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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. Amarie

    Nice and well written. I would love to see CNN post more of this type. Kudos!

    January 29, 2012 at 3:13 pm |
  2. Faith lover

    A simple, yet beautifully written piece. Well done, Kerry, good and faithful servant. I have not spent much time around people who are dying, but when I sat by my Dad's side as he was making his transition, I found everything that Kerry has written to be true. However it is expressed (love of music, love of friends, old times, love of family) it is about love. Yes, that is the discussion of God because God is perfect love. Thank you Kerry and CNN for this lovely article.

    January 29, 2012 at 3:13 pm |
  3. Dan

    Beautiful. Just beautiful. Thank you Kerry.

    January 29, 2012 at 3:13 pm |
  4. Tom in San Diego

    Without question the best article I've ever read on CNN bar none....

    Thank you for your teachings Mr. Egan...

    January 29, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
  5. Shubha Krishnamurthy

    Very interesting... Don't understand why people migrate away from family and hometown even though they love their families so much...

    January 29, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      When your hometown is in the Rust Belt and there are no jobs, what would you have people do?

      January 29, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
  6. rchbirder

    Yesterday I commented, quite angerly about religion and how religious people seem to hate. Today I read this and realize that there are people out there that get it - that understand love and what it is about - thank you for such a wonderful piece of writing - keep doing what you are doing because you, truly, are doing God's work.

    January 29, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
  7. mark

    Jesus couldn't have said it better.

    Amen.

    January 29, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
    • JohnR

      In fact, he said it a lot worse in many places.

      January 29, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
  8. Ituri

    What an incredibly vicious person, the professor. Yes, lets just dig at peoples final moments because it doesn't strike some ideal religious vision.

    My grandfather di ed with Jesus' name on his lips, and I can tell you it leaves no sense of "extra" satisfaction with those who miss him today that his final thoughts... however comforting they were to him... were not about his family.

    January 29, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
  9. Michelle

    I hope that professor sees this article. He could learn SO MUCH from you. :-)

    January 29, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
  10. Linda

    Absolutely beautiful, comforting and true.....

    January 29, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
  11. Hiram 3

    Beautiful article ! The Family is GOD – and GOD is the Family !!

    January 29, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
  12. Yvonne

    I loved reading this article even though it had me in tears half-way through. I lost my beloved grandfather this past October and right before he passed, he too reached out towards the ceiling and said mama. To us, that's when we knew he was going home. I would give anything to have him here with us again, but I know he is with his parents and other family members who have missed him just like we do. May you rest in peace grandpa and all the others who have passed with Chaplain Kerry Egan at their side. Thank you for listening to these people tell of their life stories.

    January 29, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
    • Hiram 3

      Beautiful comments !

      January 29, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
    • MHS

      I wasn't quite yet in tears at the end of this article, but this comment did it.

      January 29, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
    • Aurelie

      Where did you make the posts? If you posted a link in the mcmoents section of 3d-stuff.ru only bogus can approve the post which is not something he usually does. If you made the posts to Ask 3D , I don't see them, and posts made here do not have to be approved. +1Was this answer helpful?

      April 3, 2012 at 10:57 pm |
  13. Jackson Roberts

    There are two very good books about what it is like to come very close to death and yet not die. One is written by an adult.

    "90 Minutes In Heaven"- Don Piper and the other by a child, "Heaven Is Real"- Burpo.

    Makes you think.

    January 29, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
  14. Mico

    CNN you have somewhat redeem yourself by having the courage of publishing this. Your posting of Lady Gaga and the Kardashians are meaningless when compared to something so real as what is depicted here.

    One of the most profound statements I have come across recently is in this article:

    "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 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."

    Kerry please continue to articulate what is important and obvious, but many, including me, have not developed the sensitivity and realism with which you portray important aspects of life. Thank you very much, and may God bless you abundantly.

    January 29, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
    • JohnR

      Hey, some day, many years from now, you may be on your deathbed, reaching for the ceiling and crying "Lady Gaga!!!"

      Think about. Just don't think about it too much, eh?

      January 29, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
  15. Rodney

    Knowing God's desires isn't hard when you seek Him. You sould try it, just ask God, "If you are real, reveal youself to me." Here is an example, I wouldn't want my kids to love me because I "proved" something to them or forced them to love me. When they love me because they choose to, that is when I know I have a good relationship with them. In the same way, God is ready and willing to reveal things to all of those who "choose" to seek Him. Reconcilation has already been provided, all we have to do is seek Him.

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

      Rodney, man that is so almost something.

      Only problem is, you are real and God is fictional. Slight difference there. Keep trying though.

      January 29, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
  16. Andrew

    We written insightful article
    As a physician, who cares for sick and dying patients, of many beliefs and many different religions, there is one unifying discussion as we near death ... love and family.

    This is a HOME RUN article!!
    Thank you

    January 29, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
  17. Milton

    This article reminded me of the famous words of Jack Handy: "If you have the choice between going to regular heaven or pie heaven, choose pie heaven. It might be a trick, but if it isn't, mmmmm boy!"

    or..."Someone once told me God dwells inside each of us. I hope he likes enchiladas, because that's what he's getting".

    January 29, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
  18. nelane

    I could not stop reading once I began even though I don't like reading about these type of articles.
    A really beautifully written piece.

    January 29, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
  19. Commentary42

    Every religion in the world has love or loving compassion at the core of its teaching. Thank you Kerry for your profound understanding of this simple truth and for honoring these simple testimonials to the power of love. I once had a dear friend who many people thought was a terrible bore because she could go on for hours about her garden, her cooking, here sewing, but I loved to listen to her because she was talking about the beautiful and the miraculous in her ordinary life – she was talking about love and wonder. If that is not worship, then nothing is.

    January 29, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
    • ProfEmeritus

      Is it really true that all religions are about love? Or, do we like to think that is true?

      January 29, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
    • JohnR

      Love is pretty peripheral to the actual practice of a lot of religions and even when it's "in the book", it often has to do with people being commanded to love jack-es like Jehovah or Allah. Love on command. Love authority. Yeah, that's true love for sure ...

      January 29, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
  20. James

    That was beautiful and made me a little misty.
    It also brings to my mkind your profesors reaction to your approach.
    Your job is not really about religion: your job is about people and [merely?] framed within the context of religion.
    I think we all have a tendency to get 'locked into' a personal 'dogma' about our beliefs and how we do our jobs.
    I'm quite pleased that this writing can open up all of our minds.
    Thank You
    James

    January 29, 2012 at 2:56 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.