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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. Nordette Adams

    Excellent, Kerry. Truly.

    January 29, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
  2. george in texas

    this article is a keeper. thank you, kerry eagan. i read it again. i don't know you, but feel you are a kind of friend that all should have. love makes the world go 'round. indeed, love is everything. you don't have to die to know it, however. let us live it now. do some yoga.

    January 29, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
  3. Brad

    What a wonderful article. I've seen this kind of ministering first hand. It's a real blessing.

    January 29, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
  4. Shawn Irwin

    Those who purposely and deliberately destroy can never be forgiven.

    January 29, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
  5. Steven Daniel

    What a beautiful article. Keep up the great work Ms. Egan.

    January 29, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
  6. George

    If you go to Heaven, and your kid goes to Hell, wouldn't you feel like you're in Hell?

    January 29, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
  7. Tyler

    I want to die peacefully, in my sleep, like my Uncle. Not screaming and crying like the people on the bus he was driving.

    January 29, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
  8. Tom

    My Mom couldn't talk about family as she laid on her deathbed but she did talk about Heaven at the exact moment of her death. Days later I wrote about her death. " I have truly witnessed the Miracle of Life during Death. At the exact moment of my Mom's death, I witnessed the handoff of Mom's soul to God. After days of not opening her eyes, she opened her eyes wide and a beautiful glow embraced her as she took her final breaths.Through my tears and sadness and the tears that will continue to fall, I am happy that my Mom has finally found peace."

    January 29, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
  9. Martin Frazer

    I have been in the local ministry at the same church for 24 years. What you say IS the gospel truth. Thank you for serving on the front lines.

    January 29, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
  10. Roger Ogilvy Thornhill

    rosebud

    January 29, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
  11. Joel

    IDIOT ATHEISTS SHOULD BE BANNED FROM FAITH/RELIGION ARTICLES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    January 29, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
    • Roger Ogilvy Thornhill

      Only the idiot atheists?

      January 29, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
    • Milton

      This is a public article. Atheists can say what they want here. I realize that some of the religious persuasion like to think they have the "real" answers and don't like to have their ideology questioned, but the problem with the religious is that they think they get a free pass on reason. It is understandable that the meme of god has evolved such that you are required to leave reason at the door (i.e. have faith). Without this shield, all of it falls away under the slightest inspection under the light of reason. Atheists have been persecuted under threat of death for much of history and still are in in some countries. We're coming out of the closet and we aren't going back in it and we aren't going to shut up either. This is America. I love free speech.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:29 am |
  12. kate

    When my time comes to be the one dying, I hope my family and someone like Kerry are there. She really understands what love is and I am sure she helps families get through such a difficult time. If someone prefers to talk about religion, they will and I am sure she will understand that too.

    January 29, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
  13. Bob

    Bravo, Ms. Egan. It's obvious that you are a compassionate, kind young lady. Central to the lives of nearly everyone is the desire to be "heard", i.e., deeply, spiritually understood in the heart and mind of the listener. How wonderful that, in their final hours in this realm, some people are fortunate enough to be with people like you.

    January 29, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
    • jose garcia

      agree completely. ms. egan thank you for writing this. cnn thank you for publishing it.

      January 29, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
  14. Jimmy Choo

    SIgns you are a fundamental atheist

    You vigorously deny the existence of God, yet you frequently blame Him for all the "evils" in the world, all the natural disasters, and everything else under the sun that is wrong in modern society.

    You feel insulted and "dehumanized" when creationists say that people were created in the image and likeness of God, but you have no problem with the evolutionist claim that we all evolved from slime by a cosmic accident.

    You criticize fundamental Christians who believe the Bible, and say that it can't possibly be true because it's just a book written by mere men, yet you never question any of Darwin's writings or Richard Dawkins' books.

    You say the Bible is full of fairy tales and fables, yet you believe all life forms including plants, trees, insects, birds, fish, reptiles and mammals evolved from one species into another – As if evolution isn't the biggest fairytale of them all.

    You laugh at the Supernatural, even though scientists have calculated the odds of life forming by natural processes to be estimated less than 1 chance in 10 to the 40,ooo power But you find nothing wrong with believing that billions of years full of random mutations would result in the impossible.

