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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. sonja

    The more ppl that mock God, just means the sooner he will return....and everyone will bow to him. TRUST me im a nurse who had a near death experience that was out of this world :)

    January 29, 2012 at 8:34 am |
    • Pete Moss

      wow....were there midgets and whips and latex?

      January 29, 2012 at 8:38 am |
    • sylvie

      Hi , would u be able to recount to me what happened in you near death experience please. Thx

      January 29, 2012 at 8:39 am |
    • Mirosal

      well, with the numbers of agnostics and atheists climbing rather quickly, you'd better tell this 'god' of yours to hurry the hell up!!

      January 29, 2012 at 8:40 am |
    • Pete Moss

      Jesus cuts my grass every Thursday morning...I'll pass this onto Him.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:44 am |
    • Don Ricardo Spenelli

      Sonja – Tell us about your experience. It's easy to spew words but back them up. We want to know. Did you
      actually see God? Did you use one of those Groupon deals to see him at half price? Please – tell us.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:51 am |
    • Darwin

      I found the story fascinating for many reasons. Primarily, it incensed me that a professor would have the gaul to take a students developmental experience and use it to humiliate them in front of their peers. I have witnessed these pompous, holier than thou, turds on a number of occasions. For anyone to think themselves above the pack and to consider themselves no longer a student of humanity, has ceased to develop and to learn. I also found some of the responses to this post to be interesting. Religious fanatics (yes, fanatics) and logic based commentary alike, it was all fun to read. I found the nurse (a person of science) who had the near death experience and used it to profess absolution in her God to be ...merely amusing. She needs to read a few medical journals on DMT (Dimethaltryptemine) and psychoactive states achieved during the release of this hormone in states of physical duress and "near death" phenomena.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:56 am |
  2. Melanie

    I'm so glad you didn't give up when the professor made light of your work.

    January 29, 2012 at 8:34 am |
  3. Sheila

    What is the most important thing you will think of at the end...your football trophies...your community awards...your promotions at work...your charitable donations...your church work...your social status? I hope not. Love is what it's all about, and this young chaplain has heard that first hand. This kind of puts life into perspecitve, and I for one am thankful God gave me the capacity to love others.

    January 29, 2012 at 8:32 am |
  4. Agent Rasputin

    IT'S ALL PART OF YOUR LEARNING CURVE KERRY ...

    You're coming out of your shell Kerry & that takes time & confidence.
    Breaking the ice with cancer patients is a difficult thing because everyone of them & us is different.
    God pulls us through every challenge that faces us & God will pull you through those challenges too.
    Not all cancer patients are terminally ill. Some make a degree of recovery.
    You'll soon discover that you're part of a recovery team & that includes the recovering patients themselves.
    Yes, you have to mention God at some stage & the difficulty is understanding when to do so.
    Talking about family is the safest place to start.
    Talk about friends.
    Talk about work/career or school depending on their age.
    Talk about challenges they've already overcome.
    Talk about their community.
    Talk about their plans for the future when you're comfortable enough with the rapport you've set up.
    God is in ALL aspects of life & at least one of their family and/or friends is a believer.
    Kerry, you're developing your own bedside manner.
    It's important to stay on your learning curve.
    This is how your confidence will grow.
    Keep coming out of your shell & you'll do OK.
    Regards,

    January 29, 2012 at 8:32 am |
    • steve c.

      yeah, thanks mr/mrs all knowing agentone.

      As a non-believer in the supreme deity thing, I think Ms Kerry has a great deal of wisdom and experience. I believe she is actually helping people be at peace. Sounds to me like she actually cares about these peoples individual feelings rather than their beliefs. You, however, sound as sanctimonious as her jerk-of a professor.

      keep lecturing us with your lists of non-sense. perhaps some day you'll actually believe yourself.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:45 am |
  5. Sadiqa

    Dear Kerry Egan, Thank you for a wonderful article. I always wonder what people feel and think during the last moments of their life. Is it physically painful or is it emotionally painful or peaceful depending on how you perceive you lived your life. Your statement about calling to parents during last moments is interesting. My grandmother lost her mother when she was a toddler, so her oldest sister took care of her and raised her. She called out her sister's name and said "you have come" and then died. This makes we wonder what goes through a dying person's mind. Do they know they are dying. Do you think they are going to their loved ones or are they just in pain and calling their beloved? Just like a child calls it mom or dad when he falls down or is hurt.

    January 29, 2012 at 8:31 am |
    • Pete Moss

      what kind of name is Sadiqa? are you a big city momma?

      January 29, 2012 at 8:33 am |
  6. Dawn

    The biggest impression this article leaves on me is what an a$$ ho!e Ms. Egan's professor was.

    January 29, 2012 at 8:29 am |
    • Pete Moss

      I bet he was a boy toucher!

      January 29, 2012 at 8:31 am |
    • Gumby

      Exactly. Egan is actually a pastor who cares. The professor is a sanctimonious angry Christer jerk.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:32 am |
    • Liz

      Agreed!

      January 29, 2012 at 8:36 am |
    • Brandy

      Pete Moss, I've seen several of your foolish remarks. Why don't you go away and leave these people alone? Seriously, how old are you? You must be a child, what adult would make fun of another person's beliefs...or their name for that matter?

      January 29, 2012 at 8:40 am |
  7. Debbie O'Donnell

    Thank you, Kerry, for your insightful comments. Ever since the loss of my husband and parents over 2 years ago, I have been struggling with love, acceptance and forgiveness. I agree with you that family is the most important thing in our lives, as we are social human beings who thrive on needing people and being needed, and nurturing others. The answers to all my questions of life always seem to come back to that – family and our relationship with family.

