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?”
“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.
She is doing the right thing. These people don't want to listen to some know-it-all (or thinks they do) clergy. It's likely they've heard enough of those types throughout their life. I know I certainly have. What they want is someone to listen to them, to hold their hand, and to cry and laugh with them – to sponge their forehead or give them a drink if they need it. It's okay to ask if they want you to pray for them or with them, but DO NOT EVER force your shallow thoughts onto them! I hope that professor finally obtained a little wisdom afterwards (but sadly, I doubt it).
As an atheist, and while you have a survival instinct, you cannot fear death in the way the theist does. You know that the whole final judgment story, where you may be sent to hell if you fail, is Dark Ages nonsense meant to keep the Church’s authority. You also know that you were dead for 13,700,000,000 years before you were born.
It is impossible for you to fear death, for the simple reason that you know the capacity to fear (or to feel pain or discomfort) itself dies. You will not even know you are dead. Fear of death is as meaningless to you as is the fear of a vacuum, the fear of not being born. You feel a lot more secure, and indeed a deep comfort, in this knowledge, than you would in trying to yoke yourself to someinfantile quasi-hope about living happily ever after that every part of your intellect tells you is untenable
Amazing, sad view. After what Jesus taught that with him there is no death..but spiritual life in his kingdom. Your post makes me understand how people today completely deny him. Im curious about the why?
I dont think im special, actually i worry often because i say I believe in Christ yet I still sin- we all do- the key is to repent and ask for forgiveness from your heart, and have a relationshipe with Christ our savior.
As a person who believes and has 100% faith in God, I do not fear death. This whole thing about atheist and theist fearing death is silly. If anyone feared death, I would think it would have to be the atheist because they try so hard to convince themselves that theist fear death. Death is natural, it's going to happen regardless. We are all dying from the moment we are born. Some of us die early, some die very late.
Religion aside, if you die and aren't missed by anyone, then you haven't accomplished much.
I try to think of the quality of life in terms of how much of a difference you can make in the lives of others.
Colin, I believe it is a grave error to assume that your belief system, atheist, theist or somewhere in between will somehow protect you from fear. Especially fear of death and the dying process. However firmly we hold to our respective beliefs, death is a solitary experience and I'm pretty sure it is our most basic instinct to fear and avoid death.
Ignorance is bliss, but fleeting. The knowledge and comfort that you will soon be with your loved ones is greater than the misperception and missed opportunity that you are about to pass into non-existence.
Colin – I was a former Atheist; but God revealed himself to me. If you hold to Atheism , my friend you will be in a for horrible shock when you die. You will find that you were wrong! Really really wrong, and that will mean loss, eternal loss. Do not risk your eternal destiny! God revealed himself to me supernaturallywhile I was an atheist; He told me that he loved me unconditnally with a love that cannot be contained or explained and he asked me to read His bible, and I did, and he has revisited me in times past to remind me. Friend do not allow yourself to be deceived. God loves you but if you reject his love by faith, no one can help you. Faith is not hard, all you need to do is believe and trust Him. Do you make your heart beat? Do you make your eyes see? Do you moderate your body temperature? Do you manage the aging process? Are you able to create another soul? Friend see and understand that it is the unseen God that does these things. If so then why cannot you not out of a grateful heart worshiop and thank Him for allowing you to see his glory?
Well put, Colin!
Unfortunately my Dad could not speak in his final moments, but leading up to his transition to Glory he did commit his beloved family into the Hands of His beloved Creator. That's what he talked mostly about and he certainly gave his family something to talk about...God
God has not political views, nor his own religious group, God is everywhere and for everybody, even if you are agnostic...
we really have to understand and accept other people's beliefs....
od does not accept other people's belief. He only accepts thebelief in Hi Son. Your opinion doesn't count.