    You accuse fundamental Christians of being intolerant, judgmental and hateful, while you foam at the mouth calling them freaking lunatics, ignorant, weak-minded, stupid fundies, and hateful bigots.

    You ignore scientific concepts like cause and effect, and you don't realize that a closed system can be defined however the observer wants, so you throw out technological phrases to try to ignore the implications of thermodynamics by saying the laws of physics are not set in stone.

    While all evidence, logic and reasoning point to a Creator and absolute truth, you prefer to hide behind relativism and a theory of evolution which does not, in fact, describe the creation of the universe at all, or why concepts of good and evil or morality exist.

    . Atheism fails to adequately explain the existence of eternal, unchanging truths, for it rejects the existence of an eternal unchanging mind. Atheism cannot offer man any eternal significance whatsoever. Temporary meaning in life is insufficient, for our accomplishments die with the death of the universe - there is no ultimate purpose in a universe void of God-.Author unknown

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

      I've found that atheists and especially atheists here regurgitate arguments put forth by Dawkins and Hitchens et al. as much as any Christian quotes the Bible. They can't think for themselves.

      January 29, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
    • Ezra

      To the original author well said! especially that last para.

      January 29, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
    • dogamus

      A lot of anger. Please get help before you hurt someone. I'm serious, you have the some indicators in common with those who lose it, like Jared Loughner. There are poeple out there who really love you, so get help.

      January 29, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
    • K3vin

      That was absurd. You, Mr. Choo, are an absurdist.

      January 29, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
    • Colin

      George and Fred have obvious mental issues. Read a few of their posts

      January 29, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
    • ItIsSo

      Did you actually re-read this? For example, Darwin was human. Atheists don't treat him like god, so if there are errors in his theories, we don't say "well Darwin is All knowing and All wise, so it MUST be true". Read a little Hitchens. Maybe you'll understand why atheists are the way they are. Maybe you'll also learn a little history as well... if anyone has been intolerant over the last few thousand years, it's the religious people of the world. Atheists have some catching up to do. Besides, according to the Vatican, it's ok to blame people for what took place well before their time. Sinner.

      January 29, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
    • Ciji Garrett

      Great post and so true. I would love to show this to a friend who claims to be atheist and would argue with a fence post. Thanks for posting this up because it made my day.

      January 29, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
    • Shawn Irwin

      Some athiests are just as bad as the fundimentalists . . . because they "know" I being and agnostic, however, take issue with anyone who says that people who are not religious do not think . . . in fact, it has been found that statistically, athiests and agnostics know the bible better than christians. But regarding the comment about non-believers not thinking, here is something for the bible thumpers to think about:
      There are about 7,770,000 species on the earth. If there are 90% insects, and we consider them to be all very small, (which we know they are not), we could say that each pair, in order to fit on the "ARK" would need 4 square inches for two of them, plus their food for more than 40 days (Actually I think it was about a year, but we will go with about 40 days just to give the bible thumpers a chance, it supposably rained for 40 days). Since 12 inches squared = 144 cubic inches, 144 cubic inches / 4 cubic inches = 36 per square foot. We know that, the insect population is about 80 – 90% of the entire 7,770,000 species, so making a conservative estimate, we will say it is 90%. 7,770,000 * 90% = 6,993,000 insects. 6,993,000 insects / 36 insect per square foot = 174,250 square foot needed to house all of these insects, and their food. Now the animals. 7,770,000 – 6,993,000 = 777,000 animals. We will again be conservative, and say that each animal requires only 3 cubic feet living space and three cubic foot for 40 days supply of food. 9 cubic feet total for each pair of species. They say the average size is actually that of a sheep, which would be more like 9 cubic feet for the two sheep alone. So, 777,000 animals x 9 cubic feet = 6993000 cubic feet required to house them. Now we will take the total needed for the insects and the total for the animals and add them together. 6,993,000 square foot + 174,250 square foot = 7,167,250 square feet needed on the whole "ark". (We will not even count the space needed for the humans, breathing space for all of the animals, and space needed for the structure of the "ark" itself.) Now the dimensions of the "ark" are well known. The length of the ark – 300 cubits, its breadth 50 cubits, and its height 30 cubits". This is equivalent to a length of 450 feet, a breadth of 75 feet and a height of 44 feet (assuming an 18" cubit); or 500 Feet, 83 feet and 49 feet (if it was the Egpytian 20" cubit). (We will use the larger size, just to give the bible thumpers a better chance) 500 x 83 x 49 gives 2,033,500 cubic feet. But wait, we needed 7,167,250 cubic feet! That is 3.5 times more space needed than the "ark" provided! And, we did not calculate for breathing space, space for humans, or internal structure of the ark itself! So, bible thumpers, please tell me, what did "god" do, shrink the animals?

