our Chaplin came to talk to mom still every day; offering his caring nature and prays and cookie recipes to her. They talked for hours every day until she was finally discharged from the hospital. I am not a religious person, but today I am a different person from that experience and very grateful for our young Chaplin friend, “Chris”.

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

      I am glad that your mother survived and that the Chaplain was such a emotional help to you and your mother. Although perhaps the doctors, who actually saved your mother, deserve a little more credit than they were given.

      January 29, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • md2205

      True that the doctors saved her mother, but that would not have happened had G-d not allowed it to happen.

      January 29, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
    • Nonimus

      @md2205,
      "True that the doctors saved her mother, but that would not have happened had G-d not allowed it to happen."
      ...just like G-d allows babies to suffer, miscarriages, cancer, death, evil, pain, etc... Sure, I guess. In fact, is there anything G-d doesn't allow to happen?

      January 29, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
  11. athiest

    I actually enjoyed this article very much. The only part I disagree with is the God references. You can completely be greatful for your family without a belief in an all powerful being. On your death bed, no one knows what's going to happen when you die so you focus on what you KNOW. You focus on what gave your life its purpose.great article

    January 29, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
  12. Mobytheminnow

    I cannot begin to say how far apart I feel from the world some days. And sometimes my friends help me out at work and I am amazed by their resilience. I have worked my butt off all my young life and at 44 I feel defeated. My older daughter is poor yet I ask her to seek another job and she resists. And I thought she would be the more productive one. Yet she is more loving than most to a fault.
    My youngest daughter was always a troublemaker and mean. Yet she is in the world and somewhat sucessful yet has a husband that is 100 percent worthless as a man and she wont face the fact that he is an ....hole. He wont work and only plays video games all day. They play with other peoples love and hold it against them creating psycological games and they use it to hurt others around them yet make themselves seem adored. I find it disgusting and she wont talk to me which is fine because if they want to act like that I dont want anything to do with them.
    My wife I left some time ago, I did not sign up to be a slave and the longer I worked the less she would help me. I got the kids ready for school at 5 am and had to drive 40 miles to work and would sometimes get home at 1030 at night. I did all the shopping, cleaning and so on, She had an affair and started to withhold from me. Finally someone from afar gave me love and I left. Yet here I am alone again in life like I was abandoned when I was 15 living alone in a trailer. I am arthritic and now not so beautiful as I was as a man, growing longer in years and wonder what I did in the world to cause all my pains. The things you should teach your kids, LOVE, humor, humility, courage, faith, forgiveness, COMPASSION AND RESPECT FOR OTHERS, and most of all disappointment IE you cant always get what you want and money management. Without these traits you send your child unprepared for the world, PERIOD.

    January 29, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • iamdeadlyserious

      Not to sound insensitive, but... neat story?

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

      Moby if I could say one thing to you it would be to stop living your life in the past and feeling sorry for yourself. Get out there and enjoy what time you have left.

      January 29, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
  13. LindaMarie

    Dear Kerry Egan, ( chaplain ),
    Do you ever have the opportunity to speak to dieing gay patients ? And are the conversations the same as those your accustom too ?

    January 29, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  14. henry

    Great Article – Thank you! I think nearly everything we experience in life comes down to understanding love or not.

    January 29, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
  15. Steve

    I hope you don't read the replies that most have given here. For, I'm sure , it would cause nothing but grief.
    This article is not about God, religion, or faith. It is about basic humanity and the fact that no one wants to leave this life alone or unloved.
    I do believe, this is the best article I have read in quite some time. I promise you this, that professor you speak of , will remember you on their death bed. They will soon realize that they too are human and will die and hopefully, not a lone.

    – Steve

    January 29, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
  16. Nic

    That is very sad that her divinity professor shamed her like in class. I noticed how he condemned her level of faith and ridiculed her. it is also sad how everyone else laughed. This scenario is too often what organized religion has become: A sort of look how superior I and my beliefs are and how foolish you and yours are. I don't know all that much about God, but I know this is the root of the problem with religious people.

    Now, love, caring, compassion and family, I know a lot about that. I think this is what God wants for us.

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

      That's the thing, though. There are many quiet believers who don't bray about their beliefs or spend their time condemning others who don't see things their way. They're far too busy with helping others, caring for others, providing food and comfort for others, and serving others to spend time worrying about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

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

      I think people talk about families on their death bed because it is what they leave behind (and cared about). Talking about where you go after death doesn't matter nearly as much as what you'll leave behind – how you've made your mark on the world. I think the author is in a profession where she is capable of seeing the human condition in its raw form. Very insightful.

