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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. michele

    I ended up in the Emergency Room early this morning. Frightening experience. My daughter stood by me, I tried to keep a brave face for her even though I thought I could actually die. I looked at her, and thought of how I loved her, and how I loved my son, and my mom, dad, brothers and sisters. Some of us don't even talk to one another. Didn't matter. This flooding emotion came over me of the love I felt for all of them. I couldn't hold in my tears. I told my daughter how much I loved her, She comforted me telling me how great a mom I've been and always did the best I could. The love I felt today even just by the thought of my family left such an impact on me. At home now, I'm struggling to sit up and go on the computer. I read this story, and tears just streamed out of my eyes. So beautifully written, so true. Thank you for this.

    January 29, 2012 at 7:46 pm |
  2. Debra

    Lovely, spiritual and deeply moving. Thank you for reminding me of the things I do have control over in my life. The choices I make today can be profound. Thank you.

    January 29, 2012 at 7:45 pm |
  3. jschmoe

    Very nicely written, and I'm sorry you had to endure that ignoramus professor's comments.

    January 29, 2012 at 7:44 pm |
  4. Ponterb

    Best deathbed last words..."it's the end, but the moment has been prepared for."

    January 29, 2012 at 7:41 pm |
  5. Jessica

    My grandfather, G. Ernest Wright, taught for many years at the Harvard Divinity School. If I have any understanding of him, he would support your approach to the dying wholeheartedly and call that professor a foolish jerk with no business trying to influence a class of future ministers.

    January 29, 2012 at 7:40 pm |
  6. Lilly

    This made me cry also. Hours before my mother's death, when she could no longer recognize her loving daughter by her side, she cried out, "Owww. Mom, it hurts!" Her mother had been dead for over 40 years. These were the last coherent words she uttered. I am my mother's legacy, as my daughter is mine. Family is what holds the thread of life together. Beautifully written.

    January 29, 2012 at 7:39 pm |
  7. micheesto

    wow, such a powerful article! thank you so much for sharing this.

    January 29, 2012 at 7:37 pm |
  8. Scott S

    This is one of the most moving and spiritual writing that I have read in years. Thank you Kerry.

    January 29, 2012 at 7:36 pm |
  9. humanbean

    As is stated in this article, the MOST important thing in life is LOVE. Above all else, people need to feel loved in this world. That professor that she talked about is your typical arrogant Christian, who believes that doing all of the talking at people is the most important thing in this world. As if everyone else is stupid and you know it all. All the Christians who pass judgment on everyone else when your savior has expressly told you that your god will be the only judge in the end. All of you who refuse to show love to your fellow man as your savior instructed, no matter what his/her plight, are the ones who are truly lost.

    January 29, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
    • Cathy

      Its not just Christian Humanbean, its all religions that do this. It's so sad...humanity cannot seem to realize that LOVE is the key. But I will tell you, its HARD, VERY HARD to love people anyway despite their ugliness to human kind. AND its so hard to realize that people are where they need to be at this moment in time, because they have not grown to the point of loving one another, that's the hardest part actually, and the hardest to accept. Its difficult at best.

      January 29, 2012 at 7:38 pm |
    • Mom

      I sincerely doubt that professor was a Christian at all. Teaching theology does not make one a Christian. Sitting in church week after week doesn't make someone a Christian either. Thousands of people all around the world call themselves "Christians" yet their actions and words say otherwise. God knows the difference. It is the people who sincerely, with true repentant hearts, who accept the forgiveness of their sins through Jesus Christ, they are the ones who can actually wear his name: Christian.

      January 29, 2012 at 7:39 pm |
  10. Chances we take.

    Reblogged this on allielovescali.

    January 29, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
  11. Brenda

    The first thing that we are taught in our lives is the lesson of Love. Love carries us through our lives, and at the end of our lives, when every light is about to be extinguished, Love's ray lingers.

    Any of you that have been a member of the same youth group that I was in will recognize the above and its significance. Love is our first lesson and it carries us through.

    January 29, 2012 at 7:28 pm |
  12. Cathy

    This is so true! Love can be a mixed blessing or a curse in families. But I believe as the author says that in the end...people know what is right and what is wrong and may also realize, unfortunately, that people do the best they can do with what they have, even though it may be flawed to the max. They have not arrived, so to speak to the place of peace and love, but are in the place, in their existence where they are supposed to be at this time and place, knowing they will progress into the future.

    January 29, 2012 at 7:28 pm |
  13. SR in SCarolina

    This article was compassionate and insightful. Thank you for sharing. And i will hope that the 'insensitive' professor has experienced some of the love, compassion, and forgivness conveyed here. It seems like someone in the past may have let him down. Let's hope he will be able to touch others now with kindness.

    January 29, 2012 at 7:28 pm |
  14. Denise

    Beautiful piece. Thank you.

    January 29, 2012 at 7:27 pm |
  15. A.Leon

    There is so much true in that beautiful article. I have so experienced it, with my father when he was leaving this world, I also experienced with my mother. This is why some dying individuals, claim that they "see" their ancestors as they are leaving this world. I was really touched.

    January 29, 2012 at 7:27 pm |
  16. brotherseamus

    Wow, that professor was a real a$sh0le.

    January 29, 2012 at 7:26 pm |
  17. runnerman

    I think Kerry has touched on 2 of the most basic and important human emotions in a tender and inspiring venue.

    January 29, 2012 at 7:24 pm |
  18. Wastrel

    "Either that wallpaper goes, or I do" - Oscar Wilde.

    January 29, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
  19. Danielle H

    So beautiful! This made me cry

    January 29, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
  20. Susan

    Kerry – that was so beautifully written. When my father was dying my mother, a nurse, cared for him at home. We had a hospital bed set up next to windows that looked out on a pond in our backyard. Towards then end, when we knew there would be no more treatment, I would listen to my mother and father talk about their life together and recall funny stories. On the Saturday my father died my mother and I changed his diaper together, my mother ensuring his dignity even at the very end by draping the sheet so he wasn't exposed. My father had lost the ability to speak days earlier but my mother and I spoke to him as we cared for him always with such love and, believe it or not, humor. Your article brought it all back to me – as heartbreaking and painful that time was, it is also one of my most cherished memories. Thank you.

    January 29, 2012 at 7:18 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.