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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. Joe

    Love and forgiveness… if one learns that, than they know what grace is.

    January 29, 2012 at 8:19 pm |
  2. bobo jones

    I am old and by my self (no family) and this story brought tears to my eyes.

    January 29, 2012 at 8:17 pm |
    • EndlessWanderer

      God bless you Bobo.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:35 pm |
    • *frank*

      Hang in there, Bobo.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:51 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      I'm sorry, bobo. I hope that you find peace.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:37 pm |
    • tammy

      I'm sorry Bobo, love and blessings to you

      January 29, 2012 at 11:18 pm |
  3. JiminTX

    Good article until about halfway thru when she makes the leap from "love" to "what they mean by love is god". If they wanted to talk about god they would, they aren't!! They are talking about love – something that all people feel no matter what their spiritual beliefs are. If you don't get that, if you can't overlook your personal religious beliefs when someone is before you dying, then you are doing a grave disservice not only to those people but to your beliefs. Shame on you.

    January 29, 2012 at 8:17 pm |
    • Timmy

      At least "god is love" is an advance from the ancient "angry gods" paradigm, where they require sacrifices, to gain their favor. Slowly, slowly, humanity is progressing.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:39 pm |
  4. tammy

    As a chaplain, I would feel it important to talk to the dying about where they will spend eternity! You could make them feel as comfortable as possible in this life only for them to spend eternity in hell. A hospital chaplain should tell the dying that there is one way to God, and that is through Jesus Christ alone. The rest is just details!

    January 29, 2012 at 8:16 pm |
    • TheEnd

      The final moment belongs to the dying. Let them express what they need to express.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:20 pm |
    • ReligiousInsanity

      What an evil, vicious religion you have. What a real shame.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:22 pm |
    • Forever

      The rest is details? You really need to rethink your role.

      The final actions and words by the dying are hardly details. They are to be cherished and learned from.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:27 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Who cares what YOU feel, tammy? Your feelings are irrelevant to the requests of those who are dying. If they don't want to hear about religion, you have no business torturing them by forcing them to listen to you.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:28 pm |
    • travis

      Wow. That just sounds cruel and sick. Your job is to make them as comfortable as possible. Trying to scare the hell out of someone, literally, during that last few minutes here is disgusting. You may as well go kill a puppy with your bare hands if you feel like hurting something.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:28 pm |
    • talktothehand

      So basically you talk over their final words?

      January 29, 2012 at 8:49 pm |
    • Jennifer

      Tammy, I hope you never have the opportunity to speakto a dying person. And I hope you don't have kids.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:33 pm |
    • tammy

      I didn't mean that the dying's comfort is not important- I just lost my aunt and it was very important every day for her to be as comfortalbe as possible. What I was trying to say is that eternity is forever, and we need to make sure people are ready to meet God. My aunt was blessed by several people who came to talk to her and told her about Jesus. She had peace when she died, she knew where she was going and I know she is with my uncle in heaven now : ) Blessings to you all.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:23 pm |
    • andybud

      My mother spend her final few days of consciousness talking about two things: her family, mostly, and at times her fear of not being forgiven by God and going to Hell. That a dumb bronze-age myth can take the most precious, final moments of a woman's lifetime, and corrupt them with more than the fear that looming death itself already brings, is absolutely sickening.

      January 30, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
  5. Frank in Pensacola

    Do not feed the trolls... This is one of the BEST articles about people's core understanding about what's important to them you'll ever read. Most people, on their death beds, don't say "I wish I'd worked more" or "At least I watched a lot of TV" (see John Scalzi's blog on that topic. Once you're gone, or once they're gone, it's too late to do anything with or for you or that family member. So, to paraphrase Scalzi, if it fills you with dread to consider being on your death bed and thinking "I wish I'd spent more time with or done more for _____" (fill in the name of a family member or loved one), get off your butt and start today.

    January 29, 2012 at 8:14 pm |
  6. MikeDeAng

    One of the best. Thank you Kerry.

