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?”
“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.
Thank you so much for sharing what you have learned about what's important in life and dying. Love ... giving it and receiving it ... clearly is the message and the answer.
The professor was not entirely wrong, and neither is this author entirely right. While I am happy to see so very many have such family connections that on their deathbeds, "family" is the vehicle to channel God, or a place greater than ourselves where sublime unity rules, call it what you will....for millions, this is just not the case. And that phenomenon which has been with us from time immemorial is just not dealt with. Because if you are rejected by your family, for the ethical choices you have made, for who you are, or whatever reason, it is the ultimate rejection. Family connections may be a source of a lot of pain or anger, and because of the way our legals system is set up, at every turn on "your way out", legal forms demand "next of kin", hospitals demand "next of kin" – no kidding the poor dying person has no choice but to think of family. It is the duty of the chaplain to note what "family" means, (especially after reading this one-sided though heartwarming personal graph), and prep you for the journey ahead, whatever your beliefs, and how to find comfort in a place that knows no betrayal from their earthly "family" .
People find the truth in their last moment, which is that God illusion is trivial and unimportant.
In my opinion, your first thoughts are about the family you love and won't be with any longer, maybe problems that won't be resolved. This would also be a very good time to ask God, to give you the time to say good bye to those you love, to resolve the differences you with have with family members. Then it's time to ask Our Dear LORD to forgive us our sins and to begin telling Him this over and over again about how sorry how you are for what we have done to offend HIM, until we breath our last, so if you are with a loved one, please remind them to do this, tell their GOD their Love for Him, because they will be with Him in the near future. Think about it....................
I sat with a dying friend 3 weeks ago. She was 99.5 years old and her body just very suddenly decided to give up and her organs started shutting down out of the blue. That last day of her life I was blessed to be there for the 1/2 hour that she returned to lucidity and was able to understand a conversation and to speak. In that time, we talked about death, joked about how her age finally caught her (as the previous week she had told me she thought it was starting to catch up to her) and then she told me she was afraid for the night to come because she knew it would be her last and she was afraid of being alone. She also expressed that she didn't understand why it was all happening so fast and I told her that she was so fortunate to have had 99 1/2 years of being in pretty good shape and to only have to endure this for such a short short time. She also told me "I won't be at my birthday party" – referring to her 100th birthday party, which would have been this June. I went home, grabbed a bag of overnight stuff, and spent the night next to her bed at the nursing home, so she wouldn't have to be alone to die. I'm 37 and though we weren't related at all, I thought of her as my adopted grandma (my kids and I regularly visit the nursing home to help with the BINGO game and we "adopted" her 3 years ago). Her only daughter is 80 and could not have sat there next to the bed all night. She woke up at 10pm and was saying things like, "I don't understand what you want from me" over and over again, but she wasn't looking at me. She also wanted her daughter. It was heartbreaking that she would ask for her daughter, "Where's my daughter" and I would hold her hand and she would stop asking, but when I had to let go so the nurse could do her thing, again she would say, "Where's my daughter." She thought I was her daughter sitting there all night with her and I was happy to let her believe that. Just as she had predicted, it was her last night. She died at sunrise. On my drive home that morning, the following song was running through my head, by Nichole Nordeman: If I had the chance
To go back again
Take a different road, bear a lighter load
Tell an easy story
I would walk away
With my yesterdays
And I would not trade what is broken for beauty only
Every bitter chill
Made me ready to climb back up the hill
And find that . . .
You are sunrise
You are blue skies
How would I know the morning
If I knew not midnight?
You're my horizon
You're the light of a new dawn
So thank You, thank You
That after the long night, You are sunrise
There's a moment when
Faith caves in
There's a time when every soul is certain God is gone
But every shadow is evidence of sun
And every tomorrow holds out hope for us
For every one of us
You alone will shine
You alone can resurrect this heart of mine
Very well put.
This is beautiful.
This is a beautiful argument. Sadly enough, many people seem so frightened by the fact that they will die someday, and that the meaning of life is one that is beyond our understanding. Tom, it is sad to see the cynicism in your words. I am by no means a believer in the practices of religion, but I prefer to look at life with some notion of Socratic skepticism. The universe is vast beyond our reckoning... the mystery within it is also just as vast. Why live this one life cynically and with the useless and bitter consolation that man's intellect is not sufficient to relieve the suffering he will live through in this life? The same arrogance and hubris we see in those who are fanatically devoted to their religion is found in those of us who claim to be fanatically devoted to the notion of "reason". It is no different. Accept those gentle and real comforts we find in our friends and families.