Again... we have to accept and respect other people's beliefs... that's why our government and society is broken
I enjoyed your article very much. I am not a very religious man and I take exception to organized religion. I feel religion is very personal and the definition of what is religion and what is not is up to the individual to define. For each of us that definition is different and "right" for us. I don't care for clergy that only preaches from the bible and ignores what is pertinent in todays social environment. Your assessment that we talk about God and religion by talking about our love experiences with our friends and family is perfect. I too believe that we act out our faith and religious beliefs by our actions in our daily lives. The way we treat each other, care for each other and protect each other. Love is God's gift to mankind, there is not greater gift and we need to recognize that and to take advantage of this gift every waking moment of our lives. Thanks for your thoughts.
Well said, Rich.
I'm an atheist and I applaud her for not insisting on yammering about God to the patients. She does the right thing and just listens to whatever they want to say. That is a refreshing change from the relentless godbotting that is so prevalent in today's American society. The icky fundamentalist crackpot Ray Comfort, for example, is known to give cards to dying patients that ask them where they want to go when they die. That is intrusive, ghoulish and cruel.
That Harvard professor was a total jerk for being so derisive to and about Egan. I say "Keep up the good work".
I hope one day you allow Jesus to open your spiritual eyes. You have to seek him.
Thank God for our savior.
Google "Atheists before death". Its interesting to see many people with faith have a sense of peace before death and smile, while others seem to suffer or not be at peace. Why is that? Coincidence?
Go away, you fundamentalist ghoul. Your "atheists before death" claptrap is just garbage that christians make up to pretend that no one can do without their sick and immoral religion. People like you make me sick.
Oh, and another thing Zeus. I was a born-again Christian for 22 years. Then I educated myself about the Bible and the history of the religion and learned it is all a fraud. So shove it, godbot.
Zeus Z – shut up. We, atheists, just do not believe in the magical invisible man who lives in the sky. Stop insisting that we do.
If he is a Chaplin and he doesn't talk to them about God then what good is he? He is not fulfilling his primary role. It's so sad to see that the clergy is getting so afraid they are going to offend someone if they mention the name of God or Jesus and it's equally as saddening that our nation is reaching a place where they just don't believe in the here after and their need to prepare for it.
You ridiculous, smug moron. Not all of us want to put up with your Bronze Age sky-fairy garbage, especially at that time of life.
Colin has managed to slip two totally useless phrases into a reply, The undefined and probably unknown to Colin phrase 'bronze age' and his self popular but totally irrelevant 'sky fairy' Tell us what Colin wins today Don Pardo
You are as bright as a puddle of mud. This author is not forcing any topic on her patients. She is letting THEM talk about whatever they want. sorry, but you are an idiot.
Colin and John are idio ts.
Well Alex for Colin we have the bronze ass hole of the blogs award with oak leaf cluster. Proudly displayed this award gives every other person on the planet a heads up that they are in the presence of a genuine ass hole. Congratulations Colin
You are right James. He is supposed to tell people about God and their relationship with them. He can save their soul, not their family.
Well Alex for Colin we have the bronze ass hole of the blogs award with oak leaf cluster. Proudly displayed this award gives every other person on the planet a heads up that they are in the presence of a genuine ass hole. Congratulations Colin!
Just heard about your award Colin, No one deserves it more
Wow. How myopic, and narcissistic I might add. The fact that you would think that a chaplain should speak to a dying person according to his agenda, and not from the agenda of the person that is doing the ACTUAL DYING has to be one of the most un-God-like, un-Christian things I have ever heard. Aren't you embarrased?
I don't think she is suggesting she isn't talking about God. Of course she does, but the question is what is most often talked about. When you ask someone to talk about God and he/she starts talking about family, it is not necessary to derail the conversation back to God, if family is the perspective from which they wish to talk about their lives. The point of a chaplain is to be prepared for a person's spiritual needs, whatever those might be and however they might be presented.
It's because chaplains and other mental comfort services aren't chargable. Religious chaplains they still justify as most hospitals are Saint Somebody.
