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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. chris

    That professors fundamental lack of understanding about God is nearly breathtaking, considering he is supposed to be a teacher of theology. That is hysterical. What that woman does, is exactly what Jesus would do...he wouldn't think "Hey Great, a captive audience..now I can spout my opinions about my theories on God...because really, it's not like this dying person is going to get up and move." you know what mr. professor...when you are talking to someone who is dying...It isn't about YOU. And atheists..you can't send your prayers TO someone..you know why...people aren't mind readers. lol. You can express your good thoughts, but don't trash the concept of God to a person who believes in God by telling them you will send your prayer to them? What is that. It's as bad as telling an atheist you are praying for them. lol. I respect this woman, that is God's work...that professor...He doesn't believe in God..He believes in himself, and God is the vehicle through which he can promote himself. Nasty.

    January 29, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
    • Jesus Is Lord

      Seriously? Jesus wouldn't "spout his opinions and theories on God"? Do you understand that Jesus is God? Jesus died to pay for your sins. However, this deal is null and void unless you accept His gift – and how will you accept it if no one tells you about it? The work of the church (God's people) is to go and make disciples of all nations. Anyone who claims to be a Christian should be doing this work every day of their lives. How much more should you be doing this if you call yourself "chaplain"?

      January 29, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
  2. NJ

    Well Christians will enter kingdom of heaven, and Atheists will be sent to h.ell – it´s that easy

    January 29, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
    • Captain Universe

      Good, but how about you? What did they say about monkeys?

      January 29, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
    • evensteven

      This God of yours sounds like he carries grudges. "Do what I say or I smash you like a bug"

      Just doesn't sound like the Supreme Intelligence to me . . . .

      January 29, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Proof would be nice. We've been very patient, waiting all these thousands of years for a shred of evidence to prove the existence of ANY god, much less yours with his heaven and hell.

      January 29, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
    • jimbo

      Maybe there is no h.ell and atheists are in heaven, they just have to change little baby jesus' diapers every christmas for eternity and then clean up all the easter eggs the Monday after we celebrate a rabbit distributing eggs on a holy day, just like we celebrate shopping for five weeks before virgin mom drops the saviour.

      January 29, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
  3. Nancy Sharp

    I was very moved by this article. A few years ago I nursed my young husband to his death, feeding him chocolate pudding toward the end, when he was unable to feed himself. I hadn't realized that this expression of love was an act of faith. Sometimes we must grasp at faith however it comes. This, I believe, is how we ultimately redeem what happens to us in our lives. Today I write about love and loss and faith and renewal at VividLiving.org and NancySharp.net.

    January 29, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
  4. Jesus Is Lord

    What a waste of a GOLDEN opportunity. I talk with people almost every day about their faith. Generally, people are too busy to care and many just dismiss what I am telling them. However, a dying man or woman knows that whatever is waiting on the "other side" is rapidly approaching. You have their undivided attention. Why would you not discuss the most important thing in their life?

    Jesus is the answer. He is the ONLY way to the Father in Heaven. Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, repent, obey and be saved!

    January 29, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
    • George

      Amen!

      January 29, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
    • MCV

      Missed opportunity? Really? People who are in their final stages don't need self-righteous folks like you making themselves feel better by spouting out their beliefs. I hope that if I ever find myself in that situation you aren't anywhere near me.

      January 29, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
    • silicon28

      Unfortunately, you never once mentioned how you "listen" to anyone. The same mistake the professor made – you talk so much and miss the whole point. You're probably similar to so many "Christians" that talk so much they never realize everyone around them just wishes they would shut the hell up.

      January 29, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
    • tallulah13

      How horrible and selfish of you.

      "You have their undivided attention" ??? So you would steal the last few moments of a person's life for your personal agenda? You make me sick, truly sick.

      January 29, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
  5. Brian

    So, what's your point author of this article? What is it you are trying to say? Just say it. Weird article. I believe deeply in God, and find it weird all of these "chaplains" who are so weeble wobbly on their relationship with a personal Savior in Christ.

    January 29, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
    • George

      Exactly.

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

      The point of the article is God IS Love. That is what they teach in Sunday school these days, right? I mean aside from preaching politics. Or has it really gone so far beyond God IS Love that fundamentalists don't remember the basics anymore?

      January 29, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
    • George

      @Paul

      How could you be so ignorant of Christianity? Of course, God is love, but that is only one part of God. God is much more and some very terrible things as well.

      January 29, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
    • Captain Universe

      You need to be treated. Mostly by a psychiatrist.

      Excellent article. Serves a good slap in the hypocrite faces of theists.

