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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. Brandon V

    How wonderful and touching. A shame so many here don't seem to get it. It's not about which god you put your faith in or if you don't put faith in a god at all. It's about love. All else is subjective, but love is universal.

    January 29, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
  2. Sunny

    What a great article. I've always tried to explain to my family that just because I don't feel the need to constantly "name-drop" God and Jesus, doesn't mean I don't have faith. Faith is (or should be) an extremely personal, introspective thing. Not to say it should never be discussed, but some people seem to think they have to put their faith on full showy display for it to be valid. I think those people are missing out on the most important part of faith.

    January 29, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
  3. Wonderful movie....... WATCH and LEARN!

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uuc2aWJnmQ8&w=640&h=390]

    January 29, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • Sunny

      Did you really just post "The Passion"???? Come on man. That's a movie. This article is about something so much deeper. I feel sorry if you watch that and take it as anything beyond entertainment. Did you ever ask what Mel Gibson did with the $370,000,000 he made from exploiting the story of Jesus?

      January 29, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
    • tallulah13

      It always disgusts me, how happy christians are that a man was tortured to death so that they don't have to be responsible for their own actions.

      January 29, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
  4. cisom

    This is a great article. Never thought about it like this before, but there is certainly an unspoken connection between our faith in God and our family relationships. This article makes me want to serve God by being a better father, husband, brother, and son.

    January 29, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
  5. Michele

    Absolutely Wonderful. Your conviction and belief are felt through your writing.

    January 29, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
  6. Chris

    Atheists have no life, no faith and nothing good accomplished in this world. They have no friends and they just attack religious people (particularly Christians) because they are afraid of attacking Muslims and Jews. They are the ones´who tries to take our freedom and our rights. SHAME!

    January 29, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
    • JohnR

      Absolutely none of what you wrote is true. Bearing false witness is a-okay with Yahweh these days?

      January 29, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • ConA

      Religious people are really control freaks. They just want to apply their phobias and fear of death to control the lives of others. If you really have faith, you can be tolerant, since God is the ultimate judge. If there is a God, let God do the judging, unless you think you are God.

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

      You have made a sweeping generalization about a diverse group of people. I do not know if you are Christian, Muslim, Jewish or Hindu. So I don't even have grounds to generalize as you did. But the evidence of your post indicates that you are uneducated. That we do know.

      January 29, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
    • David

      Hey Chris, I believe in God, a God of he Universe, but I don’t believe in the Biblical “Jesus”. Does this make me an atheist with no life, or dreams or kindness???

      January 29, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
    • isolate

      Hundreds of millions of people have been killed in the name of religion of one stripe or another. Christianity has led the field in terms of intolerance and violence.

      I'd like to see a reality show in which a Christian bigot, a Jewish bigot, a Hindu bigot and a Muslim bigot were put in the same cage to settle the question of whose belief system was the correct one. You'd come back in a week and find only scraps of clothing and bits of teeth and bone.

      January 29, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Chris: That was a lie. You know that was a lie. Do you really think that telling such a lie would please the god that has "Thou shalt not bear false witness" as one of his commandments.

      January 29, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
  7. mujib

    An atheists after die nothing to loose.But if God exists what you do? So why you don't take the chance!

    January 29, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
    • JohnR

      I don't think Odin will be impressed by people's christian or muslim faiths. Those old Nordic gods play for keeps. Better get right with them, you know, "just in case"!!!!

      January 29, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
    • Bill

      The Muslim hell sounds scary than the Christian hell. So we shouldn't take the chance...Let's all convert to Islam.

      January 29, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
    • ConA

      Religions result because people can't work together and can't do what so many religious scriptures tell them to do to live a good life. Just live a good life.

      January 29, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
    • tallulah13

      What a silly argument. Humans have created, worshiped and rejected or replaced literally thousands of gods throughout history. Do you intend to worship all of them, just in case?

      January 29, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
    • Steven Capsuto

      You take that same risk every day by not being Muslim, by not worshiping the ancient Norse gods, by not belonging to any number of Christian denominations that think only they are Saved, and so on. Are you seriously suggesting we should examine the world's religions and simply pick whichever one makes the most dire threats?

      January 29, 2012 at 10:29 pm |
    • Robert Van Etten

      English isn't your first language is it?

      January 29, 2012 at 11:37 pm |
  8. Loveyaall

    Ahhh ..a spiritual thread full of love, peace and understanding between believers and non-believers. If the whole world
    was the same religion or non-religious, there would be wars between people who wore different brand sneakers.
    Excellent article and I won't forget the points made.

    January 29, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
    • David

      Nice comment and pardon me for saying ..... Amen!

      January 29, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
  9. beverly k

    Twenty years in the ER – She is absolutely right about what most people need/want to do as they die. What amazes me is standing in judgement of it.