Kerry – your article brought tears to my eyes. You probably have a closer appreciation of the ultimate nature of human existence, in your numerous interactions with dying people, than almost anyone else. It's all about love. Dogma is meaningless.
If it refers to God's plan, his love for us, or Jesus' atonement for our sins or the sins of others, "dogma" is not meaningless – it is a comfort and a reassurance in death....and, of course, family is a big part of that.
That is a better approach than going into a hospital room and talking to ill or dying people and the first questions are, " do you know jesus and are you saved" IN other words if you don't believe like I do your going to h3ll.
Last words, "Ouch"
@HOwie76, the idiocy of people like you never ever ceases to amaze me
John – the idiocy of people like you never ever ceases to amaze me! Could you maybe take 30 seconds to actually READ what was written above, and then make an attempt to comprehend it? Your comment is totally off-base.
There is absolutely no evidence of an after life or god. Both concepts are human constructs- wishful thinking. Our families vindicate/validate our lives.
There is no evidence that you accept. There is more than enough evidence to convince any court in the land.
No atheists in foxholes, on operating tables, or seeing the defibrillator descending"
i hope that all works out for you Jim. ireally do.
@ just sayin ... ok then.. lay it out for us. Time to show your cards. You've been called.
Still plenty of room for both science and religion. We've figured maybe 3 pebbles on an infinite beach by an infinite ocean of knowledge. Get back to us when you've scanned infinity
How do you know right from wrong? Don't give me some philisophical garbage. all men have eternity in their hearts. they just reject it. Your opinion doesn't count. you really have nothing to say.
Creation itself bears witness to God
The lord Jesus Christ Emmanuel, God with us gives testimony to God
The written record of Gods word the Holy Bible
The personal testimony of millions of believers
All evidences that would be acceptable in court but are denied by the simple minded.
@ just .. your 'evidence' is flawed from the get-go. You'd need to prove that 'god' created it all. Good luck convincing ANY court of that. And the bible is not evidence. It has NEVER been used in any court, for any case, because its source cannot be verified.
"All evidences that would be acceptable in court but are denied by the simple minded."
Pot meet kettle...such a hypocrite who knows nothing of the book it holds to be true.
Creation itself bears witness to God---------------–incorrect. creation itself bears witness that creation exists.
The lord Jesus Christ Emmanuel, God with us gives testimony to God ---He was a Jew doing what Jews did. Talking about God. Just another religion of that time.
The written record of Gods word the Holy Bible-----filled with errors and discrepancies. Seems if it were all that important, and god all that powerful, that he could make them error free and all agree with each other. Unless he's malicious in nature and wants to stir up dissention.
The personal testimony of millions of believers-–which EVERY and I emphasize, EVERY, religion has, so your point?
All evidences that would be acceptable in court but are denied by the simple minded.
______we all eagerly await your evidence. The very evidence that your very own beloved bible claimed it will not give.
"Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?"
So, I have to ask, if you had it within your power to help those in need , what reason or excuse would you have to with hold it? When a god does that, you need to evaluate the usefulness and benevolence of such a being.
Sorry, with God.
Prayer changes things
Speak God for your servant listens
The voice of God
Is a joy in the morning
Prayer changes things
No, it doesn't. Troll
Yes it does ass hole
Go away, you're disgusting and immoral.
the only thing it MIGHT change would be the level of dopamine in your brain. The "feel good" chemical.
"Atheism isn't healthy..." said the voice of 'god'. I wonder ... does it sound like George Burns at all? Or would it be more like Morgan Freeman?
What a load!
Love is the meaning of life, the reason we are here. That is all.
God is love
You cannot equate 'god' with love. You can love without any "divine guidance" whatsoever.
to "Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things": STFU you ignorant, brainwashed, yammering godbot.
Love is God
Love is the reason we are here. Our families can love us unconditionally, which is great, but God's unconditional love is something that cannot be put in a box.