    January 29, 2012 at 8:13 pm |
  7. Andrea Milazzo

    Thank you for this article; three weeks ago today I lost my Dad to an 18 month battle with gastric cancer.My older brother is a chaplin as well, and the gathered family sat together for the last 8 hours of Dad's life looking, laughing and loving photo albums of every family trip and events we had photos of. Dad could completely hear us, and I have no doubt he heard and understood everything being said. We not only found ourselves united by pictures we were all in, but united in the final hours of this man who taught us to be a family, and we know he let go because he knew we got the lesson. We understood exactly what he taught us-love is family and the family flourishes within God-faults and all. Tell that professor he missed the lesson, but the simple man in So Cal not only got it, he taught his family and they got it too.

    January 29, 2012 at 8:12 pm |
  8. Kessi

    What people say before they die: "I told you I didn't feel well"

    January 29, 2012 at 8:08 pm |
  9. Mark

    Kerry, thank you for an article so moving that it drove me to my first ever comment on Belief Blog.

    January 29, 2012 at 8:08 pm |
  10. Jennifer

    Beeb, Doodlebug, etc–you're missing thet point. She is saying that this is what people WANT to talk about. You do NOT disrespect a dying person and redirect the conversation and make it about YOUR Godly agenda. How can you say what you'll want when the time comes? You have no clue. I do hope that you have someone by your side who will listen to you and talk about what YOU wish to talk about.

    January 29, 2012 at 8:06 pm |
  11. susan

    what a beautiful article! keep up the great but draining work that you – do you are truly a servant of God!

    January 29, 2012 at 8:05 pm |
  12. Byron Hunt

    This is a perfect example of the way a religious mind works. Make normative statement: People should talk about gods when they are dying. Realize normative statement is untrue: People actually talk about their families when they are dying. Completely twist it: By talking about their families.......ACTUALLY THEY ARE TALKING ABOUT angry jealous space gods, who actually are love, except when they are drowning people for ignoring them, or turning people into pillars of salt.......

    January 29, 2012 at 8:05 pm |
    • Lily

      Byron, don't be so miserable. Even my husband, who's an atheist, found this article touching... even if he doesn't believe in existence of God. But, you have a right to your opinion.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:22 pm |
    • MikeTheAtheist

      Lily, yes the article is touching, but Byron is right. It's not about being miserable, it is about having a strong standard for truth.

      The author has the right idea, letting people talk about what they feel is important and giving them that final comfort and dignity and respect.

      But she loses it when she adds her own religious interpretation. At that point it feels as if she is no longer respecting the views of the dying. The dying are not mentioning religion, so she fills the gap as an afterthought. She is putting her own beliefs into their mouths by way of her interpretation. As touching and helpful as she is, there is an eventual element of religious dishonesty in the article.

      On the other hand, she could do far far worse. Just look at how many people posting here believe the dying should have even their final precious moments saturated with the Jesus/salvation/damnation message that they have probably heard thousands of times over the course of their lives. The arrogance of such a position is palpable.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:06 pm |
  13. Robin

    Kerry, Thank you for sharing this beautiful insight. My 98 year old father wants and needs to talk about my mother and his parents. When people ask him the secret to his life he says it's having a loving family. You gave your patients the gift of listening and understanding and allowing them to share their lifes lesson of love. Thank you!

    January 29, 2012 at 8:04 pm |
  14. Kuram Narayana

    I read this column with a lot of interest. Generally Hindus utter the words OM, Namo, Narayana! into the ears of a dying person. At least that is what I saw when I was a child 50 years ago. The idea is that the dying person should leave the bondage of life and death. Times differ and cultures differ too. But who are we to free a man or a woman from his or her bondage. One Upanishad actually talks about the irrelevance of attachment. But I liked this writer and her sensitive thought. Good work.

    January 29, 2012 at 7:59 pm |
  15. old dude

    Being chaplain to those near death is not the hardest thing I have ever done. Burying them while kicking myself for not even giving them the opening to say something about their spiritual condition in case they wanted to but did not know how ...that's been the hardest. Chaplaincy ...Christian chaplaincy is not a job or career; it is a response to God's voice calling to us to be physical stand-in's. Done in imitation of the heart of God, it might be the toughest role any Christian can voluntarily take on.