      January 29, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
  6. rmay

    I have been an ICU Nurse for many years , people who die are not as interested in religion as their families are ... people even near death are often just in the moment and just want to be comfortable

    January 29, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
  7. GodIsTheWay

    Like I said, I want my priest there when I'm fixing to go, I can be led through a last communion, perhaps a few prayers for myself and my family. I want to go knowing I've asked God to look out for them.

    January 29, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
    • tallulah13

      I truly hope you get your wish. And I truly hope that people respect my wishes when my time comes and keep the religion far away from me.

      January 29, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
  8. Vero

    Kerry, thank you very much for this beautiful piece. Your words made me cry. We lost my mother law last week, she had cancer, and I would love to have someone like you beside her bed before dying. God bless you!

    January 29, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
  9. Judy

    As my husband laid dying from cancer, I told him he could let go. I held his hand and I drifted off to sleep. When I awoke he was blinking his eyes trying to get my attention because he did not have the strength to move. He had stopped blinking prior to that and now all of a sudden he was trying to talk with his eyes. I called my son and told him his dad was dying. My husband had always asked me if I would want to be with him after death and I joked with him and said, "It depends on where you go." But as I laid next to him, I told him, "Baby wait for me on the other side." He blinked once to let me know he understood. My son told him, "Dad come to me in my dreams." He again blinked once. He then he seemed to stare off at something in the distance and he passed on. To this day, he comes to my son's dreams as if he had gone off on a business trip and had stopped by.

    January 29, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
    • Just Julia

      I have to stop reading these comments. Tears are rolling down my cheeks. Thanks for sharing that beautiful and very personal moment. *stranger danger*: *internet hug*

      January 29, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
  10. captain america

    I will go nose to nose with you and the liar about minding your own f'n business but you will always know it is me and where i stand. There's your sign

    January 29, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
    • AtheistSteve

      Aimed at me no doubt. OK I concede that you weren't the impersonating troll. I never said you were by the way and you did bash the impersonator for faking. Anyone who knows me on this blog knows I would never post a racist remark like the one below. And as far as I can recall I have never discussed religion with you at all. You only seem concerned with national pride and hate for Canadians. Since those are not usually germane to the topics presented you mostly get ignored by me.

      January 29, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
    • captain america

      No problem with Canadians, but with pushy butt in canadians commenting on issues like our politics or beliefs that is none of their f'n business. There's your sign

      January 29, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
    • TruthPrevails

      CA: beliefs are international, your politics affect every country...you have the largest economic base going and we all endure that...if your credit rating drops, we see the effects of it also. We have WalMart, Subway, Target and numerous other businesses that are all USA based in our country...we put money in to your economy every day. We are your largest ally in anything your country does and we always be. It is not butting in when your countries moves affect us almost as greatly as they affect you. We have to endure the tortuous republitard debates on our tv channels and listen to fools like Gingrich and at one point Bachman and Palin spewing their silly plans for your country. Once again, CNN has two Canadian's who work for it...so I'm wondering why you are not whining to CNN in an effort to have them dismissed from the company...after all in your opinion, they would be considered as butting in...right? The thing is that the harder you push the more we stay...so why bother to continue the fight?

      January 29, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
    • captain america

      Doing good never ends. There's your sign

      January 29, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      AtheistSteve, you have never discussed religion with CA because he never says anything of substance.

      January 29, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
  11. Just Julia

    I'm atheist, and was still very moved by your article; thank you for this beautiful piece. Oh, and how awful of your professor to embarrass you as he did! Shame on him!

    January 29, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
  12. Joke

    No need for me to worry about last words. I will end it completely and cleanly, with no second thoughts. All this reflection and conversation before the end is complete BS.

    January 29, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
  13. Debwards

    I love this article! Thank you for explaing it so well. I believe life is really all about growth, love, growth, forgiveness, growth.... you get my point!

    January 29, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
  14. Harvey

    God is love, and nothing else. No man in the sky, no afterlife, neither heaven or hell. We have only the life we live here on Earth.

    January 29, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
    • AtheistSteve

      So why call it God? It already has a word to define it.

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

      You need to read your Bible.

      January 29, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
    • Paul

      George, YOU need to stop telling people what to do. Faith is a matter of choice, not your fundamentalist demands.

      January 29, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
    • JPX

      You are absolutely correct, Harvey.

      January 29, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
    • Ben

      Harvey,
      Do you know that for sure?

      January 29, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
    • George

      @Paul

      You need to understand that the views of the OP are exactly the views that lead one down the primrose path to hell.

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

      George, I don't NEED to do anything. There you go again, demanding I accept your fundamentalist stand. Not gonna happen, ever!!!! You NEED to stay out of other peoples' business.

      January 29, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
    • Harvey

      Atheist Steve, taking it from the gist of the article, God = love. Not to imply anything more.