@Jachin, who said "Our families can love us unconditionally, which is great, but God's unconditional love is something that cannot be put in a box.". That's right. It can't be put in a box because it doesn't exist.
Is the legacy we leave to our family, friends and to the world that counts if you spend every breath we have. This is the only thing that count. The rest are immaterial in this "impermanent" world.
Most who are dying don't know Christ. Most Harvard divinity students don't know Christ. No surprise that something else would be the chosen topic of conversation.
No one knows Christ, because Christ doesn't exist.
Yeah, like people that actually exist instead of some made-up, hokus-pokus big daddy in the sky.
That was a hard claim, are you sure?
How sure you are?
Do you have an ounce of testable to back it up?
Ye of little faith!
Why does our Creator give us the hope of "opstanding," the Afrikaans way of saying resurrection, if there is no possibility of such.
Just to satisfy your curiosity, Revelation/Apocalypse 21:3, 4, explains that promise to "mankind" very forcefully.
You won't hear this scripture read in most churches, as the dead are all consigned to heaven by the religious leaders, because resurrection to human life here on earth doesn't match their agenda.
What a difference. What a beautiful hope with which to refresh the heart of an aged or dying person.
Don't say "How can he fulfill this promise when he can't resolve the problems in the world today." That is an entire other issue that the Bible doess have a logical and completely satisfying answer for.
I've spent over forty years researching what to say to folks on their last legs.
and of the 5 billion on this planet who do NOT follow your little book, are they condemned just "because"?
If I were a cynic, I would say that promises of resurrection or life after death is selling snake oil in another form. The desperate are always the easiest to sell and you will never run out of customers. Snake oil does, on occasion, serve a useful purpose as a placebo and hope can be an opiate to deaden the pain of reality. For some of us, placebos don't work because we know they are placebos. We also don't find reality to be painful and we have few regrets in the life we have lived. These are people that don't need to buy snake oil. I'm sure many of you are thinking about Pascal's wager or how can we know there isn't an afterlife. I'm not sure only in the same sense that I'm not sure unicorns don't exist. But it isn't my job to justify why I don't believe in unicorns, it's your job to explain why you do and I see no point making unicorns a central part of my life just in case I might be wrong.
I see in the comments section all the critical comments and mocking of the author from both sides of the religious sectrum. I did not realize that the Ivy league hired so many professors. This person wrote a book about her experience and I intend to enjoy it. I may not agree with everything she says, but it is her book and her intrepretation of events as she has witnessed them. For those that disagree, I suggest you write your own book. If you are too lazy and rather just choose to take some sucker punches from a comment section, I would suggest you would be better to remain silent.
I always thought they said something like – "GAAAAKKKK"! But I get all my info from comic books & cartoons.
Obviously. Somethings are better left unexpressed, JP.
Hey, if Mad Magazine's Don Martin doesn't know – Who does???
Thus, experience equals reality – CH Egan ministers to dying people who don't talk about God before dying. Newsflash – millions of people don't talk about God while living; why would they talk about him when they are dying? As a pastor and chaplain I've found that most Christian men and women I've had the opportunity to minister to talk about God in their last days just as they have during their lives.
You sound like that her professor. I wonder if you intended that.
This is absolutely true. The thought that came to the professor was right, I believe. If we are here to please our Creator, why don't we think about Him in our lives and ESPECIALLY just before we return to Him?
Who gave us the family in the first place? Not themselves. They are here only because our Creator put them here, and they are also a test for us. A lot of people think that just because something is very common, that it's correct. There are many people who claim to be from a religion and do things opposing their religion, does that mean their actions are correct? Ofcourse not.
Our families probably have a lot more to do with our immortality/after life than religion ever will.
And yet you are not sure. However, the bible talks about a relationship with him, which is the most important thing that will ever be.
Sorry, with God. Wrong post button.
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