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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. fultonhoanglosangeles

    curingtheincurable@att.net (limited) by energy, qigong master 23 years of practice, tumor, inoperation brain tumors

    January 29, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
  2. Paul

    Best last words ever...
    Priest to Voltaire on his death bed: Sir will you renounce Satan:
    Voltaire: Now, now, my good man, this is no time for making enemies.

    I can only hope to face the end with similar dignity and not invoke the help of a mythological being

    January 29, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
  3. Truth .

    I do not know you Kerry and yet I am proud of you.Not only has your answer not changed, it is clearer than ever to you, even after years of experience. You were able to recognise this truth right from the start. When you put truth under a microscope and magnifiy it through living experiences it will remain as true as it was when you began.(The only change is our ability to understand it even better) I consider myself a deeply religious person who fully participates in the organization and work of my faith. I love it's doctrines and teachings. They bring me comfort hope and peace. However doctrine is empty knowledge without Gods love manifested in our connections with each other. It is hard to comprehend someone who claims to work on Gods behalf that would not have known for himself what you discovered from the beginning. You should have been commended for being so in tune with Gods purpose for all of us.He wants us to know that he loves us and he wants us to love others. Most importantly our families. In doing this we will come to know him and our capacity for love will grow as will our joy. All 'Godly work and words' amount to nothing if we fail to build loving relationships in this life.Can we truley love God and fail to do this? Meaningful relationships require that we learn to forgive, sacrifice, excersize patience and allow others to make their own choices even when they differ from our own. To see their worth in spite of weaknesses.To open your heart is a risk that you have to take to build meaningful relationships and yet it won't work unless you are true to yourself at the same time. It is humbling work! It takes courage, endurance and divine help. In the end it is not what we do but what we have become that matters.A loving friend, mother, wife, neighbor, co- worker, aunt, neice... It is the hardest work in life which is why we so often fail but when it is achevied on even a small scale it is so fulfilling and deeply treasured. What else could matter more? Jobs, possesions, wealth, academic acheviement? Their is no success in life if in the end we have failed to build loving relationships.Is it any wonder this is the subject we wish to speak of when we are relfecting on our life as we are about to loose it? I am sad for that professor and have to wonder if in those private moments to come if he will find comfort in his academic knowledge of religion and doctrine if he could not reflect on meaningful relationships with his family or students? I suspect it will not be the time he wishes to discuss philosphy but instead will find peace having someone dear to him hold his hand and simply listen or just be willing to be quietly at his side. I pray he will be given the grace to have someone like you when that time comes. Thank you for sharing a message of truth.

    January 29, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
  4. What people talk about before they die

    "I'm thirsty"

    January 29, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
  5. nitual

    "LOVE IS ALL THERE IS"--very enlightenng article on the true meaning of life.

    January 29, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
  6. Jim Sollmi

    Tell everyone you that you love them now! Don't wait until you are on your deathbed.

    January 29, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
  7. 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 6:14 pm |
    • George

      Atheists can't think without refering to Dawkins or Hitchens or some other writer. And they criticize Christians for referring to the Bible.

      January 29, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
    • Reasoner

      howash!

      You really should know, Dawkins and Sam Harris quickly learned not to go that route. You may notice, there are not many self-identified "brights" here.

      January 29, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
    • Rev. Dr. Pauline R. U. Mungous LLD CCP XYZ Ph.D.

      George, piss off, you stupid jerk. No reference needed for me to say that.

      January 29, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
    • howash!

      I'm sorry, I shouldn't speak like that about other people. Being g-a-y makes life hard because I can't tell anyone about it. If I do, I'll lose my room in my mom's basement, and might have to get a job instead of posting on CNN all day. Again, sorry guys!

      January 29, 2012 at 7:06 pm |
    • urafkntool

      @Rev. D*ckRider U.R.Humongous: l-e-s-b-o w-h-o-r-e. Take your girl power crap elsewhere.

      January 29, 2012 at 7:15 pm |
  8. adriana

    II feel those dying, want to make sure their loved ones are cared for. Not materialistically, but emotionally, spiritually, psychologically, etc,... I am Catholic, but I've also been athiest, and agnogstic. Everyone struggles with whom they are, but what we never stop caring about and loving, are our family or friends and also our pets. Of course, this would be the first thing in their minds. They are what helped them get through their life and struggles. We are all pillars for another.
    Mom, whom just passed, told me she saw her father, my grandfather, once when she almost died. I'll probably experience the same thing(mom and grandpa, my greatest loves). And I can tell you, I can't wait to see them again.
    So it really depends on the person. LOVE is part of life, and we have been given that gift from GOD, to give to others. Religion has a place on those whom believe, but one doesn't have to talk about GOD when one is dying. HE already knows.