    January 29, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
  10. mary

    The foundation of Christianity is salvation through relationship (with Christ). Christ displayed his love not just in words but in actions, in sacrifice. We are sharing his word and his love when we actively love, serve and care for one another – family, friends and strangers. That truth is never more clear then when someone is dying and all of this world's distractions fade away.

    January 29, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
    • JohnR

      Oh, so you died?

      January 29, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
  11. Tired

    Regurgitating words from dark-ages monks and monarchs does not take one to the afterlife.

    Having real faith and real kindness and real love gives one's soul a place to go – even if one is not Christian.

    I find it staggeringly hard to believe that the man who taught love, compassion, forgiveness, and kindness (Jesus) – would deny entry into the universe of souls just because a person didn't utter Christian liturgy at the moment of their passing.

    January 29, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
  12. jimbo

    Thanks for telling it like it really is, based on your experiences, even though it may offend some. Ask those who administered to their dying loved ones. The dying, in most cases, ask for or are worried about the ones they are about to leave behind. It's only the healthy living that are so obsessed about religion as to object to this article.

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

      My life has been all-to-familiar with untimely and aged death.

      Each talks about the things that are important to the individual.

      I agree with Jimbo.

      January 29, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
    • Tired

      "all-too-familiar..."

      January 29, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
  13. Bree Cox

    Very well written. Poignant. Things to think about.

    January 29, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
  14. David B

    Kerry, "the chaplain" says "We don't live our lives in our heads, in theology and theories."
    What kind of chaplain makes such statements? Case closed on this kook!

    January 29, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
    • Wrong

      Spoken like a true "authority" yourself.

      January 29, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • Junebug

      The only thing "closed" here is your mind. I pity you.

      January 29, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
    • Brandon V

      I'm with Junebug here.

      January 29, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
  15. Sue

    It sounds like your professor could have learned much from his student if only his heart was opened. I respect and admire the way in which you Listen, not Preach. When a person is dying they need to make a peace within their soul – it's a deeply spiritual time even if they do not verbalize that. Many blessings to you

    January 29, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
  16. Stevil

    I find it telling that the dying don't talk about heaven or hell or any other kind of afterlife. They don't talk about being with Jesus or in the presence of God. They talk about the only life they have known and will ever know. That's because there is no heaven and no hell and it means absolutely nothing to say that God is love. What does that mean? Love is love and there is no God.

    January 29, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
    • Bonjour

      Go seek a physical doctor please

      January 29, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
    • gupsphoo

      Look at these comments. Christians actually get angry when people don't talk about their particular version of god before they die. Wow!

      January 29, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
  17. Bonjour

    1.1 billion Non-religious should die.. that will solve World´s overpopulation :)

    January 29, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
    • just sayin

      there aren't that many that their loss would make a difference less than 1 %

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

      "1.1 billion Non-religious should die"

      Such a fine example of Christian love....

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

      It would be so much better if the good nonreligious people, who help other people and don't expect heaven in return, would rule the earth.

      January 29, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
  18. God is wonderful

    I wish I met an atheist one day so I could spit on their face

    January 29, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
    • just sayin

      try going outside and spitting into a brisk wind and see if that works for you

      January 29, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
    • Colin

      Ten Ways You Know you are an Atheist.

      1. You were likely brought up a theist (probably a Christian if you live in the USA) and had to do your own thinking to rise above the beliefs that still occupy the mind of the believer. This usually involved being smart and working hard at school and college so as to get a good, accurate view of the natural Universe and overcoming significant social pressure to dumb yourself down and conform. In short, you had the guts to ask the hard questions and the brains to spot the weak answers. The more you came to understand the Universe, the less reason there was to believe in a god and the more you came to appreciate human nature, the more you understood why billions of us still do.

      2. While rejecting the supernatural elements of the Bible, you nevertheless retain a large amount of the morality taught today by mainstream Christianity. To the extent you reject Christian morality, it is where it is mean spirited – such as in the way it seeks to curtail freedoms or oppose the rights of $exual minorities. In most other respects, your basic moral outlook is indistinguishable from that of the liberal Christian – you just don’t need the mother of all carrots and sticks hanging over your head in order to act in a manner that you consider moral.

      3. You know a great deal more about the Bible than most believers. This is because you took the time to read it yourself and did not rely on the primary-color simple stories you learned in Sunday school. You have also probably done some research into the historical Jesus and have a good handle on where he REALLY fit in to the broader picture of the Middle East at the time. Needless to say, his miracles and other magic powers soon started to look pretty unlikely.

      4. Your knowledge of basic science and history is much stronger than that of your average believer. You likely have a basic working knowledge of physics, astronomy, evolutionary biology and cosmology and a good idea of the history of life on this planet. This acc.umulated knowledge puts you in a position to judge the claims of the Bible in a critical light and they are almost always found wanting. To the theist, this makes you “elitist” and ‘arrogant”.