      Ben, yeah pretty certain as I know of no proof of anyone ever existing outside his/her bodily existence. Oh, Jesus? Hard to believe the story of someone whose childhood and early adult years are unaccounted for before suddenly reappearing.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:41 pm |
  15. Lori

    Thank you so very much for this article. I have cancer and my son and I are estranged. He has decided that there is no God and that family is not important to him either. I am sending him the article praying that God will open his mind and guide him to understanding. It is so wonderfully written and so very true.

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

      Lori: I don't know who you are but I am sending you a little bit of love. Perhaps its coming from your son through me.

      January 29, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
    • 4th wright

      Lori, I am sorry to hear of your illness. I agree, this is a very good article. Your son may or may not wish to read it, but he will not be able to miss how your faith gives you strength. You are the best example for your son. God bless you.

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

      I absolutely love your blog and find the moirajty of your post's to be precisely what I'm looking for. Do you offer guest writers to write content to suit your needs? I wouldn't mind creating a post or elaborating on some of the subjects you write concerning here. Again, awesome weblog!

      April 3, 2012 at 11:15 pm |
  16. Paul

    I made it to my fathers bedside about an hour and a half before he died. I still remember standing a few feet away talking to the Doctor. My dad was dying of Melanoma skin cancer, and in intense pain. He did not know yet I was in the room, and then I heard him say "hurry Paul". I believe to this day that the love he had for me gave him the strength to allow me the opportunity to say goodbye. I also believe the love he had for me was so strong that I and my sister was sent to get something to eat, because he did not want us in the room when he passed.....he didn't want us to endure that pain. The moment I will cherish forever is when I took his hand and told him it was ok to let go, and he nodded at me and told me he loved me. I don't believe in organized religion, and I don't need to. It has become a political machine, and it is something I reject as a part of my faith.

    January 29, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
  17. helensadornmentsblog

    Ms Egan is who I would want with me in my final days. She seems full of compassion and sensitivity. This was a beautifully written article.

    January 29, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
  18. George

    The author is no fundamentalist.

    January 29, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Thank goodness. Who needs more idiots like you?

      January 29, 2012 at 7:26 pm |
  19. AtheistSteve

    I s-u-c-k b-l-a-c-k d-i-c-k hoping to get AIDs.

    January 29, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
    • George

      You felt it necessary to post such trash? You actually took time out of your life, seconds that you will never get back, to post this. Unbelievable.

      January 29, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
    • AtheistSteve

      Hey...looky here. I have my very own impersonating troll. How cute.

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

      Great, now I'm being impersonated. All I wanted to do was confess my deepest want in life...

      January 29, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • TruthPrevails

      To the real AtheistSteve: your troll is CA...only wishing it could get some :-)

      January 29, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • AtheistSteve

      CA's been bothering me for a while now. I think he's jealous I get more b-l-a-c-k diseased d-i-c-k than he does.

      January 29, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
    • captain america

      that is a fraud, as much as steve butts in where he does not belong i stand opposed to some low end fake stealing
      steves name and firing a cheap shot. That is not the American way. Pathetic loser stealing a name on an anonymous blog. There's your sign

      January 29, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
    • Hmm

      Jesus loves you, Steve.

      January 29, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
    • AtheistSteve

      Yes Truth...I know. But I'm not worried about being impersonated by someone who can't otherwise defend their arguments. It's even a bit flattering in a twisted ,sick, mentally deficient way.

      January 29, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
    • TruthPrevails

      To The Real AtheistSteve: We have great reason today to be proud of our heritage...those pigs who did the honor killings in Kingston have all been found guilty on four counts of first degree murder today-proving who we, as a country are and what we will not tolerate! We are lucky to live where we do!

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

      Lowlifes like you need all the love we can give. You are one sorry excuse for a human being.

      January 29, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
  20. Jim

    Just went thru this with my wide's passing. She suffered her illness for over 12 years, and was confined to home for the last 6 or so. She was a woman of completely devoted to God thru Jesus Christ, and that faith gave her the strength to endure, not only the limitations, but the isolation from others, the last couple of months being bedfast, and the final couple of months of pain, including the last couple of weeks of extreme pain. She was confident of her destination with the Lord, and never complained, but was a beacon of COURAGE to her family, as all of her children & grandchildren as they held her hands and arms,, caressed her brow, Her last recognizable utterance was " I love you too.". I should mention that she had no meds until the very end, she prayed cdonstantly, FOR OTHERS, Her passing was an inspiration to all who knew her..She was anxous to enter her eternity. At the top of her great list of accomplishments was her solid family.

    January 29, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
    • Kyle

      My prayers of go out TO you and your wide.

      January 29, 2012 at 4:47 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.