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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 • My Faith

soundoff (4,493 Responses)
  1. terry

    THIS IS VERY TRUE i JUST WENT THROUGH A SIMILAR SISITUTION WITH MY HUSBAND, WHO PASSED FROM CANCER ON JAN12 2012 , AND GOD WAS NEVER MENTIONED FROM HIS MOUTH EVEN THOUGH HE WAS RECEIVING THE LAST RIGHTS AND BLEEDING FROM EVERY OPENING IN HIS FACE , AND THROUGH THIS ALL TRYING TO SPEAK THE WORDS ,I LOVE YOU TO ME AS HE TOOK HIS LAST BREATH!!!!!!!!!!!!

    January 29, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
  2. Ginny T

    That's right, David B! And an authentic chaplain by my standards.

    January 29, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
  3. Reved

    Over my 40 years of ministry in the PCUSA this was my style when visiting the dying and watching and listening to them. I always admired the strength of a family as it reminisced with a dying member; and I always admired the strength of the dying to want to make sure those who will live into the future can do so with wishes for the best.

    January 29, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
    • Ali

      Yes you can use them to write checks get cash etc. BUT it is a huge asitmke!Rip the checks up ASAP they give you 6 months with 0% interest but charge you a fee to cash the check and they know you can't pay it all off in 6 months. They will get thier money from you don't fall into this credit trap!Live debt free! It is a wonderful feeling.

      April 2, 2012 at 4:23 am |
  4. Rebecca

    Lovely article, thank you.

    January 29, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
  5. f.j. williams

    Ms. Egan – thank you for your article. As i lay dying i will certainly want someone like you to listen to me instead of most of the theologians i have known, especially a professor the likes of which you described.

    January 29, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
  6. Iqbal Khan

    January 29, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
    • Emilio Dumphque

      What was edited out at 1:56?

      January 29, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
  7. gupsphoo

    Why are chaplains allowed to waste the remaining valuable time of these dying patients who want to spend with their families?

    January 29, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
    • Reved

      I never felt that my presence with a dying person was a hindrance to the important conversations for the family. Clergy who put themselves in the position of knowing all the answers and not wondering with the family which questions should be pursued are a blight on other clergy. Not all clergy behave in that way. (Response to gupshoo)

      January 29, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
    • Steven Capsuto

      My experience is that people are asked whether they want the chaplain to visit or not. I haven't heard of recent cases where they were foisted on people (though I'm sure it must still happen in some places).

      January 29, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
    • Observer

      Generally, it has to do with the wishes of the family and the one who is dying. In my experience, clergy do not force themselves on anyone.

      January 29, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
    • Ileah Reichert

      Generally, they are asked by the patient or family member to visit, so that they may discuss personal issues that may be to painful to speak to with anyone else. I am a nurse in an intensive care unit and have never seen a chaplain forced into a dying persons room. Many times, far to often, families are not present either. These people offer themselves to sit next to, listen, and hold strangers hands as they face perhaps the most difficult time in their lives. I am grateful for their services and for people such as this writer who provide comfort and love to those who seek it.

      January 29, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
  8. Jo

    From a writing standpoint, it might have been helpful to have a few more sentences explaining that you also happened to be taking a class from this professor, and perhaps that it was a big lecture hall environment in which he wouldn't have seen you, etc. I felt that a little too much had to be inferred, and I'm hazy on the details here. I suspect you had a few more sentences in an early draft but deleted them to make the piece more concise. Otherwise, a really great read.

    January 29, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
    • AsIlaydying

      What? It was a nice concise little article. I suspect you wanted a short story. If you needed that many details and tie-ins you have a reading comprehension problem.

      January 29, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
  9. Eric Z

    I was touched by her article. Our vertical relationship with God is purely and only defined by our relationships with one another; whether it be our own physical family, or the spiritual family with which we associate. Keep them talking, Kerry!

    January 29, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
  10. Steve

    Hi Kerry,
    I am a Christian. I found your article touching and thought-provoking. I imagine that each dying person’s last thoughts and words are as unique to them as their fingerprints. For you to simply be there and to listen is to give them a wonderful gift.
    As for your professor’s attempt to teach or motivate by using your example as he did… well, shame on him for being so self-righteous. It appears he totally missed his opportunity to make a lasting positive impact in the life of at least one of his students.
    I agree with you that we all learn much about love from our families, as imperfect as that may be. I would add, however, that we can only learn what true love is through a relationship with God. (John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world…”) It is out of His love for us that we can learn to sincerely extend true love to others, without concern for how we may be received. To do that is to mimic Christ’s love for us. I would never suggest that anyone should try to forcefully convince another person, dying or not, to believe in any particular way. God Himself offers opportunities for us to know Him, but never forces Himself on us. Allowing us a choice is, in itself, a sign of His love.
    I believe the greatest service to someone on their deathbed could be to offer them what may be their last chance to consider once more what the Bible has to say about salvation and eternal life. It would be a truly loving thing to do. They could still choose whether to continue that line of conversation. But what joy they could find in looking forward to a new life eternally free of suffering or separation from God and His great love for them.