      January 29, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
  17. Thankyew

    I already know what I'm going to say if I'm lucid- "You can tell your Mother-in-Law 'Heaven is not having to hear your
    voice anymore.'"

    January 29, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • Thankyew

      Will someone turn off that infernal "beep beep machine!!"

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

    Their families are real, god is not.

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

      Well – not the conception of a king of the universe, but some supreme power is manifesting all this jazz with himself. There is nothing in this universe that remains the same for even a fraction of a second. Just as the sun never burns out electrons never stop spinning. So what is spinning the atoms found in all matter? The same power shining the stars and shaping one's bones. Are you performing your metabolism or is it happening to you? Beating your heart?

      January 29, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • Benji

      God is real and He, not their families will save them from eternal damnation.

      January 29, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
    • Janice

      Yes Families are real, That's because God is.

      January 29, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
    • Randy

      So say's the creation to the Creator .......thought your comment was quite interesting. I could not deny God if I wanted to in my life. IF you were to look at creation it-self and how complex and in order things are surely after a few days of thinking about it you would have to say there must have be a creator in all of this stuff going on ???there is to much out there to say it all happened by chance or accicedent....you dont have to go past the moon or the nearest planet to see what im talking aobut i will pray that God will reveal him self to you and you too can see what im talking aobut....you can emial me if you like randytherealtor7 at yahoo com

      January 29, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
    • md2205

      To Seorsa:
      Please examine this article and then tell me if you still think the same way you do now. I would post it but cnn doesn't post a comment longer than about 14 lines:
      chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/108386/jewish/Proof-of-Gds-Existence.htm

      January 29, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
  19. Ian in WR

    I fear that I might die alone. I hope that I was good enough in this life that someone will be with me when I die. I was not there when my parents died and I regret that. I always think about my Dad on his death bed only with a nurse. I wasn't there. In certain ways I failed as a child.

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

      Not in my opinion "you've failed." If you still have pangs of regret and remorse, then they did a good job and you too.

      January 29, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      They eff you up, your mom and dad,
      They may not mean to, but they do.
      They give you all the faults they had,
      And add some special, just for you.

      But they were ***8 up in their turn
      By old-style folks in hats and coats,
      Who half the time were sickly-sweet,
      And half at one anthers' throats.

      Man gives misery unto man,
      It deepens like a coastal shelf.
      (something I forget here0
      And don't have any kids yourself.

      January 29, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
    • AB

      @Ian WR, even though you werent with your parents when they passed. Be assured they were thinking of you, as the article said, family is always in a dying persons mind as they are leaving you and this world. Take it from one who has lost a parent as well. Please dont feel bad. You are never alone!

      January 29, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Shoulda Googled in the first place. Here it is:

      This Be the Verse
      They **** you up, your mum and dad.
      They may not mean to, but they do.
      They fill you with the faults they had
      And add some extra, just for you.

      But they were ****** up in their turn
      By fools in old-style hats and coats,
      Who half the time were soppy-stern
      And half at one another’s throats.

      Man hands on misery to man.
      It deepens like a coastal shelf.
      Get out as early as you can,
      And don’t have any kids yourself.

      by Philip Larkin

      January 29, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
    • Observer

      Someone has grabbed Tom Tom's handle again. There should be a 24 h waiting period on new handles.

      January 29, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Sorry to disappoint you, Observer, but nobody else is posting this. Too bad if it doesn't please you.

      I happen to like this poem. If you don't, oh, well.

      January 29, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
  20. Anna

    Nice article but from my experience, I'd also call it a lightweight article. I belive what Kerry says is true, but just a part of a bigger picture. Many people unfortunately never feel a "family" love. Instead because of how they were raised, feel feelings that range from nothing to hurt to anger to hatred. Hearing some of the stories that I've heard, I can understand these feelings. Some of these people who feel no family love take the low road and have crappy lives, some though manage to find a high road and turn out to be very loving people. I've also know very loving families who treat others like crap and with no love. So, this leads me to another type of Love never mentioned in the article, a Higher Love. The kind I thought was being taught in divinity school ( among other places (such as found in the beauty of nature in the middle of our hearts)). Human love is one thing, and a wonderful thing it can be; however, there is another "God" love or greater all encompassing Love that can be experienced as well. Perhaps this form of Love is what Kerry's teacher was referring to. To have lived a human life and experienced love is wonderful, but to live a human life and experience LOVE, is divine.

    January 29, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
    • Janice

      Very well said!!! ( :

      January 29, 2012 at 1:57 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.