Beautiful letter. Too often, people forget that every human soul deserves to be loved. Hopefully, people that think about abortions will think about how that soul deserves to be loved, deserves a chance to see a person, to be in the comfort of his/her mother's arms and to see her face and her smile. Love is the most important thing in this world. It's sad to think that some people don't think about their baby that never had a chance until they are dying.
There are WAY too many people in the world already.
I think you're forgetting that when most women make this choice, it's after carefully and painfully considering their entire situation–a situation that you and I know nothing about. When you say that love is the most important thing, I hope your heart includes loving those women who have made the unthinkable, unbearable decision that spared an embryo from being born into a traumatic, awful experience...from a situation of pain and suffering...from an environment where people are incapable of loving the child or providing for that child's basic needs. Most think about the abortion every day for the rest of their lives.
Speaking from personal experience I can assure you that being aborted while you still have no consciousness is much preferable to being born to parents that don’t care about you or hate you for what being pregnant did to them
We can't be so foolish to think that science has all the answers and that we know that the baby has no consciousness. We don't know when the baby has the "thing" that makes it capable of giving and receiving love. And if we don't know, then how can we possibly interfere by ending its life. How do we know if the baby has no consciousness? Because a scientist told us? We should never let a scientist make a decision for us. Follow your heart. What becomes of the baby without seeing the mother and receiving her love? Will the baby go to Heaven? Is love required to go to Heaven? Every soul should have a chance of receiving love before going to Heaven. No child wishes he wasn't born because he's poor – they just want to be loved...from somebody.
Beautiful. Perhaps I can learn something from having read this.
i dont understand how someone speaking of their family on their death bed is in any way connected to god. it is completely narrow minded to associate any type of love for ones family as love for god. i think this is a pathetic attempt of the author to find "god" in the lives of people who may have not shared her beliefs at all.
Alex you maybe the biggest idiot I have ever come across on the internet. Go back to your life molesting sheep and your children and try not to fill your head with "big people" topics.
Never once did she say that their love for their family was a love for God, but had you ever taken the time to learn anything about this faith before you started complaining you would understand. 1 John 4:8, "He who does not love does not know God, for God is love." So from her, and anyone who embraces this perspective, love does not and cannot exist independently of God because all love comes from God. Disagree with it until your heart is content.
It obvious nobody love you for you.
This is the result of living for decades it seems,.with that burning shame visited on her (unfairly, or fairly) in the classroom, and her attempt to get back at the professor, who, in her God's eyes, is part of her own family. Hoist, I'd say, on her own petard. Of course Harvard would know who he was. Everyone can discover that. Too bad she did not use the opportunity in class to deal with a very important issues, so she would not become as hard-headed about the matter as the professor was, on the other side.
Alex, in death it doesn't matter whether one has faith or not. Faith in life however, does provide that rock we all need, to justify to ourselves that in the end there was a purpose for our existence. Some people live a life time being independent and away from there children's family and in the end many are left to pass alone. Faith is all they have to get them through the final stages. My father was such a person, but everyday of his last 14 months I visited him the nursing home. My wife and I were there. He fought for breath has fluid slowly fille dhis lungs. He didn't fear death. He had his faith and family to keep him company in the final moments of his death there was a sense of calm that over took him as he slipped into the after life. I don't know if God is there or not. And I am not going to challenge any religious faith. I do know faith gave my father peace of mind, a sense of purpose and comfort every day of his life and in the end it gave him strength and dignity.
Well done article. I cried at least twice. Life = love.
I rolled my eyes and said to the Lord: here we go again.
Beautiful, profound, and so true! At the time of death, there are no books or philosophy, or even religious teachings... It's just you and your loved ones, alive or dead, but only the closest people in your life. The ones that made you happy, or sad, or proud. My mother died four years ago (96 years old), and that morning she was calling the names or her mother and her two brothers, who died a few year before. It was a very touching moment, she was already leaving us, but was reaching to her "original" family for comfort.
"Hey its the last 30 minutes you have on Earth, so let's talk about what I want to talk about, God." Good point idiot.
Sorry, I clicked the wrong person. This was meant for Janet one below.
I think it is pretty sad that that is all she can offer to the dying. What about the hope of heaven, forgiveness of sin, peace with God through Christ?
I think I speak for all sane people in the world when I say that I'm glad you aren't in her position.
wow, when I am dying I don't want to be told about someones imaginary friend.
I would rather talk about what is actually real, my family.
That is your misguided beliefs and I'm glad to hear she doesn't want to try and make somebody belief something they don't want to in their last days..
