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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. don mercer

    Very nice article, well written and I see you care about the people you encounter prior to their deaths.
    But, lets make one thing very clear. Your job has only one main goal: find out if they know they are saved only by the grace of Jesus Christ. If they don't have the right answer, you are obligated to lead them to the right answer. Everything else is nice, but insufficient.
    The scriptures point out that only a few of us should seek to be pastors as we will be judged by a higher standard. If you do not accomplish the mission I outlined, then you are in jeopardy; not of losing your own salvation (impossible), but losing your rewards you would have otherwise obtained.
    Go forth and preach the gospel is not a choice, it was a command still in effect today. Get on with it!

    January 29, 2012 at 9:26 pm |
    • KevinE

      Amen! The most important decision in life is to receive the free gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ. Jesus is the ONLY way to heaven!

      January 29, 2012 at 9:30 pm |
    • Charlie

      The scriptures are fiction, jesus christ was just another asssssshole; do you idiots have any idea the misery you have caused and created in this world by your stupid beliefs and because you cannot accept the "great oblivion" that PROBABLY follows this life. Stop babbling about nonsense and get in touch with reality. If your friend jesus came to earth today he would be locked up as a nut case which is what he was 2000 years ago, a deranged moron.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:44 pm |
    • Paul

      Don, please note that your opinion reflects only one interpretation of Christianity which appears to be rooted in both the Protestant Reformation and more recently, American-style Evangelicalism. Please consider studying the history of your religion by reading the writings of the early church fathers to see that your stance suggests a very limited and inaccurate view of the church's teaching on salvation. Although I'm sure that you mean well, you have the potential to do a lot of damage to people in need who might not have the critical thinking skills to see through your lack of compassion and knowledge.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:44 pm |
    • Charlie

      So Kevin, you actually believe that your god is such a motherfkkr that if you don't believe in jesus he is gonna fkk with you for eternity. Nice god; sounds like another extremist asssshle to me.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:46 pm |
    • Scott

      “Your job has only one main goal: find out if they know they are saved only by the grace of Jesus Christ. If they don't have the right answer, you are obligated to lead them to the right answer.”

      Typical Christian scavenger, preying on the old, the weak and the confused

      January 29, 2012 at 10:06 pm |
  2. candy

    The article is clearly touching, but in a sense, I think it is also provocative. Does this mean that people are becoming more convinced that organized religions are just what they are, organized (even as >80% Americans consider themselves to be religious), and therefore spiritual guidance can't be counted on when you're on your way out? Or has it been like this for all of mankind?

    January 29, 2012 at 9:25 pm |
  3. CPEtrained

    Spot on...well done.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:23 pm |
  4. Bob

    The reason I don't go to church anymore is because of Professors like this. They are my religion, trying to prevent me from spending time with my family and trying to convince me that I MUST go to church no matter what. We want family and love, not a bunch of stupid rules and know-it-all people. Before we die we want someone to listen to us, not preach to us. We all want love. Our souls need love. When we don't have love life is less than it should be. Before we die most of us talk about love. God is love. If anybody else says anything different then they are taking you away from God.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:21 pm |
  5. Joel

    Well written Kerry.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:19 pm |
  6. TA

    Beautiful article.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:18 pm |
  7. JT

    It's hard to imagine that self righteous Christians feel the need to rob the dying of their last few minutes by telling them how they're going to burn in hell for eternity if they aren't like them. Real sickos. These type Christians disgust me more than anything.

    Reminds me of a fight that broke out at a funeral that was in the news not too long ago where the preacher decided to do some old fashion rebuking and, pointing down at the casket, told the deceased's loved ones that he was frying in hell at this very moment since he wasn't a True Christian®.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:17 pm |
    • Aircarz

      do you just think that we all just automatically go to heaven when we die? Why does the Bible say tha tthe path to Heaven is narrow and few find it? That the only way to God os through Jesus? Without a relationship with Jesus you do not enter Heaven, im sorry if you think me bigoted, narrow minded or unenlightened but that is the truth, you know, the kind of truth that the rabble have a propensity for crucifying those who speak it?

      January 29, 2012 at 9:23 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Do you believe you know everything, Aircarz? Last I checked, no one knows what happens when we die. Just because you believe it does not make it a fact. And just because you believe it doesn't mean anyone else is required to do so. It also doesn't mean that the chaplain has to do things your way or the way you believe she should because you think God said so. It's not your call. You want to tell people they're going to hell if they don't repent? You want to be a chaplain? Then get into Harvard and work that cerebrum of yours. Get a degree and you can operate as you wish as long as any hospital will put up with your idiocy. Otherwise, you don't get to give advice to someone who's doing the job.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:44 pm |
  8. KevinE

    Only through Jesus Christ can we receive the free gift of eternal life. Jesus Christ is the ONLY way to heaven. Jesus purchased us at a price, with his precious blood. God loved us so much he put on human skin, and then laid down his (earthly) life on the cross. The sinless Jesus bore our sins upon him on the cross. He took our place for the punishment for our sins. Through faith in Christ we are clothed in his righteousness and can enter heaven with a clean record.

