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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. Grandma Luci

    I have been near death myself. I didn't need to talk about God, or about religion...I had assurance in my faith about those things, and I assumed the chaplin understood them and didn't need me to explain them. But I very much needed to talk about my life, my loves, and especially my family. Another person may need to talk about God, or about religion. I am a social worker–a good social worker would talk about whatever the client (or, in this case, "patient") wants to talk about. If the social worker believes the client/patient needs to take things a bit further but is hesitant, he or she would help facilitate that. I would assume a good chaplain would do the same. A previous poster talked about not putting God in a "one-size-fits-all" category. Why not? Isn't it the same God? God is God. There isn't a "small" God and a "medium-sized" God and a "super-sized" God. Only one size...and God IS the same size for everybody! Thankfully the chaplains who visited me followed my lead and not some scripted, one-size-fits all theology lesson. Help me sort things out if I need that? Yes. Pray with me before leaving? Of course. Preach to me during the visit? Don't come back!

    January 29, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
    • Logic

      God is God? Tell that to a Muslim or a Hindu. We clearly have our own understanding of God and it seems like we want to me tolerant to all religions...good luck!

      January 29, 2012 at 6:57 pm |
  2. Hazen

    I have long felt that the essence of Jesus' teachings is the best way to serve God is to be a good parent, a good child, a good grandparent. Interesting that this is what people are thinking about in their final days.

    January 29, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
  3. mujib

    In one point Einstein said he is religious .

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

      You need to read more of his comments about what he thought about gods. He did not believe in a god creator that worries about what consenting adults do in privacy.

      January 29, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
    • Ben

      No he never said any such thing. That is just another fantasy latched onto by religion believers. Why not educate yourself? Here are Einstein's own words on the subject: "It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly." That is what he has to say about this idea that he said something positive about religion.

      January 29, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
    • Mark C

      Nope.

      January 29, 2012 at 6:47 pm |
  4. Doc

    Beeb: you're an idiot.

    January 29, 2012 at 6:39 pm |
  5. Michael Quinn

    Beautifully written.

    January 29, 2012 at 6:37 pm |
  6. hotandbothered

    That professor was so clueless, it hurts to think of all the damage he did to the young minds drinking in his "knowledge".
    IMO. what we look for at the end of our lives is closure, some sort of resolution and acceptance – maybe tolerance – of what we've lived through. Peace of mind so the body can let go without regret. Yeah, rotten things happened, things were or were not said, but in the end we all want to know that we were loved, somehow, someway. That's not such a bad thing to hope for, now is it?

    January 29, 2012 at 6:37 pm |
  7. Marsha

    Beautiful article, elegantly told. Thank you!

    January 29, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
  8. Mr_Normal

    Thanks Kerry. That was pretty uplifting.
    ^_^ <3

    January 29, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
    • Jessica Trewhella

      Thank you for this. It is very deep and profound and so true...

      January 29, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
  9. lork

    I believe that the true evidence of the love and creating friends we have given to others in life, is by the amount of people who shows up at your funeral

    January 29, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
  10. Spunky

    I lost my faith in any higher power, spirituality or religion a long time ago, but this article touched me. It is quite possibly one of the most beautiful things I have ever read. I work in an NICU and I see death constantly. Just recently a family left before their child was extubated and died. Active withdrawal of care had been planned and they could have been there. Most mothers and fathers want to be there and hold their baby as it dies and often long after. It really unraveled me that this family didn't stay. The nurse, who seemed to care more than the parents did, stayed long after her shift was over and she held the baby as it died. She rocked it and sang to it as if it was her baby. Even not being a spiritual person, I could not help myself but to think that God was in that room. Her act and absolute love she showed this baby was something I'll carry with me forever. People who are able to comfort during death have a gift. Death is not pretty and it can be unpleasant to witness. The words of the dying are often hard to hear because their pain, even from long ago, is still raw. The regret is tangible. Write a book, Kerry. I'll read it.

    January 29, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
  11. Peter

    A friend passed away this weekend and an email that was sent out said, that "Bill was born into God's eternal kingdom..." I thought that was a great way to look at it. To see the birth from the death.