Those can be inspirational thoughts but they don't take the place of a life full of love and caring for family members or friends, above oneself. I know many people who talk about forgiveness and Jesus and heaven but they don't walk the talk in their daily lives. By the end of our lives we have either experienced and given love, kindness and forgiveness or we haven't – if we have our God and peace is there. If we haven't those are only words for people who think that words, rather than actions, matter.
If family= love and God = love (as it does in the Christian faith at least), then she does communicate peace to the dying. This woman has a very difficult job. Comforting the dying is not a job for the faint of heart. Unless you are willing to witness the same level of pain, suffering, and sadness every day, then cut her some slack.
You are exactly right, the process of death is not defined by biology alone, as any real nurse who has decades of caring for the terminally ill konws. It is absolutely profound what happens on the spiritual level, even days after, and most of the time it has nothing to do with family. We come into the world not aware of family but one, and OK, when you go, it is good to remember and say your goodbyes, but you are leaving the physical world, in case she hasn't noticed. The discussion STARTS with family, and if it doesn'tmove beyond there, (and she hasn't) that soul may be truly lost.
And my reply was for Janet, not the other lost sheep here.
As a fellow Christian, if you're really going to love your neighbor, who is dying, are you going to talk about what YOU want to talk about or what THEY want to talk about?
It's sad that you think you can even preach on this...
Your pious statement is absurd. You clearly haven't walked the final mile with a dying person or you wouldn't have made such a statement. The people I have been with in the process of dying have been thinking about their lives and loves, specifically, their families. I would guess the most frequent last words said are, "I love you." NOT "I love Jesus."
i hope that professor has fun talking about spiritual stuff on HIS deathbed. Psh. what family?
What a jerk.
simply beautiful. i have lost a few close family members and been there near the end. they do only talk about family. nothing else matters to them at all when you strip away everything else. nice job Kerry.
Beautiful article. When I think about love I think about my husband, my family, and extended family.
Pardon me for not rising.
and for being bitter and g-a-y. Forgot to mention that earlier.
I seem to have acquired a doppelganger. Two clearfogs, one bitter and gay, one not.
Very well said, clearfog. While I am happy to see so very many have such family connections that on their deathbeds, "family" is the vehicle to channel God, or a place greater than ourselves where sublime unity rules, call it what you will....but for millions, this is just not the case. And that phenomenon which has been with us from time immemorial is just not dealt with. Because if you are rejected by your family, for the ethical choices you have made (as in my case), or, for who you are (as it seems it may be in your case),or whatever reason, it is the ultimate rejection. No doubt, family connections may be on a persons mind at death, then it is the duty of the chaplain to note that, and prep you for the journey ahead, whatever your beliefs, and how to find comfort in a place that knows no betrayal from their earthly "family"
Why are you bitter, clearfog? Were you abused as a child? By your parents? You might as well forgive them, because while THEY don't care and aren't affected by your bitterness, YOU are.
And just who do you think CARES whether or not you're gay? Republicans? Fundamentalist Christians? Why do you give a rat's patootie WHAT such people think? The normal, (extra) ordinary man and woman doesn't care because what happens in YOUR bedroom is no more their concern than what happens in THEIR bedrooms is your concern. And I have to admit that I believe the normal, (extra) ordinary man and woman is NOT a Republican or a Fundamentalist Christian.
Clearfog, that lost sheep Kaelinda replied to you:
"Why are you bitter, clearfog? Were you abused as a child? By your parents? You might as well forgive them, because while THEY don't care and aren't affected by your bitterness, YOU are.
And just who do you think CARES whether or not you're gay? Republicans? Fundamentalist Christians? Why do you give a rat's patootie WHAT such people think? The normal, (extra) ordinary man and woman doesn't care because what happens in YOUR bedroom is no more their concern than what happens in THEIR bedrooms is your concern. And I have to admit that I believe the normal, (extra) ordinary man and woman is NOT a Republican or a Fundamentalist Christian."
THIS is exactly what's wrong with the person who wrote that one-sided article, and her "ministrations" produces this piece of DNA masquerading as human known as Kaelinda.
The post talking about bitter and gay was posted by someone other than me. Someone somehow usurped my name, clearfog, which I did not think was possible. In any event, I used the term doppelganger meaning a duplicate of myself. I have no idea what his or her motivation was, but I am relatively certain that I am not having a schizophrenic episode.
Great article. We, as a society, need more discussions like this as we move to a post-religious world.
Turly Jesus said to love God with heart , soul, mind and strenght and love your neighbour is the whole duty of man.
