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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. Accepted in Truth

    If you, Tony, truly knew God you WOULD know what God desires! Rodney is right on and I'm happy for him that he WILL die a happy man as he does know God's desire for his life. For all of those that can't say they know God's desire for their lives, I pray that He opens your heart to the TRUTH and a relationship with Him. It's so simple and yet so many make it so difficult.

    January 29, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
  2. Staring Horse with Tongue Sticking Out

    The Universe ceases to exist at the moment of your death. Likewise, the Universe springs into existence at the moment of comprehension. “Reality” is personal. It is not universal. What I believe, is true. What I perceive, is real. Therefore, there is an infinite number of realities (call them universes) both coming and going at all times for infinity. The reason physics breaks down as we get close to that frightening doom is because we realize at that point that WE are the God we seek.

    We create our reality only to destroy it and start again for all of eternity.
    Nothing can be proven beyond the existence of the self. No perception felt by the mind can be regarded as truly verifiable, and so its existence is not certain. Hence, nothing outside the mind of the observer can be rationally confirmed.

    January 29, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
    • TownC

      What you wrote sounds like religious dogma. It must take a lot of faith to believe it!

      January 29, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
    • Staring Horse with Tongue Sticking Out

      No, not really. You just have to empty your mind. Easy for my because I am just a stupid fake horse.

      January 29, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
  3. Gene

    When I had a massive heart attack some years ago and the doctor told me what was happening, I thought first of my wife and sons. My thought was of what I would leave them to live on as I was the only breadwinner. After that my thought was this: "If it is my time God, I am ready."

    January 29, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
    • just sayin

      Glad you are still here Gene, glad you are at peace with God and ready. This world needs more like you God bless.

      January 29, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Oooh, look, justlyin' is pretending it really cares about others. Too bad it's only others that believe exactly what it does.

      January 29, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
  4. bull

    The shallowness of the silly professor is he span facts to prove God.

    January 29, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
  5. Steve

    Kerry,

    You're write-up is absolutely beautiful. I have no words to express the insights you communicated to me, as well as confirmed. It was truly ineffable. You have learned the truths that are far from the wise and might of this world, and have been able to cultivate the skill of expressing them to others with equal simplicity and beauty. Don't change, but continue on this humble path.

    I would love to be able to contact you by email, if possible. If you happen to read my post, send me an email!

    Sincerely,

    Steve

    January 29, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
  6. Michael Leedle

    My initial take was that you had come upon a clear view of what we might feel close to the end. However you decided to place your predisposed notions that referring to Love was spiritual. Nothing could be further from the truth and you are neglect in your assertion. If I was to take your conclusion at face value I would then believe that people who have no belief in your God do not have the capacity to love of harbor feeling for family.
    You are so typical of the Cristian right. It's your way or the highway. Please in the future quit tying everything and everyone to something "spirtual"

    January 29, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • Drew

      This was a really nice article which you clearly misunderstood. I'm not religious either, and I deeply appreciate the author's message

      January 29, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
    • Kris

      Michael Leedle, your reading comprehension skills are poorly lacking. You missed the point of her article.

      January 29, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
    • ghhshirley

      Um...You DID notice, did you not, that you are in the religion blog section of CNN?

      Besides, that, what the author describes is universal to anyone who has a spiritual relationship with G-d, with or without religious idealogies. For example, I am a secular Jew. I have never been enthusiastic about any form of organized religion. In fact, I personally believe that more often that not, organized religion has done more harm than good and is the basis of too much war and divisiveness in the world–mainly because it is man-made. I think it takes us AWAY, rather than brings us closer to G-d.

      However, I do recognize that G-d is love, and that we express and experience G-d's love in our positive relationships with others.

      January 29, 2012 at 3:13 pm |
  7. TheRealBen

    Truth is, no one knows what will happen when we die. Do you? Not me. All we CAN do is talk about what we've learned, loved, and BELIEVE what will happen after we die. Even the great astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, despite he's belief that there is "no heaven or afterlife", truly doesn't know.