    January 29, 2012 at 7:58 pm |
    • Cathy

      don't grieve for "not giving them a chance to speak their mind about God", because they will not. All you have to do is lean over and whisper to ask them if they belive in Christ who died to save them...that's all you need to do. its simple, to the point and their answer is genuine, without wasting a lot of time...get to the point and let them talk about what's on their heart

      January 29, 2012 at 8:06 pm |
    • Jennifer

      Cathy, and what if they say "no"?

      January 29, 2012 at 8:10 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Funny how there's been no answer. I suspect these vultures would tell the dying person he or she will burn in a lake of fire. So much for comfort and care.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:29 pm |
    • MikeTheAtheist

      If you have faith, surely you believe that an omnipotent loving god would not put the burden of somebody else's eternal torment on YOUR shoulders. Surely you don't think an omnipotent loving god, who controls everything, would require the dying to spend their last precious moments, not bonding with their loved ones and saying their final goodbyes, but instead listening to YOU deliver a religious message they've probably heard countless times, and making the delivery of that message a major condition of their gaining life for eternity.

      Nothing against YOU at all, really. You seem like a caring person. But would a more-than-capable creator-of-the-universe give that kind of burden, leaving it up to another individual person like that? Really? Leave someone else's eternal destiny in your hands?

      Is this theological position meant to give you peace? I am not seeing it. If you're kicking yourself, I don't think you are either.

      It sounds to me like you may want to lighten your load.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:38 pm |
    • Jennifer

      Tom, it's astoundingly arrogant. Right to the bitter end of someone's life, to be selfish enough to not want to listen, but rather to continue to proselytize and preach.

      I know that on my deathbed, I want someone who will listen, not someone who will take every last-ditch effort to guilt/shame/force beliefs. At that point all that should be given is a loving, peaceful environment.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:41 pm |
  16. *frank*

    It would be both marvelous and just if Ms. Egan somehow wound up staying with that jackass professor in his final moments, so she could disconnect his morphine drip.

    January 29, 2012 at 7:57 pm |
    • GLWHardy

      Matthew 7:1-2.

      When The Master speaks, take it to heart.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:09 pm |
    • David

      Great Response!

      January 29, 2012 at 8:10 pm |
    • *frank*

      He ain't my master, pal.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:18 pm |
  17. GLWHardy

    "The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kerry Egan."

    No, they are not – nor should they be.

    Thank you, Kerry, for lancing a widower's wounds...

    January 29, 2012 at 7:57 pm |
  18. ds

    Thank you for this story, it too made me cry, for I believe in my savior Jesus Christ and this story of LOVE is what it is all about,, Thanks again, Imiss my mother and father terribly but this story brought back great memories.

    January 29, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
    • Jessie

      you can be a big fan of LOVE without believing in Jesus, you know? Just saying! :-)

      January 29, 2012 at 8:25 pm |
  19. Cathy

    When I had to be rushed to the emergency room back on 2006 from a heart attack at age 49, i cried and couldn't quit crying. I thought about how I would miss my children and how they would miss me. How I would miss out on knowing my grandchildren. How I wished I would have talked more with my mom, sister, brother & kids. Wondering how they would do without me. I regretted so much at that time, thinking I was going to die. Family is utmost on your mind in a time like that!

    January 29, 2012 at 7:50 pm |
  20. Man

    Man, all these posters here saying their loved ones' thoughts were on their family in their final moments, and not on any god, are making Jesus scowl in a jealous rage lol.

    January 29, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
    • GLWHardy

      I do hope you were being sarcastic... Jesus does not scowl.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:00 pm |
    • Al

      GLWHardy
      I don't know, Jesus coming back with a sword in hand seems like a scowler.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:20 pm |
    • Jessie

      Yeah, I'd hate to think of Jesus cutting down his enemies with a big old smile on his face.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:23 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.