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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. Cheryl

    This article is the most accurate representation of the end-of-life process I have ever read. I have been a professional standing by as people die–with or without family present, as a daughter whose father died, and as a wife, watching as my husband–the father of my still young children died. Connectedness, (family) =-those people who are our legal or emotional family–this is what life is all about–its joys and sorrows are really the bottom line of life. I believe in God and I believe God manifests through the people in our lives. Kerry–I appreciate your perspective and I thank you for sharing it.

    January 29, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
    • Mei

      I agree that God works through people. In Christianity we learn we are His hands and feet. That is why Jesus asks us if we do unto others (especially those who are in need), we do for Him. The only part of the article I felt was missing, was prayer and asking God's forgiveness too. We can't just ask forgiveness from people. We have to seek God's mercy.

      January 29, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
    • Cheryl

      Maybe I am replying to myself? Mei–I believe that God is not only all-knowing, but all-loving. We need not ask for forgiveness–it is ours without asking. God is bigger than you or I.

      January 29, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
  2. awakeseattle

    Thank you Kerry Egan, for sharing such an intimate experience and assisting many of us to not lose sight of the things that really matter, and what ultimately matters to most people at the end of life. This article touched and resonated within me and will stay with me for a long time.

    January 29, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
  3. Russ

    surprised no one has posted this old ER scene yet...

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vhxURmVl0lQ&w=640&h=390]

    January 29, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
  4. mujib

    Prayer has a power if you know how to pray,I don't I am learning & do so until death.

    January 29, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
  5. passerby

    love for your own family and friends is nothing special; it's an extention of your self love. animals love theirs better than humans.

    love for the strangers, on the other hand, those you have never met and have no relationship with is special. try that for a change.

    January 29, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
  6. my father recently passed

    beautiful piece! thank you for the heartfelt and reasonable way you portray the end of life.

    January 29, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
  7. Your professor was right

    Kerry-Your professor was right.
    Maybe you should call yourself something else and not a Chaplain.
    Perhaps you should call yourself "Focus on the family for the dying-Specialist"

    January 29, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
    • Dori

      you are off base. out of line. when soldiers died in the wars they often called for their mothers. not God. not that they didn't believe in God but because they knew the physical way God had showed love to them...through their mothers. Perhaps you were never close with your family?

      January 29, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
    • To Your Professor Was Right

      Read the comments coming in. Dori

      January 29, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
    • Andrew

      Agreed! the professor is right.

      January 29, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
  8. Chris

    What a wonderful article. I honor your work Kerry. This is the Christianity I knew as a child... lead by example... represent God through acts of compassion and humanity. If there were more like you-leading by example instead of preaching from a pulpit-I would return to the Church.

    January 29, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
  9. Mike

    OK guys, I need to bump this. This was written earlier today by a guy named Tom Estill, and is one of the deepest things I have ever read on the internet. This is what he wrote:

    Straight Up Kerry,
    My children and I were with my wife when she passed on from cancer. We really didn't speak of God much, but we spoke of family often. At the moment of her death, I whispered in her ear to reach out and take her mother's(who had passed on years earlier) hand, and that I would take good care of the children, and that I loved her very much. It wasn't until after she died that I spent much time thinking of heaven and asking for God to watch over her. And after reading your article, I know my wife would have liked having you by her side at the end.

    January 29, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
    • Dori

      This article made me cry. I totally believe what this chaplain writes. Our God is in our daily lives our families. They are the physical. God understands this which is why he became part man and died on the cross for us,

      January 29, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
    • Cheryl

      Yes. I don't know why some who call themselves Christians disagree with Kerry's article. Belief can be quiet–without a big fanfare of conversion to Christ. Some of us are already there. And Christ has many names.

      January 29, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
  10. bon

    Heaven or hell. One is as good as the other. But, I fear there is neither.

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

      Precisely...if the Christards posting here are typical of those that populate heaven I couldn't imagine a more hellish place to be.

      January 29, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
    • captain america

      Try canada There's your sign

      January 29, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
    • Mei

      You really think hell and heaven is "no different"? So, you'd like to be in a place where unrepentant rapists, murderers, child molesters, former Nazi killers and other hateful people live (hell)? Not to mention where demons live (and remember, they don't like humans at all). I think most people want to go to the other place. Better to leave your heart open to Faith, then to pretend there is nothing (or ignore hell).

      January 29, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
    • Rafael

      Sounds like a great plan and I love that you've sechduled time for an emotional breakdown should one occur and that your plan is fluid.Good luck with the shipping – let us know what you do!

      March 2, 2012 at 6:08 am |
  11. mmrns

    Beautiful. Thank you

    January 29, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
  12. thetruth

    I cannot begin to thank Kerry for your piece. Love is the begining and the end!

    January 29, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
  13. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things
    Pray for those who suffer
    In transition from this world
    To the next
    Prayer opens heavens gates
    To bring the child of God home
    Prayer changes things

    January 29, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
    • AtheistSteve

      This is your brain on religion. This poster doesn't have anything intelligent to add to the discourse. I suspect it's just a bot.

      January 29, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
    • captain america

      I suspect steve has nothing to add to the American way but he do love to run his canadian mouth. There's your sign

      January 29, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
    • tallulah13

      The original poster is a mindless drone, cutting and pasting proven lies in order to bolster their own self-importance.

      January 29, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
    • tallulah13

      I suspect "Captain America" lives in his mom's basement, posting anti-Canadian sentiments because he can't find a job.

      January 29, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
    • pervert alert

      if tallulah had a clue she would still score clueless

      January 29, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
    • Tallulah13

      Pervert, if your opinion had any value, I'm sure I'd be devastated.