    Let me state it one more time: NO ONE KNOWS WHAT WILL HAPPEN AFTER YOU DIE. So all you CAN die is BELIEVE. That is not science,...that is humanity. But let me give you something to think about, just briefly:

    Nothing cannot create Something. Because of that, Something has a Source, a Creator, if you will. And because of this, The Beginning must have existed. The True Beginning. And for life to come about from elements, there is a reasoning. Reasoning behind the existense of life forms. Imperfect, but yet in purpose. My Point?

    The concept of energy neither being created or destroyed is 'proven' to be right, but no one has proven where it has come from ~ what or WHO created this energy. All we can do is break Life down with the fuzzy math, chemistry, and physics that we've created ourselves and either hypothesize or even BELIEVE the results of our finding. Scientists will NEVER, EVER know what happens when one dies...EVER.

    I will be quite happy when I leave. I'll know that I was a part of this universe and I BELIEVE that I will carry on in some form or fashion. Ah, yes, I may just shut down and go into a void. That is scary, since I won't remember myself or anything tied to it. Even worse, Hell! That would be rather painful. So what do you do? What do you believe? No scientific response needed. Because no science can truly answer what will happen to your Consciousness after you die permanently.

    January 29, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • TownC

      Just because you don't know doesn't mean that no one knows. God has a plan in our lives. We are his children.

      January 29, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
    • tony

      No one knows what happens??? But those who haven't can see what happens. The one who has died cannot, and by definition is totally unresponsive. But then you are floating the fantastical and totally unsupported by any evidence idea that the one who died somehow still will have a form of consciousness.

      January 29, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
    • JohnR

      Well, when I already lost my consciousness once when someone nailed me in the solar plexus with a side kick in tae kwon do class long, long ago, I'd like to know what evidence you have that it is even possible for consciousness to survive death.

      If it's not possible for something to come from nothing, where did this creator you cite come from? Don't say that the creator was always there. If that's a good enough answer for him, we can just as well say that the universe was always there, or the multiverse that begat our universe was always there.

      January 29, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
    • TownC

      Your own experience is the only evidence you have for there being no God. Why is that better that my own experience telling me there is a God?

      January 29, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      My experience tells me there are leprechauns. Why isn't my experience just as valid as yours, TownC?

      January 29, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
    • JohnR

      @TownC The difference is that your alleged experience of god was your subjective interpretation of something. Losing consciousness, as many people have, is just that, loss of consciousness, So if we can lose consciousness while still alive, how is it possible to retain it after death? If someone has something intelligent to say on the matter, I'm all ears. But I don't need any "I see god in every snowflake. Ergo, i'll love forever in paradise!" rhapsodies. That's just plain idiotic.

      January 29, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
  8. Sean

    I enjoyed reading this article, because I've dealt with death too. Though, not from a religious perspective. Strictly to give care, love, and support that ones life has much dignity. I don't like the saving ones soul by deluding anyone with deathbed conversions. I realize it gives many of the dying some form of relief, but I find it hypocritical. We are the some total of our parts, and should strive daily to make others lives better through acts of kindness. Being cheap, petty, and greedy, when so many people are desperately in need, doesn't make me feel that in their last minute of need they shouldn't go any further then the ground!

    January 29, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
  9. Judy George

    Thank you Kerry.

    January 29, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
  10. tamuli

    bang on sister.

    January 29, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
  11. jschmidt

    Excellent article. It is all about family because that is where the love is supposed to be represented. Too bad for people who don't have anyone close to them.

    January 29, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
  12. Just Al

    That was a beautiful article. And a beautiful sermon. But the comments are a travesty! The community of CNN readers is riddled with emptiness. There is nothing wrong with being an atheist; faith is a gift. But if you are filled with hatred you lack more than that gift, and I suspect you are much more apt to spend those last moments alone.