    Jesus Christ loves you. Jesus loves us enough to cleanse us all of our unrighteousness. Jesus is Lord! <3

    January 29, 2012 at 9:17 pm |
    • No.

      No.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:18 pm |
    • JT

      That's just sick.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:18 pm |
    • Charlie

      Kevin, have you considered medication for you halucinations? Or does the tooth fairy really visit you every night?

      January 29, 2012 at 9:21 pm |
    • KevinE

      When you fully accept Christ into your heart and make him the Lord of your life and seek him, you will feel his awesome loving presence. Full of joy and love and peace!!! Nothing better than the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ! :)

      January 29, 2012 at 9:25 pm |
    • BEK

      I believe in a Supreme Being, although I do not identify with any organized religion, including Christianity. I also work in a psychiatric hospital. Whoever you are, your post sounds like it was written by a religiously preoccupied nut-job.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:30 pm |
    • Bob

      Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

      Insisting that people worship God in your own way and only your way IS dishonoring others' understanding of God. It is no different than what this high and mighty professor did you her; he mocked what she saw and understood to be the truth. She saw the dying talk about love and he only saw his pride being attacked by her innocent truth. She did love them as love is defined.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:32 pm |
    • KevinE

      @BEK: "But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned." (1 Corinthians 2:14)

      The only way to understand God is to have the Holy Spirit on the inside. If you haven't accepted Christ as your Lord and Savior, you don't have the Holy Spirit revealing the truth to you.

      Without the spirit of God, all you are is a letter. The natural man cannot understand the supernatural, unless the supernatural is within you to reveal himself to you. To understand the "Word", you gotta have the Spirit of God quicken the letter to understand the word. Those who reject Christ, do not have the Holy Spirit.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:36 pm |
    • tallulah13

      "Yay!" said KevinE, "A guy was horrifically tortured to death so that I don't have to be responsible for my own actions! Yay!"

      Honestly, this sort of "rah, rah murder" atti.tude makes me sick. Man up, dude, and if you have done something bad, atone for it yourself.

      January 30, 2012 at 1:40 am |
    • *facepalm*

      "The only way to understand God is to have the Holy Spirit on the inside. If you haven't accepted Christ as your Lord and Savior, you don't have the Holy Spirit revealing the truth to you."

      Why wouldn't your all-powerful god just let everyone know what the truth is? Oh, I know, he likes to play favorites. And he's sadistic.

      January 30, 2012 at 1:42 am |
  9. Paul Price

    Thank you, Chaplain. I recall all too well the last week of my wife's life. She loved the Lord, and just wanted to be certain that I would be OK, and would make sure our 4 kids would be OK without her. Over the years, the kids have grown and gone on to great things, thanks to their faith. Their mother, my wife, left us when she was just 32 years old. But, she has been with us every step of the way,

    January 29, 2012 at 9:16 pm |
    • Charlie

      And now your wife, like the rest of us, is just a diet for worms.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:35 pm |
  10. Charlie

    Does a kangaroo that dies go to heaven? Does it come back as a moose? Or just some other marsupial? Does anyone know the answer to these questions, and if not, why do you believe in a god for which there is no empirical evidence?

    January 29, 2012 at 9:16 pm |
    • Paul Price

      You would be better off believing, and finding out that you are wrong, than not believing and finding out you are wrong.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:18 pm |
    • Charlie

      So Paul, if I don't believe in your god than what happens? Is he such a mean spirited sonofabich that he will tell me fk off?

      January 29, 2012 at 9:23 pm |
    • Sankarshan Das Adhikari

      Where is the empirical evidence to prove that unless something is empirically verifiable it has no objective reality?

      January 29, 2012 at 9:28 pm |
    • Charlie

      Sankarshan: So according to you, it is okay to believe in Zeus, Thor, the Tooth Fairy, The Spaghetti Monster, Aliens, Martians, anything you want to believe in is okay including like a great many muslim extremists that is is okay to kill people who do not believe like they believe.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:39 pm |
    • JK

      Plenty of people know the answer to your questions, but they have open, seeking minds. Atheists have to be rigidly close-minded in order to maintain their rigid religion. Otherwise, they'd notice all the evidence of the spiritual world that surrounds them every minute of their lives.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:53 pm |
    • TR6

      @JK:” Otherwise, they'd notice all the evidence of the spiritual world that surrounds them”

      I think you’ve got the shoes on the wrong feet. I’ve been looking for evidence of the spiritual world all my adult life. All I have found is a bunch of con men , snake oil salesmen. It’s the religious that remain closed minded and refuse to see evidence, like evolution

      January 29, 2012 at 10:47 pm |
  11. johndanger

    Well, Tom, congratulations and welcome to the human experience. Trevy and Abullah, along with thousands of others, will be happy to tell you the meaning of life. Everyone wants to tell you the meaning of life. But, in the end, you're on your own when it comes to finding meaning in your life. Good Luck, Friend. Enjoy the search.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:15 pm |
  12. shannon

    Thank you for this article...............