    January 29, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
  11. Lori Sue

    While I am a Christian who recently watched my dear mother pass, I find the least tolerance from the other "Christians" who find simple answers to complex issues.

    January 29, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
  12. tymjen

    More articles like this and less trashy articles about superficial crap... please?

    January 29, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
  13. howash!

    For some reason, religious people feel a need to be around dying, so they come, univited. Stay away!

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

      Speak for YOURSELF.

      January 29, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
    • Mark

      That's YOUR opinion, and where does it say they were uninvited? where, its not said. I am not much into religion myself, and nor was my father, but I recall him having a wonderful talk with a Chaplain, a remarkable chat. They joked, and laughed about some things out of ear shot. But mostly it was just the comfort and maybe he shared some other thoughts too?

      I'm agnostic, I'm okay with all religions, I dont like extremists – but the atheists like you are no better than fundamentalists.

      January 29, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
    • howash!

      Being "agnostic" is very cowardly. It's like going "swimming" in two fee of water!

      January 29, 2012 at 6:09 pm |
    • howash!

      Being "agnostic" is very cowardly. It's like going "swimming" in two feet of water!

      January 29, 2012 at 6:09 pm |
  14. Phil

    Just goes to show that religion is a waste of time and only creates division and hate. You don't have to be religious to love your family and friends.

    January 29, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
    • howash!

      They have to push their delusional idea of god on people to their very last! Horrible!

      January 29, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
  15. Carrie in AK

    Shame on the Professor for belittling the student......his ignorance, narrow mindedness and bullying are not traits that I would want in a spiratual teacher at any time in my life, let alone in my final hours!
    I have been berated all my life for not believing in a "God" and following an organized religion..... and this has taught me that none of that matters as long as you are a kind and caring person to ALL people.

    I am VERY tired of people preaching to me and others about how "a Christian would and should act" when the hypocrisy of the matter is that I, a "none believer" practice "The Golden Rule" more than most!
    Before you preach to others.....you should take a LONG look in the mirror!

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

    What a beautiful article. Even though I'm an atheist, I can imagine the comfort and peace you must bring to the dying. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    January 29, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
    • howash!

      Nonsense. I think the last person one wants to see on his/her deathbed is some religious charlatan chaplain.

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

      howash you truly are trailer trash. You can die alone, that's up to you. But you do not speak for anyonew but yourself.

      January 29, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
    • s h

      Ya, I believe what HOWASH says, let these people die alone. That'll server'em right. Dying alone sounds by charitable now doesn't it HOWASH? You are a fool. If they ask the chaplain to leave, I am sure that he does. Never know, when you are staring death in the face and you've alienated everyone that cares for you, maybe you'll want someone there? I am sure you are a nice person, but everyone (yes, you too) can make "inflight" corrections.

      January 29, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
    • howash!

      Sounds to me they prefer their family, if anyone, around, not some religious nut!

      January 29, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
    • howash!

      Dawkins proposed that atheists should be described by a much more fitting name (since god is really a tiny non-event) as "brights" and religious nuts as "not-so-bright".

      January 29, 2012 at 6:13 pm |
  17. Amy

    Perhaps some of the other commentators would feel differently were they closer to death.

    Kerry, thank you. What a wonderful column, that rings with truth.

    January 29, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
    • howash!

      Everybody is close to death. Nobody lives forever!

      January 29, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
  18. Carmen

    It was really good to see that there are, indeed, a few actual Christians who responded and actually got the point of the article. I was also not surprised that the avowed atheists also understood; especially Colin. Nor was I surprised by the responders who think they are Christians expressing such hatefulness as well as a lack of knowledge of early American History. Harvard Divinity School is the foundation of Harvard University–what the school was founded for.

    January 29, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
    • howash!

      Get a grip! Dying people don't want religious frauds of no importance to be around!

      January 29, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
    • Steven Capsuto

      "Atheist" and "Christian" aren't the only choices, of course. Most people in the world are neither.

      January 29, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
  19. Billy Shears

    Spectacular article! We need more stories like this on the front page of CNN!
    Like the Beatles said, All You Need is Love.

    January 29, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
  20. David B

    "We don’t have to use words of theology to talk about God; people who are close to death almost never do."
    And she's a CHAPLAIN!? OMG!

    January 29, 2012 at 5:40 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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.