    January 29, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • jk

      Jesus spent those last moments alone, and had a bad thing to say about his "father" at the time. So I guess he was full of hate.

      I thought pride was a sin, but then, I'll leave theology to superior folks like you.

      January 29, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • Drew

      Jesus also asked god to forgive his killers; that seems pretty selfless if you ask me

      January 29, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
  13. 14401

    You really don't have to "preach" to a dyeing person. God is already their soul. The person, representing the chaplain in this story is on their way to being a real person. I hope she practices these things in her own life. God or whatever you want to name it in a language, is in control, always.

    January 29, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
    • tony

      Curious. Is creation still happening, or was it a one-off?

      January 29, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • Staring Horse with Tongue Sticking Out

      Something created me.

      January 29, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • tony

      I was wondering about when believers think souls are created. That's presumably part of the original creation, not on a per bodily conception basis.

      January 29, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • Staring Horse with Tongue Sticking Out

      My creater didn't do a very good job with my face though.

      January 29, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
  14. Virginia

    Wonderful article. As a minister and friend, I have found what you said here to be true, oftentimes.

    January 29, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
  15. Terry

    A beautifully written and poignant article...a gentle reminder for those who do not worship openly that if you have love, know love, give love, you know God.

    January 29, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
    • JohnR

      Or, if you have love, know love and give love, you have love, know love and give love. Don't need to bring any goofy cartoon characters into the story.

      January 29, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
  16. David B

    Caution: Liberals trying to re-define "chaplain" like they're trying to re-define "marriage".

    January 29, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Conservatives: mostly made up of people who can't even spell "chaplain".

      January 29, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
    • tony

      Try defining god and getting anyone else to agree with you :)

      January 29, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
    • Drew

      I know David B isn't a real Christian because a real Christian wouldn't be so spiteful

      January 29, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
  17. BlogHaha

    The most FAMOUS THING that we often hear from a dying man to a listening ear , usually are :

    # 1
    ( Make sure you you keep the Guys AWAY and at BAY , from my 3 daughters )

    # 2
    ( Make sure my investments keep making profits , GAIN CAPITALS )

    January 29, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • Elvis

      You're illiterate and dumb.

      Or, as you would say it, your ilitrit and dum.

      January 29, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
  18. Terry Cupp

    Thank you, Kerry, for sharing this most intimate of experiences. I agree with you entirely, that our roots, our family, play the most vital role in our death bed. People who presume otherwise are living in their heads. It is the life of experience that calls to us in the end, not the life of theoretical. That we ultimately know whether we have been loved and accepted by our family or true friends is, I am guessing, the greatest comfort we can have when it is time to pass from this life. Thank you so much for sharing this article. Frankly, I sobbed through most of it.

    January 29, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
  19. Rodney

    A good book to read is "Soul Revolution" by John Burke. It talks about relationship versus religion. In the same way we read e-mails, talk on the phone and go on date to get to know someone better, God desires to do the same thing with us. When we pray (talk on the phone), read emails or texts (Bible) or go on dates (Church/Bible study); we do these things to get to know God better. Just doing those things without a relationship is religion. Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love your God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself. Both of these speak to relationships. When I am on my death bed, I want to be in right relationships with my family, friends and those I come in contact with but most importantly God. If I can end my life being right in all those situations, I will die a happy man.

    January 29, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
    • tony

      What an imagination! Knowing what god desires!

      January 29, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
  20. Steph

    My thought would be, if someone's dying...if they want to talk about religion, they can. If they want to talk about their families, they can. They're dying - I'd say they deserve choice on their last words.

    January 29, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
    • 14401

      And, who would stop them. No one. I was setting with a dying friend (male) while his wife had an emergency tooth problem. He appeared to be staring off into the distance. I said (name), what are you thinking. He said weakly, "we're talking". Gave me goose bumps. He was possibly talking to his God, who knows and he wasn't dead yet.

      January 29, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.