    January 29, 2012 at 6:13 pm |
  9. It's rather disgusting

    The way Ms Egan takes the love people express to each other and airily stamps it with her "that's God" stamp. Hardly unique, but disgusting still.
    She basically carjacks people's love and tells us it's the property of Baby Jesus.
    It's totally morally repulsive, to be honest.

    January 29, 2012 at 6:10 pm |
    • howash!

      Exactly what you'd expect from religious fraudsters.

      January 29, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
    • SAM

      Actually, what's really disturbing are those who reject that our ability to love comes from the One who gave the most through His son Jesus...the ultimate gift of love, so we could live and love on this earth and beyond. Without Him, you couldn't even take your next breath.

      January 29, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
    • Lol

      Old Man: "I love my wife so very very much...."
      Kerry Egan: "That's God!" *all-knowing, beatific smile*
      Old Man: "Please shut up and go away."

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

      Wow! sorry the baby Jesus causes you so much pain. I hope you can find happiness in this world.

      January 29, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
    • Paul104

      Your response is confusing. She doesn't claim to have seen God, claim to have spoken to God, or even claim to have known God better than any of the patients. She talks more about love: giving it, receiving it, lacking it, wanting it – thus the name of the article is "What people talk about before they die."

      January 29, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
    • Uhhh

      "Wow! sorry the baby Jesus causes you so much pain. I hope you can find happiness in this world."
      Wow! Way to make utterly unjustified as.sumptions and unconvincingly attempt to mask your as.inine desire to demean somebody and feel superior in ostensibly loving words...how textbook Christian of you!

      January 29, 2012 at 6:39 pm |
    • NK

      I see it differently. Both of you see love. She calls that love "God." If we were to reduce each of the world religions to one word, based on what they see as the core ("God"), for Christianity the word would be "love." But that does not mean that love is not love, that what you see and how you experience it is in any way invalid. It simply means that Christians see that love as the essence, and they call that essence "God."
      I, for instance, am not religious, but I see spirituality as important, and this, to me, reads as a spiritual article, not a religious, Christian one.

      January 29, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
    • Uhhh

      "Your response is confusing. She doesn't claim to have seen God, claim to have spoken to God, or even claim to have known God better than any of the patients. She talks more about love: giving it, receiving it, lacking it, wanting it – thus the name of the article is "What people talk about before they die."
      VVVVVVVVV
      "people talk to the chaplain about their families because that is how we talk about God."

      January 29, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
    • Cosmos42

      You're a fool.

      January 29, 2012 at 6:52 pm |
    • It's rather disgusting

      I'm sorry, I'm a closet ho-mo-se-xu-al who lives a bitter life because I can't stop taking it up the butt, but I can't tell anyone either. Otherwise my mom'll kick me out and I'll have to live in a cardboard box.

      January 29, 2012 at 6:59 pm |
  10. cat

    I found this very interesting. Makes you think a lot. I am very much a christain, I love God with my whole being and have seen his work through the power of prayer. After 2 years waiting to have surgery on my son's heart , I prayed since the day I found out at my 6mos checkup. He had four heart defeats and through the power of prayer God healed my son's heart and shocked my son's ped card. and his partners. I think that is what we are here for to learn the love that God has for us. The only way to learn that love is to love. eachother and forgive like he has forgiven through Christ . I will pray for all of you that is commenting here saying you don't beleive. It is sad that you don't know that love. Blessings to you all.

    January 29, 2012 at 6:09 pm |
    • Bob

      Hope you find a good solvent of reason to remove that "christain" from your brain.

      Seriously, think of all the other kids that people prayed for, that then died. And get over yourself and your sicko religious beliefs.

      January 29, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
    • Bob

      I apologize. I'm a closet ho-mo-se-xu-al, and it makes life harder and makes me bitter. I know I'm going to burn in hell, and that upsets me, but I just can't stop taking it up the butt.

      January 29, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
    • Bob

      Go sacrifice a goat.

      Ask the questions. Break the chains. Be free of religion in 2012.
      http://whywontgodhealamputees.com/

      January 29, 2012 at 6:57 pm |
    • Bob

      I have to apologize again. My anger and bitterness from being in the closet all this time has often caused me to go off verbally (or in this case, textually) for no reason. Sorry folks.

      January 29, 2012 at 7:04 pm |
    • Bob

      So what business is it of yours how I like to take it?

      Go sacrifice a goat.

      Ask the questions. Break the chains. Be free of religion in 2012.
      http://whywontgodhealamputees.com/

      January 29, 2012 at 7:07 pm |
  11. anne

    this was a really great article! thank you! it is not very often that I learn something new, but this was an eye opener and I have learned something new by reading it. thank you!

    January 29, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
  12. Kate

    I have little faith but love of family, what a very very nice article, that gives me some faith.. thank you.

