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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. Carolin

    Dear Kerry,

    How do I let you know that I love what you just did? I really felt the meaning of your writing, and I can't imagine a writer who doesn't feel satisfied to know this. 'Great job!' is not enough!

    January 29, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
  2. Derrick

    That my dear Kerry, is why those who can't do, teach; forgive him for he doesn't understand.

    January 29, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
  3. Bill P

    Kerry, Sorry, but only talking about family is simply giving comfort and small talk. Nothing has changed for you in 13 years. The theoretical concept of a "chaplain" should include, if not emphasize, the spiritual part of passing from this life. When Jesus was on the cross and he talked to the two thieves, also having been nailed to the cross, one taunting and one repentant, He talked about the afterlife, not about family. In just those last few moments each thief understood his eternal destiny – the one to be with Him in "paradise", the other, well, by default, not with Him in paradise. That would be the more apt job of a chaplain or anyone with the spirit of Christ that cares about another person's eternal destination.

    January 29, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
    • Nancy

      You're absolutely right, Bill. Jesus didn't waste time asking about the life of the thief, his family, etc. – He went right to the heart of the matter. We all have a choice – where will we spend eternity? So, a chaplain should ask the dying person about his eternal destination. There isn't time for small talk at this point. If you don't choose before you die, the choice is made for you.

      January 29, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
    • Nat

      I disagree. A chaplain's job is to be there and listen. If the patient doesn't want to talk about faith then as a caring human being, the chaplain shouldn't. The last thing anyone should have to deal with on their death bed is some fool preaching to them if they don't want it. You let the patient guide the conversation, it's their time not the chaplains. Do us a favour and don't go into a ministry of any kind.

      January 29, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      If some bozo shows up when I'm dying and starts telling ME what I "need to hear", I'll have him or her thrown out. You can keep your beliefs to yourself unless I ASK you. Otherwise, can it, Nancy, and take Bill with you.

      January 29, 2012 at 7:16 pm |
    • David B

      Tom Tom the dum dum, I'm sure we'd all throw out a bozo telling us what to think.
      What does that have to do with a legitimate chaplain that comes in at your request
      to pray and talk about God and faith? He's not there uninvited, you know, you nutcase.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:20 pm |
    • Bill P

      For NAT – "Do us a favour and don't go into a ministry of any kind." Don't worry about that at this stage in my life. It is true that, if a person does not want to hear the Gospel of Jesus, then it is best to respect their wishes. The disciples were admonished in that case to "shake the dust off their feet" and move on. But if the chaplain does not even bring up the subject of salvation and heaven and hell, then that demonstrates the emptiness of that chaplain's sense of purpose. Go look up the definition of a chaplain and you will better understand my criticism. By the way, if you were to die tonight, even next week, do you know for sure where you will be following your death? Read Romans 3:23, Romans 6:23, Romans 10: 9,10, John 3:16, and Ephesians 2:8,9, and Revelation 3:20. Do this for yourself.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:04 am |
  4. Atheism is NOT healthy for our children and 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 4:10 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      except that study after study shows that prayer does nothing. spend time with your friends and family instead. much better use of the time we have here on earth than talking to yourself or a fairy tale in the sky.

      January 29, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
    • FaithIsNotAVirtue

      Prayer changes nothing for anybody other than occasionally yourself but not because of some god, more because it may help to focus and concentrate.- never has, never will. Research has PROVEN this.
      Help those who suffer – praying will not help, doing something for someone will.
      There is no 'next' world – this is the only life you have. Enjot it and help others enjoy it too.
      Where are these 'heavens gates' located? How do you know?
      Home is where you live or where your precious memories reside.
      Prayer changes nothing. Stop deluding yourself and live your life to it's fullest with least harm to others and help others to do likewise.

      January 29, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
  5. Mister Dog

    What a nice article. As a nurse, I have sat with the dying because their family was not there with them. I have stood silently by and watched families say goodbye, and I have ushered family from the room so their loved one could die. (Some people hang on until their families have left the room.) I, too, have talked with the dying about death, their families, and their lives. God/religion/etc. almost never come up. They often talk about their families, and are almost always in the moment. Mostly, there is no need for them to question their spirituality, because they know it's right around the corner. What they want to do is tie up their emotional loose ends and get ready for whatever comes next.

    Also, it amazes me how nasty people's comments are – both religious folk and atheists. Why can't we all just respect the fact that other people have other beliefs? So much hate...

    January 29, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
  6. Bootyfunk

    people probably don't like to talk about God when they're dying because they want to spend their remaining time talking about something more important.

    January 29, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
    • Nancy

      Everybody gets to choose. I see that you've made your choice, Bootyfunk. Good luck with that.

      January 29, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Yeah, I choose not to put up with sanctimonious boobs like you, Nancy.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:33 pm |
  7. Odette Dunn

    Thank you, very nice assay. I am not an atheist but I am a spiritual person. When I pray, I pray to my ancestors, I pray to my beloved parents, I pray to my beloved 2 brothers who died from a motorcycle accident, I pray to my beloved nephew. Because they were the people in my life.