      January 29, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
    • pervert alert

      truth be told it is a paid position

      January 29, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
    • Tallulah13

      That was pretty funny, but I still don't assign any value to your opinion.

      January 29, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
  14. It's a Wonderful Life in George Bailey's World

    the student teaches the teacher never have a closed mind you may miss out on a miracle of life.

    January 29, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
  15. Reality

    Tough to talk to anyone when you are on a morphine drip, the top-secret method of a quick and painless, family-approved, euthanasia for the terminal.

    January 29, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
  16. EmmausHoss

    I think I love you, Kerry Egan!

    January 29, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
  17. Disappointed friend

    Awww I found out earlier today that one of my friend is atheist..... Thank God I left her and will NEVER EVER talk with her again. I cannot believe she does not believe in God.

    January 29, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
    • AtheistSteve

      In that at least you will be doing her a favor. She doesn't need the likes of you.

      January 29, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Are you a troll, or just a complete jerk?

      January 29, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
    • captain america

      as a but in canadian i would say steve is both tallulah. There's your sign

      January 29, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
    • Barbara Warren

      thank God you're not my "friend".

      January 29, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Not talking about Steve, CA, but the original poster. You, however, have left no doubt that you are a jerk.

      January 29, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
    • Ruthie

      One of my family members is also one of the best people I know, thoughtful, considerate, caring, loving, and an Atheist.

      January 29, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
    • Rick

      Hey, Disappointed Friend! Can you really ditch a friend and refuse to speak to them ever again simply because their beliefs run counter to yours? If so, you don't sound like you would be much of a friend in the first place.

      January 29, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
    • John

      Why would you leave your friend just because she shares different beliefs than yours? I find that hard to comprehend.

      January 29, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
    • Oh please

      You're not much of a friend.

      January 29, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
    • look that granny is back trolling

      ;)

      January 29, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
    • disappointed christian

      i think that christ would be disappointed in how you turned your back on your friend.

      January 29, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
    • paulse

      The ex-friend is luckier than she will ever know. People like DF are precisely and exactly the reason that organized religion tends to make me throw-up a little.

      January 29, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
  18. paula j knutson

    The article may touch emotions and hearts, but it's not biblical at all. If I'm dying and I don't have any understanding about God or Jesus. About the sacrifice of the cross for my sins, I'm in trouble. A minister of the gospel would help a person understand they are going to eternity forever. And without faith in the finished work of Christ on the cross, they will be in Hell forever. Where on earth has the church gone wrong. We are so enlightened today, we throw out the truth in order to be relevant or politically correct. I'm sorry we need some old fashioned preaching again. This new church age is really nauseating. People on their deathbeds need to have hope in the life to come. Jesus Christ is still the way, the truth, the life, no one comes to the father but by Him!

    January 29, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
    • tallulah13

      I say this as someone who has lost three well-loved family members to terminal diseases: How very selfish of you. Most people who have knowledge of their impending death already know what you want to say. Let them speak, let them spend their final moments saying goodbye and let those that love them say goodbye as well. If a dying person wants to hear your story, they'll ask.

      January 29, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
    • Barbara Warren

      In other words you would increase the suffering of a dying person by making a total, selfish, self-absorbed pest of yourself.

      January 29, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
    • Dr. Brian Deal

      The last thing I would need is some self-rightous preacher telling me how it is. I watched as my pious relatives sat by my 42 year old sister's death bed telling her about Jesus. She desperately wanted to hold her daughter one more time, to kiss her wonderful husband. My Father and his sister needed her to be 'right' with the Lord. I wonder what you will talk about on your death bed? If it's your faith, good for you. It's easy to spout off until it's you. This was a wonderful article.

      January 29, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
    • MikeTheAtheist

      It must be frustrating for you to see all of these people react so positively to dying people reaching out to their families, discussing family and friends and love and forgiveness, spending their last moments making their own choices to talk about what is important in their final moments of nothing-left-to-lose honesty ...

      and what are most important in those most-honest moments are love and family.

      Not your bible, not your hell.

      In their final moments of greatest truth, THEY are deciding what is important to THEM, and it is family, not your old fashioned preaching church or your bible or your bible god. Yes, your old fashioned church is losing the fight, but humanity is winning.

      Welcome to REAL family values, not just the political kind spat out by the GOP as a result of the latest focus group, but the real kind, with people connecting and loving and forgiving and bonding with one another to make it through life in a positive way.

      I think there is hope for the world yet.

      January 29, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      If I want to hear about your beliefs, paula, I'll ask you. If you come to my deathbed spouting your crap without my permission, I'll have you thrown out on your ass.

      January 29, 2012 at 7:22 pm |
  19. mujib

    From born to death we need money too.

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

    Wonderful article! I do believe that you were wiser than the professor! How ironic that a divinity professor is so lacking in compassion and human insight both for you and for the dying patients! It makes totally sense to focus on family instead of religion or God. On your deathbed, you know that once you died you will find out whether God and heaven do exist or not and you will find out soon enough so I don't think that last minute ritual or prayer is going to do anything to change that. Either way, you are leaving behind that physical life and the people in it so it would make sense to focus on that, on the things in your life that are concrete. I believe in God and in an afterlife, but my belief is purely based on faith, based on what I feel that it must be right, that all the energy that makes a person exist, real, and unique has to be conserved somehow. But this is something I know intellectually and spiritually, while my family is what I know concretely. Our relationships with other people are our biggest legacies. Yes, I do believe that the way we live our lives does show how we love, how we love our families, our selves, our "neighbors." Thank you for your article.

    January 29, 2012 at 4:12 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.