    January 29, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
    • wisdom4u2

      Nice comment....bless you.

      January 29, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
  13. mujib

    Shakespeare said the World is drama stage & we are the artist after drama finish no body stay there.

    January 29, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
  14. Rev. Dennis B Wilcox

    The prof. may have taught in a seminary, but he certainly didn't know much about ministry. The "student" has much to teach about "real theology." Well done!!

    January 29, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
    • Rev. Dr. Pauline R. U. Mungous LLD CCP XYZ Ph.D.

      Dennis, you are a blowhard. Go play with yourself somewhere else.

      January 29, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
  15. bao

    If there is a god, he weeps at the content of the bible, and for doing things in the name of a church.

    January 29, 2012 at 6:04 pm |
  16. Beeb

    I agree with your former professor...I too hope I don't have a graduate of Harvard Divinity School present beside my deathbed either, pretending to be a chaplain! What I want is someone who can say to me, "Courage, brave Christian soldier! You are reaching the last moments and if you are facing a final battle of temptation or despair, let me assist you with this prayer: "The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want..." and "Jesus, I trust in you! " I would expect this "chaplain" to assist me, even if I were an atheist, saying, "You have a chance now, your last chance, to turn your heart and mind to God. He is asking for you. Say yes to Him." This is what I would say to ANYONE dying, if I were a chaplain. Any other service provided may be "nice," but is pointless at the hour of death. You should be trying to save souls!!!! What are you there for, to assure that even in their final hour when God's mercy is greatest, that they not convert and go to him? Leave off the name "chaplain" then. It is as ridiculous as someone claiming to be a "nurse" never giving physical care to the patient!

    January 29, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
    • Spike5

      I pray that you are not at my bedside when I'm dying.

      January 29, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
    • Dee

      Exactly.

      January 29, 2012 at 6:13 pm |
    • Bruce

      Evangelicals will tell us how we should live, love and even how to die. What a lie and what a fraud.

      January 29, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
    • JD

      You should read the bible, and I don't mean that in a negative way. The bible tells us in Revelations, Matthew and a lot other places that once we die we are in awaiting. We will be given another chance to accept our Lord Jesus as our savior when the dragon comes and tries to put the mark of the beast, 666 on us. Trying to trick us into believing that he is Jesus. I only tell you that so you know that when we are dying, it is not the last chance we have to accept our Lord. I agree if someone is dying I would be talking about the Lord, but if their dying wish is to talk about their family and it comforts them, then I would become a good listener.

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

      Beeb, I agree with you also. Of course there is truth and love in what Kerry Egan says in this article. Of course at the end of life people want to talk about their families. The family is the domestic church. It is where we learn the love of God. But what is the job of a chaplain for the dying if not to turn their hearts and souls toward heaven? I know if it were me dying I want a chaplain who wants to pray with me, ask me if I'm ready to meet God face to face, prepare me for the journey. Otherwise just call in the social worker at the hospital. Or any counselor will do. I can talk to my family to anyone, but I want the chaplain to be the chaplain. Sometimes the things we don't say to people can be just as wrong as shoving faith down someones throat. Life is short. Pray hard. Live each day with your eyes on heaven.

      January 29, 2012 at 6:29 pm |
    • Javier

      Beeb, as "nice" as your ideals are, not everyoe would benefit from a death bed "soul saving" marathon. Death in real life is not like in the movies; the person near death is not an actor, it's a human being. He or she is not going to get up and go for a beer after the take. Death is final. If were to die today, I want to go die with happy memories not with the memroy of a "preacher" telling me to repent or I'll go to hell. Is that you suggest the chaplain do? If that were the case, your statement that "is pointless at the hour of death" would be correct.

      January 29, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
    • Jennifer

      You are a lost, confused soul.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:03 pm |
  17. Dennis

    Kerry,

    That was a beautiful, poignant story. Thank you.

    January 29, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
  18. Mark

    To read this article, and I come at this as Agnostic, it struck me, to twist a cliched expression "Who would Jesus have praised"? The student giving her time to those that were dying – or a Professor that mocks her. Seems she is the one behaving as Christ might have wanted.

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

      Actually, neither. They are both proselytizing their unwanted religious bull.

      January 29, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
  19. Daniel

    Very honest and beautiful idea! Definitely something I think we should all try to remember and apply.

    January 29, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
  20. Burnley H

    Kerry, Thank you for a simple story packed with such truth. It's a testament to your faith that you remained in your field following your professor's inappropriate remarks, but lucky for your patients that you did. I'm really astounded by the many acerbic responses to your article berating atheists, Christians, and those of other religions. LIfe isn't a contest. We'll all reach the point you describe so beautifully.

    January 29, 2012 at 6:00 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.