You do not really believe in those fairy tales? lmao
So timeless and betaiuful as a Mom who didn't do maternity portraits at the time, I can tell you that she will NEVER regret having a custom photographer capture the beauty of this time. The significance later is HUGE, and worthy of every dollar spent!
Profoundly insightful, very beautifully witten. God is Love. How much easier can it get. Give some "Love"...Get some "Love". Tremendous article. I love this.
Have you read the bible? Not sure about the "yahweh is love" thing. It doesnt make sense if you are sane.
I'm sorry, but this offers me no comfort. The meaning of my life is to love others then die? And the others whom I love, they will die too, and our mutual love pass into the oblivion of death? There's no meaning in that. It feels good to say. There are warm fuzzies, but it offers no lasting questions to the meaning of life and the purpose for which we are here, that dying creatures love other dying creatures in a world beset with disease, hunger, strife and murder. Is that it? Do we perpetuate our human existence until the end of time, when all of mankind's achievements will be forgotten and perish into nothingness? No, I'm sorry. I have no doubt that you are a compassionate person who genuinely cares for those with whom you work. I'm not attacking you personally. But having suffered myself in this life many times, and having see others go through suffering, I want something lasting that endures.
I just wanted to respond to your post. I get that there are many other dynamics to humanity and to living, however, as we lay in our bed dying, I seriously doubt that we're thinking about murder, disease, hunger, and strife. I have witnessed people on their death-bed also, and the whole world becomes very sharply focussed as the importance of those things melt away and we are left with our dying moments and as the author stated, they are always asking for their loved ones; not theirr boss, their coach, their president, or anyone else but the ones they love.
And your point is... I know it is English you are speaking but your verbiage does not make any sense. Go the read the sports section.
Unfortunately there ain't no Santy Claus. What you "want" and what there "is" are two different things. Part of growing up is to face reality, no matter how difficult. Your as'sumption/premise that only things which last forever, confer meaning, is very childish. Your need for "meaning" does not justify irrational "beliefs" in anything. Life is tough. But maybe you should get yourself an "att'itude adjustment". The is "no meaning in that" ONLY if you require "forever" before you will accept that something is meaningful. You also assume that the ONLY view of "meaning" is conferred at the individual level. How do you know you even see the "patterns", (of meaning), going on here, and are not missing something ? Why does anything HAVE to have a "meaning" ? Maybe you have just been taught to think that way ? Why are things ONLY meaningful if they last a long time ?
looking for your purpose and meaning in life? go to http://mormon.org/plan-of-happiness/
I advice to read about Islam. You will live a beautiful life and go to heaven.
Tom, you want something that endues.
I believe that love endures. It is passed down, passed along, can spread, and hopefully grows.
In tough times, we can get strength from it, and in good times we can contributed to it.
What Man makes with his hands will not endure; what he (she) makes with his heart will.
Why does your life have to have any meaning? Chances are it won't. Most people live, die and have no impact upon more than a handful of people that will be dead themselves within a few years. Why is all of this 'meaning' stuff preventing people from just living their lives, enjoying themselves and having a positive impact on those around them. This ridiculous self-absorbed quest for meaning is sort of pathetic and delusional. You aren't important to anyone other than those that love you. Unless you're Madonna. Or Barack Obama most people don't care and you won't have any lasting impact except on those closest to you. If that's not enough you must be a joy to be around. That was sarcasm.
AT the end of a very, very long time, there is only one moment left.
Whatever some are given, is never enough. The notion that only eternity imparts meaning, (which of course can not be, as eventually space-time will wink out), is unexamined. They grew up hearing about "heaven", and that's all they know. For some, it's too late for education. Tragic.
Very poignant response. You are right that if death is the end, then our lives just don't make sense. As this love and hurt, our relationships and accomplishments, vanishing into the nothingness of the grave. But, if there is a God, and death is not the end, then happiness can be restored to those who wrongfully suffered, and righteous family ties can also be restored. "O how great the goodness of our God, who prepareth a way for our escape from the grasp of this awful monster; yeah, that monster, death and hell, which I call the death of the body, and also the death of the spirit."
>There's no meaning in that.
Amazing. Bringing loved ones into this world and loving them and bonding with them and spending a life with them, and you think there is no meaning in that.
Instead you want eternity, and while shooting for eternity you miss the obvious and you waste your time here.
Believers say to atheists, "What if you're wrong? I have nothing to lose and eternal life to gain!" They could not be more mistaken. What you have to lose is the genuine and profound meaning in THIS life that you are distracted from by religion with its dishonest promises of eternity, with its abundance of gifts that you are said to receive only after you die, when it is far TOO LATE to validate the claims.
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