    January 29, 2012 at 8:29 am |
  8. Sue

    I was a bit put-off by the headline of this piece, but when I was reading it I couldn't be more impressed. My love of God and my love of my family are totally wrapped up together. I know that the family relationships that I form in this life will continue on into the eternities. That is the way God wishes it to be. We are sent to earth to learn form these family relationships. Families can be forever, if we learn to love more like God loves us.

    January 29, 2012 at 8:27 am |
    • Pete Moss

      hey sue...there is no God, only Dog.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:30 am |
    • Gumby

      "That is the way God wishes it to be. We are sent to earth to learn form these family relationships."

      Another Christian pretends to know the mind of their god.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:33 am |
  9. Jane

    Great article. I hope you send a copy to that professor. You are doing good work.

    January 29, 2012 at 8:27 am |
  10. RFB

    I've been with both my mother and step-father when they were dying, and I'd say Kerry is right. I'm shocked at the story of her professor knowingly mocking her in class. I have deep religious beliefs, as did my parents, but they are strongly intertwined with family. After all, is not God or Heavenly Father? (I know you atheists deny it, but you are merely estranged at the moment. In the end, you will see He still loves you, too.)

    January 29, 2012 at 8:27 am |
  11. Johnson

    I found this article long and meaningless. Why would anyone publish this? I hope she never visits me when my time comes. I would want someone with a little more substance.

    January 29, 2012 at 8:26 am |
    • Pete Moss

      CVS has tampons on sale.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:28 am |
    • dgkdgk

      Then, I find your reading comprehension skills to be dull and/or lacking. This was a lovely, well-written article, and I hope that many take from it the enormous value that I did.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:34 am |
    • Gumby

      Egan has MUCH more substance than some yammering godbot whose only agenda is to relentlessly proselytize to someone trapped and unable to escape his hospital bed.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:35 am |
    • steve c.

      give me your address and I'll send you a brick when your time comes. I'm guessing that is about all the "substance" you'll be able to handle.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:49 am |
    • Steven Capsuto

      Did you read past the first sentence? Or are you the sort of person who writes diatribes based on the headline alone?

      January 29, 2012 at 10:11 am |
  12. donna paulding

    wonderful article.
    Thanks you for people like you who listen.

    January 29, 2012 at 8:26 am |
  13. Debra

    This piece is beautifully written. It's about acknowledging and taking responsibility for one's life. As a physician for more than 30 years I find that Kerry Egan truly understands the human spirit. Religious beliefs are important and central to many, but they should not overshadow how love of family or lack of it affects and shapes our lives. We are a mosaic of it all- some parts are bigger for some than others. Why is there only one "right" way?

    January 29, 2012 at 8:26 am |
    • steve c.

      well written! (imho)

      January 29, 2012 at 8:51 am |
    • Milton

      Actually the article had some typos and grammar issues but I liked it anyway. She would make a far better chaplain than her professor who is a total jerk.

      January 29, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
  14. Nookster

    This is the last thing organized religion types want to hear and especially from a christian chaplin. They want to hear that a dying person is hearing trumpets blarring and beautiful angels singing and people reaching out to take Gods hand. Not that they rarely mention God and reach out for mom or dad in their dying moments.

    January 29, 2012 at 8:25 am |
  15. Don Ricardo Spenelli

    WHEN WE DIE THAT'S IT. THERE IS NO HELL. THERE IS NO HEAVEN. IT'S ALL CRAP.

    January 29, 2012 at 8:25 am |
    • jeepster455

      I wouldn't be so sure about that if I were you.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:33 am |
    • dgkdgk

      I agree. And, because of that, I found this article to be extraordinarily insightful and touching.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:35 am |
    • Gumby

      Jeepster – anyone who studies your Bible objectively and knows the actual history of the religion knows Christianity is false, just like every other religion.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:37 am |
    • Milton

      The afterlife isn't crap. See, I talked to John Edwards, the guy that speaks to the dead that used to be on the Syfy channel when it was spelled "Sci-fi". He tells me that my mom doesn't like tomatoes and died of some word that started with a "C" or an "H" or maybe a "D" but it was garbled so he wasn't sure. Thank the lord that there are ex-ballroom dance instructors that are there to tell us what are dead relatives are saying in the afterlife or I would really wonder about all of this. Of course I suppose he could just be making it all up to make a buck, but that's just a ridiculous idea.

      January 29, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
  16. Robert

    The people you meet are very lucky to have you to listen during their final days. This was a very moving article and puts a great deal of life in perspective. There is so much to be learned and given that exists right before us every day. Thanks for sharing this.

    January 29, 2012 at 8:24 am |
  17. Satan himself

    I gargle with holy water. The best part is spitting it out and down the drain.

    January 29, 2012 at 8:22 am |
  18. Pete Moss

    There is no God, only Dog.

    January 29, 2012 at 8:22 am |
    • Brandy

      How about you move out of your mother's basement and get a life...and some original material?

      January 29, 2012 at 8:43 am |
  19. md2205

    Judaism says that the real measure of a man is the way he treats his family. This is in contradiction to those who think that the measure of a man is what the general public thinks about him in the way he gives charity or treats others outside his home. For that could be deceptive. Judaism values marriage so much because it is the way a man must learn to give to others even against his natural inclination, and it is a daily matter, with people who won't go away. It is the way he (and his wife) learn to be unselfish.

    January 29, 2012 at 8:21 am |
    • Gumby

      True. If you study the history of Christianity you'll find that it has to mangle, misinterpret and twist Jewish theology in order to come up with its screwy doctrine.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:39 am |
  20. John Luken

    What a wonderful article. God exits and reveals himself through intimate, real life experiences...not theological or philosophical rhetoric. Great insight young lady.

    January 29, 2012 at 8:20 am |
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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.