    January 29, 2012 at 9:14 pm |
  13. Rodney

    Kerry, ... you have been His hands and feet at a critical time in people's lives. It is not a time for legalism or for cerebral hoops, it is a time for as you do. Your critics most likely will "get it" at that time in their lives as well, and I hope they will have a Kerry to comfort them and exhibit love, that only can come from God. Nowhere else.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:14 pm |
    • Charlie

      Is your god Thor, Aphrodite, Zeus. Who is your god? And how many times have you talked to him/her/it?

      January 29, 2012 at 9:19 pm |
    • No.

      No, it will come–if it does–from somebody like the author. Unless you have some film of God actually EVER dropping by to do anything, which I really doubt

      January 29, 2012 at 9:21 pm |
  14. Pete

    Why do people want to talk about their family instead of God when they die? Because they want to talk about something real– something that really meant something in their life, not the invisible person in the sky who they never even spoke too.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:12 pm |
  15. Aircarz

    "...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." WRONG ANSWER, you false teacher. If you are not talking about the redeeming blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, how He paid the price for our sins, that He and He alone is the gate to the narrow path that few find, that no one i repeat NO ONE goes to the Father except through the Son then you my friend are talking about the wrong things, teaching false doctrine, and complacently sitting there and letting these poor people slide right away from your counsel and into the depths of HELL. We do not earn our way onto Heaven regardless of how good we were, what or how much we did for others, how much we loved or were loved – if we do not know Christ, we do not enter into the gates of Heaven. That is the gospel that you are denying them and for YOU as a "shepherd" you are held double accountable and their blood shall be on YOUR HEAD. Your professor was right and still is – you should seriously consider another line of work CHAPLIN.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:12 pm |
    • Lindy

      This is really sick.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:23 pm |
    • Warranted92

      Kerry has it right. Christ's message to the world was that only through GOD'S LOVE can any follower of Christ find a place in God's grace..Not through a bunch of mumbo jumbo rituals and fanaticism...And the first step to God's grace is through the actively forgiving of self and others through genuine contrition-Forgiveness of sins.
      Deriding the method-as you have done- of how one reaches God's grace- is in and of itself -sinful because you super impose that you understand the enormity of God's grace...You are not God...Go back to your Church and ask.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:31 pm |
    • BinMesa

      Sorry to tell you this but your particular crazy is not very christian. Spend some time reading the history of your bible and christianity. Become truely enlightened.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:39 pm |
    • ana

      Sure sounds like you and JC are tight, Airhead....because he's all about the self-righteous, judgmental elitism....

      January 29, 2012 at 9:40 pm |
  16. old dude

    Cathy, I think, in your reply to me ...it was a reply to me, was it not? ...that you may have mis-read my intonation. Some do not want to "speak their mind about God." In fact, I have never encountered a dying person who wanted to say that much. Most seem to appreciate and understand I am there not to seek "death-bed conversions" or pry ; I am, for the most part, trying to be a listener and comforter. Don't want to believe that? That is alright with me; you are allowed to think otherwise. For the record, I have sometimes misjudged situations to my regret ...I have made mistakes. Don't think I am the only one. For now, it is a moot point. But, I do hope when you (indeed, all of us) are at Death's door, the person or person's who draw close around you all say and do the right things for your personal sense of peace. Your soul will pass on and maybe no one will know just how you felt about those moments for quite some time; but, those who were in the room will have to live with it as long as their memory persists.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:11 pm |
  17. Dee

    What a pathetic excuse for a professor this man's teacher was.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:08 pm |
    • Mary RRRR

      I so agree, classic theorist Harvard impractical belittling professor of stupidity.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:12 pm |
    • Aircarz

      The Professor WAS RIGHT.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:13 pm |
    • Lindy

      What a pathetic excuse for a man of the cloth this lady's divinity teacher was. So much for religion.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:18 pm |
  18. wishing

    Bless you Kerry.
    __________

    When we are hot with hate, love seeps in like water and extinguishes the fire;
    When we have a wall of anger, love undermines the wall and restores us;
    When we are cold with hopelessness, love can bring heat to awaken our spirit;
    When we are sick and dying, love calms and soothes, and helps our passing.

    Love has many obstacles but always overcomes, and endures.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:03 pm |
    • Scott

      Typical Christian scavenger, preying on the old, the weak and the confused

      January 29, 2012 at 9:59 pm |
    • Scott

      Sorry, posted in the wrong place

      January 29, 2012 at 10:00 pm |
  19. bitnar

    I cried through this whole article. Very well written and truthful.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:02 pm |
  20. TippToni

    My mom died 9 October 2011. During her last week, all she talked about was family. Although she was profoundly religious, her last advice to my wife and me was "don't fuss and take care of each other." My mama did that well–taking care of everyone that passed through her life. She was dying and still she worried about us–what were we cooking for dinner, school assignments we were missing, or what the youngest grandchild was doing. Family and friends meant everything to my mom. This article reminded me of my mama and the beautiful time we shared during her last week. I thank the Chaplain.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:02 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.