      January 29, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • George

      Just looking at some of the responses proves what you say to be true, Jimmy Choo. Now they are accusing you of being unstable. Typical. No one is as unstable as the atheists.

      January 29, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • ItIsSo

      George, there's nothing wrong with Hitchens. He's someone we can say "tread a little and then you'll understand where we're coming from". Doesn't mean people don't think for themselves. You read the Bible (or some other religious text), and I could say the same thing to you when you quote something from it.

      January 29, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • Kevin

      Great list! ain't that the truth.

      January 29, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      On rare occasions, George gets it right. This time, he is correct that christians cannot think for themselves.

      January 29, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
    • George

      @ItIsSo

      Atheists hold up authors like Hitchens as much as Christians hold up the Bible, and this despite the fact that Hitchens is burning in hell if he didn't repent. I stand by my statement that atheists don't think. They get all their ideas out of books from a few authors. I've see the arguments of Dawkins and Russell repeated here almost verbatim.

      January 29, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
    • C Louboutin

      Fantastic list Jimmy my friend :)

      January 29, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
    • ItIsSo

      George, I was an atheist for YEARS before I read Hirchens. I haven't read anything else regarding "atheism" by any other author. I am and educated woman from a family with many religious members. I came to the decision myself. Your theory is crap.

      January 29, 2012 at 6:04 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Your are certainly ent.itled to your opinion and to your ignorance of science and of the people you are attempting to insult.

      January 29, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
    • George

      Jimmy Choo told the truth and shined a light on the atheists. It is a great post. We need something like this to be in a primary article.

      @ItisSo

      Hitchens was a very unhappy drunk who had hom.os.exual relationships. He is certainly no role model, and I would never read anything he wrote. One can only hope that he repented and accepted Jesus before he died.

      January 29, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
    • Follow the LAW and keep your religion to YOURSELF

      1. Atheists do not blame anything on "god" you dumb-ass!
      2. Atheists do not feel insulted or dehumanized by "creationists" you idiot!
      3. Atheist authors do not claim to speak for a "god" – your analogy is retarded!
      4. Evolution is not a fairy-tale but a conclusion based on FACTS we can SEE.
      5. Random chemical processes CAN and DID form the lifeforms we see. It is still happening, too you dumb-ass!
      6. Many of you ARE "freaking lunatics, ignorant, weak-minded, stupid fundies, and hateful bigots." and where does it say we must "tolerate" your INSANITY, HATEFULNESS, and BIGOTRY?
      7. It is YOU who prefer to ignore "cause and effect" or else how could your "god" have formed in the first place?
      8. Atheists have been calmly pointing out to retards like YOU how those things came to be using FACTS and SCIENCE which you clearly HATE. It is not our fault you cannot accept the truth in front of your stupid FACE!
      9. "Atheism fails to adequately explain the existence of eternal, unchanging truths, for it rejects the existence of an eternal unchanging mind." - Atheism is a lack of belief in a god. It does not reject anything. Show us proof and watch atheism disappear.
      10. "Atheism cannot offer man any eternal significance whatsoever." - A lack of religious belief does not preclude "eternal significance" you dumb-ass!
      11. "Temporary meaning in life is insufficient, for our accomplishments die with the death of the universe – there is no ultimate purpose in a universe void of God-.Author unknown" - Author unwilling to admit he/she wrote it you mean. And no wonder! You think "ultimate purpose" is a phrase that means something! You are so ignorant and insane!

      Jimmy Choo, you are clearly insane, ignorant, stupid, and your "ultimate purpose" must be to be stupid and then die.

      January 29, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      And the winner is.... Follow The Law!!!