    January 29, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
  12. Mr Chihuahua

    Call me shallow but on my deathbed I want a hand job from a voluptuous nurse, not a chat with a chaplain lol!

    January 29, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
    • Jenn

      Yeah, you won't get that.

      January 29, 2012 at 6:47 pm |
    • TrueBlue42

      I LOVE it, Mr. Chihuahua! Respect! xD

      January 29, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
  13. Jim Standifer

    Very profound Kerry –God bless you! I loved this blog.

    January 29, 2012 at 6:29 pm |
  14. Beth

    Kerry, thank you so much for your beautiful article. I hope that I have someone like you when I am dying. I believe Christ would listen to those who are dying just as you do. By listening to them, your are loving them just as they love their families and as God loves us. May God bless you for your love.

    January 29, 2012 at 6:29 pm |
  15. SixDegrees

    I'm going to start rehearsing my last utterance and train myself as best I can to put it out there with my last breath. It will be "What do I need a condom for?"

    January 29, 2012 at 6:29 pm |
  16. JEL

    I wonder what the professor spoke about on his death bed. Such a limited mind teaching so many and taking his trash out on you. Cowardly. This is so simple and it transcends all faiths or god beliefs. I think this is what he would have called religion before man got a hold of it. Thanks.

    January 29, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
    • Hali

      Why did you assume he is dead?

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

      If he isn't look at it as rhetorical or when he is.

      John Lennon nailed it.

      January 29, 2012 at 6:55 pm |
  17. R from pdx

    This article was clear evidence of where our culture has taken the divinity of God. We are open minded and want to somehow articulate God as a generic one size fits all. Really? Religion certainly puts weight and burdens that God does not necessarily expect. I wonder if this Chaplin learned more theory and forgot the intimate relationship associated with being a believer. I would say that real love is learned from understanding forgiveness, unmerited grace, and mercy. In our culture that is hard to understand as we can easily file bankruptcy or settle for pennies on the dollar with creditors. God is love, but lets not put him in this fluffy one size fits all category. He alone has the right to judge and if we believe in Him, we must confront those that do not know Him and tell them of their eternal choice. I see no reason why in those last moments of someones life I would not want to share the eternal glory of Gods peace and promise of eternal life with those who choose Him today even up to the last hour. I don't need Harvard for teach me that!

    January 29, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
    • J from phx

      I have been close to death, have you? What Kerry Egan wrote was correct for me. Family was first and foremost in my mind when I thought I was about to die. I hope your adherence to your rigid beliefs will be as much as a comfort as you believe.

      January 29, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
    • Mark C

      And I would reply shove a sock in it, you gaseous, pretentious, self-righteous imbecile.

      January 29, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
    • ericpo

      You miss the whole point of how a life in ministry unfolds. It is so interesting that many folks very dedicated talk of God in terms of a 1 on 1 relationship. That all that matters is that relationship. Paul Tillich describes God as that ultimate reality. God IS. If you read the bible you will find it repeated often throughout. God often refers to himself as I AM. God creates, destroys, exist, embodies, incarnates all of reality. So before getting too confident ask yourself what you think about in crisis and at the end of things in your life. I generally don't think of God alone or my salvation or bible versus. I remember, my father now gone. I remember mistakes that I made that lead me to this point in life. I remember the right decisions that did as well. I think back and sometimes I am grateful. Sometimes I am mad. I am all over the place. If God IS BEING ITSELF then I am in an active conversation with God by being, by living and as the author stresses by loving in this life. God is here right with us. The kingdom of God is a now thing. A right here thing.

      January 29, 2012 at 6:55 pm |
  18. mujib

    Life ia journey one is short one is long this life is short,after death long way to go nobody knows how long &how confortable!

    January 29, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
  19. fultonhoanglosangeles

    curingtheincurable@att.net(limited) TaiChi Qigong training, healing, inoperational brain tumor, cancer cells control

    January 29, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
  20. cleshflesh

    More light...

    January 29, 2012 at 6:22 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.