    January 29, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
  8. passerby

    your family is only an extention of yourself. love for your family is nothing more than self love. animals are better in that loving than humans. the kind of love that is worthy of mentioning is love for the others, the strangers, those who you don't know and have no relationship with. that's special.

    January 29, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
  9. Jazzy

    Have you noticed that non-Christians smell terrible? Baptism helps :)

    January 29, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      yeah, christians hate the smell of free thinkers. you guys just smell like ignorance.

      January 29, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
    • apricoco

      You are a terrible person.

      January 29, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
  10. Misty Twain

    Hey CNN-Why is it that you always want to stroke the NPD's a.k.a atheists egos?

    January 29, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      hahaha. you kidding me? i wish we were getting stroked. plus christian egos bite you if you try to stroke them.

      January 29, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
    • Andrew

      Ms. Egan-Unfortunately, the english language does not do justice to the word Love.
      Please go back to school and study Love and what it actually means in the context of God and others.

      January 29, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
  11. Diane

    Since my Brother passed away last year and my Mother is near the end of her beautiful life, I can attest that everything the Chaplain said is spot on. Dealing with the death of a loved one really puts things in perspective and makes you realize the love of family and and friends is all that really matters in this life. I feel sorry for anyone who took no more from this beautiful article than to point out a grammatical error.

    January 29, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
    • Don Ricardo Spenelli

      You live. You die. Dust in the wind. All we are is dust in the wind.

      January 29, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
    • llmb

      Don Ricardo - We are star dust.

      January 29, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
  12. Laurel

    T hank you for this article. It made me cry & it made me think about the ife I still have to live.

    January 29, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
  13. Sunshine

    This is a beautiful article that brought tears to my eyes. It is meaningul for any religion. I am Jewish.
    Your professor was mean-spirited and brazen.
    I hope the people you touch with your kindness have made up for him

    January 29, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
    • Mari

      Marriage to many is a religious ittisnution, why is the government involved????? Equal but separate is never equal Cilvil unions for all who seek them in the eyes of the government. A simple contract that states the government of the USA sees the couple as one unit. If the far right wants to act like they are more special than the rest of Americans than fine make all people married under the government go back and change the wording on their license to read Cilvil Union. With that said most chu

      April 1, 2012 at 3:48 am |
  14. David B

    1. God 2. Family 3. Country

    Who's Kerry Egan trying to fool?

    January 29, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      i think that was a typo. it goes:
      1 dog
      2 family
      3 country

      January 29, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
    • Kate

      what do you mean?

      January 29, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
  15. mujib

    Love ,Respect,Responsibility that all you need.

    January 29, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
  16. Christo

    People nearing death don't care about God, only what's TRULY important to them and that's their family. Why do you think the lady rarely discusses it with dying people? Why waste your final moments jib jabbing about gospel you hope is true when you can reflect with and love those people who are closest to you? You had an entire life of Sundays hearing the same broken record. I know when I'm in my final moments I WILL be scared because THIS LIFE which is so wonderful will be nearing an end. I don't want to go to heaven forever. I will miss Earth. I like the good and the bad of THIS LIFE HERE RIGHT NOW.

    January 29, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
  17. evensteven

    Nice one Kerry . . .

    January 29, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
  18. Sliph

    I'm not a very religious person "although I do believe in god" but I have to give credit where it is due. It was a joy to read such a wonderfully written article. Truly thought provoking and worthy of respect.

    January 29, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
    • Solitairedog

      Ditto. "Like" button.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:04 pm |
  19. Steve

    Wrong... You would not have to guess if someone is an atheist. Most of them are quite eager to tell you.

    January 29, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • rick

      and you know this how?

      January 29, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      that's exactly wrong. people on CNN writing anonymously proclaim atheism, but in real life, that's not the case. atheists are generally in the closet because of how they get treated by friends, family and co-workers. you should see some people's faces when you say you're an atheist - looks like you just told them you murdered someone. but more atheists are coming out, which is what needs to happen.

      January 29, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
    • freeb

      Not as eager as Christians are to tell you what they are.

      January 29, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
  20. UncleBaire

    I most definetly would not talk about my family. I would be to happy to finally be away from them. I would probably talk about the life not lived...be it out of fear or rejection or even uncertainty. I would speak of the love I gave and what I learned from the love not given. I would speak of the people I didn't forgive and the people who forgave me, the time I wasted holding on to things that didn't bear fruit, the sadness I felt withholding love and the joy I felt extending it, the anger I felt at not being prepared for this world as a child and the joy of giving to other's what I did not receive myself. But mostly, I would talk about if I did what I was supposed to do while I was here and to accept what I did as enough. I will wonder even after death: What the hell was The Kardashian's was about....

    January 29, 2012 at 3:49 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.