      January 29, 2012 at 6:37 pm |
  15. Joe

    Why cant anything ever be written or talked about without Atheist coming in and starting confrontations? We get it, you dont believe in anything, now go away

    January 29, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      Joe, go look at George's posts. He's a rabid believer who thinks the author's work is faulty and should not even be a chaplain. Are you going to chastise him and all believers that are being critical, or will you perpetuate the view that believers are hypocritical?

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

      Bravo!

      January 29, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
    • K3vin

      We beieve in many things, Joe. I'm sure you believe somethings, too, no matter how ridiculous they are.

      January 29, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
  16. Heidi

    This was helpful to me, thanks. Love your family, love your neighbors- it's something everyone has the opportunity to do, and so sad to hear how many people feel, at the end, that they have missed that opportunity.

    January 29, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
  17. Johanna

    Seriously.... why do Non-Christians, particularly Hindus and Muslims smell bad? I think getting baptized helps a lot

    January 29, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
    • dogamus

      Diet and personal hygene.

      January 29, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • Dee

      Because not all cultures bath as frequently as we do. But since you know everything, you knew that right?

      January 29, 2012 at 9:09 pm |
  18. Some guy

    atheist are annoying, even more annoying than bleeding heart Christians

    Ive also never met an atheist that WASNT angry...WHY ARE YOU ALWAYS SO ANGRY?!?!?!

    January 29, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
    • Johanna

      Because they know they will go to h.ell, so they want to show they madness now before they die

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

      Only angry people talk about how they think other people are angry. I see it all the time. sounds like you didn't get any love from your family.

      January 29, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
    • Follow the LAW and keep your religion to YOURSELF

      1. I am angry about all the years of effort, "faith", "praying", and all that religious madness that I WASTED because religion is bullshlt.
      2. I am angry that religious people VIOLATE MY RIGHTS on a constant, harassing basis EVERY DAY.
      3. I am angry that religious people constantly seek to VIOLATE THE LAW because of their beliefs.
      4. I am really angry that religious people are unable to face the facts of life, reality, science, reason, logic, and that this causes them to waste their time, my time, vital resources, and to interfere in things they have no business interfering in as they violate the law, common sense, and refuse to respect any other people.
      5. I have very good reasons for being angry about criminals violating the law, violating my RIGHTS, violating my whole life and OPPRESSING me and people like me who do not "share" their "faith".

      Here's a NEWSFLASH:
      Quit shoving your religion into everyone else's life and FOLLOW the FUCKING LAW!!!!!!!!!!!

      You HYPOCRITES keep screaming about "religious freedom" but you VIOLATE EVERYONE ELSE'S!!!!

      January 29, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
    • Observer

      Angry Troll-
      Since you went to some effort someone should respond. The law and most people's understanding of their rights and yours are clear: People can go on all day expressing their religious beliefs if they want and you are free to express whatever you have on your mind, keep silent, or leave.

      January 29, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
    • Follow the LAW and keep your religion to YOURSELF

      So instead of following the law, you seek to violate my RIGHTS and silence me!
      Instead of addressing any of my POINTS you say shut up or leave!

      Well....FUCK YOU and your fake god of bullshlt!
      FOLLOW THE LAW and quit using your religious insanity as an excuse to VIOLATE MY RIGHTS!!!

      January 29, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
    • tallulah13

      If I were to judge christians by many of those I encounter on this blog, I would say that you the biggest liars I have ever found. I would also say that you are angry, hateful and judgmental and not worthy of my trust. I guess I'm lucky to know many in real life. I find that most of them are decent people who are concerned with pretty much the same things my atheist friends are: home, family, job and the well-being of our planet.

      I suspect you know many atheists, but they keep their lack of belief hidden from you, because they know how you would react.

      January 29, 2012 at 6:13 pm |
  19. George

    I would never want to have a Harvard-educated minister. They may have a good law school, but their divinity school turns out only liberals who are far from Godly.

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

      Generalize much?

      January 29, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
  20. Eric S

    I'm Swedish and ex. Atheists who converted to Christianity 6 years ago when I moved to the U.S.
    I'm blessed and loved after I converted.

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

      Welcome to the family!!! :)

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

      I am fortunate and loved without religion. I'm sorry that you needed to join a group to get that particular happiness.

      January 29, 2012 at 6:15 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.