      5. You relish your role as a religious minority in the USA, as this gives you an impetus to fight and you understand how others with unpopular, but doubtlessly correct views have felt throughout history. There is something altogether satisfying to you about having a deep conviction you are right and being viewed with disdain for your views by the errant majority. You feel a quiet confidence that future generations will look back on you as a member of a class of trailblazers, as religious supersti.tions go into inevitable decline in popularity.

      6. You are likely more environmentally aware than your theist friends and colleagues and unlikely to fall for claims of industry and wind-bag politicians concerning the impact of man’s activities on the environment. You could no more act in an environmentally irresponsible manner because “god will keep us safe” than you could jump off a ship, believing King Neptune will keep you safe.

      7. You generally have a live and let live atti.tude, but will fiercely defend any attempts by theists to thrust their views on you or your children, directly or through control of school boards, the legislature or the executive. While you are prepared to debate and argue passionately with the theist on an intellectual level, you would never wish them harm or ill will. You know you are likely to be smugly told you will “burn in hell for all eternity” for your healthy skepticism. This highlights what you despise about religion, as you would not wish a bad sunburn on another, simply because they have a different religious view to you. You have never heard of an evolutionary biologist strapping a bomb to himself and running into a church yelling “Darwin-u akbar, Darwin-u akbar”.

      8. You likely know more about other religions than your average theist. This makes you less fearful of them and enables you to see parallels. You realize that, if you were born in India, you would have been brought up with a totally different religion. You realize that every culture that has ever existed has had its own god(s) and they always favor that particular culture, its hopes, dreams and prejudices. They cannot all exist and you see the error all faiths make of thinking only theirs exist(s). This “rising above” the regional nature of all religions was probably instrumental in your achieving atheism.

      9. You likely have a deep, genuine appreciation of the fathomless beauty and unbelievable complexity of our Universe, from the 4 nucleotides that orchestrate every aspect of you, through to the distant quasars, without having to think it was all made for you. You likely get more out of being the irrelevant ant staring up at the cosmos than you do in having to pretend that it was all made to turn in majestic black-and-white pirouette about you.

      10. 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 some quasi-hope from Bronze Age Palestine that every part of your intellect tells you is untenable.

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

      That's pretty Godly of you. So, not only do we think you're an idiot for actually believing in a magical, all-powerful, invisible man who lives in the sky and demands things of you, we think you're an idiot for turning your back on the teachings of this magical, all-powerful, invisible man who lives in the sky. Must be hard being you.

      January 29, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
    • AtheistSteve

      I'd venture to say that one in twenty of every person you know is an atheist. For obvious reasons many do not let it be known. Persecution is our way of life.

      January 29, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
    • Jennifer

      WOW...... Do unto others as you would have them do to you.... you obviously arent very good at following in Christ's teachings...Shame on you....Too bad you needed an atheist to point that out to you!

      January 29, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
    • just sayin

      The poster is an atheist type using a Christian sounding handle, that is why he should spit into the wind

      January 29, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
    • ConA

      Gee, you really shouldn't judge. If you would read your bible, you would be a better person. Judging other people is God's job. I agree with Just Say'in. You should know which way the wind blows before you start spitting on people.

      January 29, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
    • Utter

      Wow , you must have a true calling to see what you consider your maker or maybe just full of misdirected rage.with either option it seems that the values of religon in general have been completely overlooked by you.Ill keep this short so you can get ready for your abortion clinic bombings , gay bashing groups and protesting military funeral's

      January 29, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
    • isolate

      I can't improve on Colin's wonderful response, so I'll just say that you meet dozens of atheists every day. We look like everyone else, are just as honest as everyone else, just as charitable, just as faithful as the best of Jesus' true followers, and far better than the self-righteous like yourself who need an invisible Big Guy in the Sky to keep you honest, charitable and faithful. We stand little chance of becoming as bigoted as yourself,so self-poisoned by dogma until you're only a shell of a human being.

      January 29, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
  19. Rob Hannigan

    That teacher is just a jerk. Clearly he had no clue what he was talking about. I have lost three grand parents. They all talked about the family. God was the last thing on their minds. Religion, Politics, all the side line factors of our life's is put aside. Those dying just what a few more hours with their family. It's sad but at our end to we see the point. But well at least we see it.

    January 29, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
  20. Steve

    Interesting that Chaplain Egan never once in her article mentioned ever discussing Jesus or salvation with any dying patients.

    Just what kind of Christianity are they teaching at Harvard?

    January 29, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
    • bill

      You need to increase your reading comprehension.

      January 29, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
    • dgkdgk

      It's hilarious that Harvard teaches any sort of divinity at all being that it's such a smart school.

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

      Wow, Steve. You really didn't get it, did you?

      January 29, 2012 at 5:12 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.