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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. JazzyMom

    A wooden cross that survived the tornado inside St. John's Hospital in Joplin, MI............ a sign that God exist!!!!!!!!

    January 29, 2012 at 11:33 pm |
    • Answer

      You should go check in to that hospital. It'll do you some good.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:34 pm |
    • lol

      only if they have a psych ward...

      January 29, 2012 at 11:35 pm |
    • Answer

      @lol

      so true.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:36 pm |
    • mac

      REALLY???????????????

      January 29, 2012 at 11:50 pm |
  2. Kevin

    Professors are often very dull, very lacking in perception. They tend to think in a proscribed pattern and have a hard time seeing beyond their little boxes of info and tradition-bound data. "Take away the paradox from the thinker and you have a professor," sad Kierkegaard – and how right he was. Kierkegaard loathed professors; I'm sure he would would have rebuked your professor for his spiritual dullness, Kerry.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:31 pm |
    • AdmrlAckbar

      Unsupported generalizations pushed off as fact are often overly melodramatic!

      January 29, 2012 at 11:37 pm |
    • Jason

      Unless you know more about the professor and/or the class, you might want to withold your rant against professors. If the paradigm of the school/class is to get their chaplains in training to think more about talking about God at the end of life, then the lecture has a point, a meaning. If the professor was trying to emphasize the difference between a chaplain and a counselor, then, again, there is a meaning to the lecture. But without more details in the article, then your critique of professors is ill advised.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:41 pm |
    • lol

      lol at somebody quoting kierkegaard and calling somebody else dull

      January 29, 2012 at 11:44 pm |
  3. Bread and butter

    I believe it's quite insulting to have a looney chaplain near the dying.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:30 pm |
    • AdmrlAckbar

      Warner Brothers holds all rights to Looney Chaplins so you'd have to pay the fee to get one. Then again you could end up with PATCH ADAMS!!

      January 29, 2012 at 11:34 pm |
    • tallulah13

      When I am dying, it is my greatest hope to get a Warner-sanctioned Looney Chaplain. I would rather die laughing than crying.

      January 30, 2012 at 12:06 am |
    • DevilsAdvocate

      Why? It should be the choice of the dying and shouldn't be forced one way or another by you, the chaplan or anyone else around. That seems to be what is wrong with the world today, everyone thinks they should dictate what others think and do...

      January 30, 2012 at 2:33 am |
  4. PaulNYC

    I have the utmost respect for anyone who attends to the sick and dying with such obvious love. You are better than I am because the pain I would feel at that moment, the tears I would feel coming to me might be too much for me to bear. There is such beauty in this world in the simplest acts of kindness that its light pushes aside the darkness that some use to injure those around them. This really was a wonderful piece and very well written. It made me feel something tender which is in the end what makes us human.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:29 pm |
    • AdmrlAckbar

      Cheers mate! Nice post and well eloquented amongst the the trolls and zealots on both sides of the belief spectrum.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:40 pm |
    • Zicke

      Well said, PaulNYC. You're beautiful.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:42 pm |
    • Nichole

      @PaulNYC –

      that was beautiful

      January 29, 2012 at 11:51 pm |
    • Throbster

      Your pustules are so beyootiful, Paul! Your diarhhea is also a loving shade of brown and green! So wonderful! Oooooooh!

      January 30, 2012 at 12:02 am |
  5. Chad

    She just wanted to bi.tch about that fat old man who dissed her in front of everybody by making it sound like she's just the sweetest little ole thang that never did anything wrong ever!
    She doesn't tell about the times she plssed off all the relatives or terrified her victims. She doesn't talk about that stuff.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:28 pm |
    • JazzyMom

      You need to take English Basic Skills classes..... Google your nearest community college

      January 29, 2012 at 11:31 pm |
  6. Aircarz

    Allow me to help you grasp how long "eternity" is: imagine a steel ball the size of the earth, no, the size of the SUN – which can hold like what...a million earths? So, a steel ball the size of the sun. And not cheap steel either, TUNGSTEN steel. Now imagine that once every trillion years (to put into perspective how much a trillion is – if you move back in time one million seconds, you move back about 12 days. If you move back one trillion seconds – you go back 32,000 years!) so , every one trillion years a little tiny sparrow comes along and takes two pecks on that sun-sized steel ball, then flies away and comes back in another trillion years and "peck-peck". When that sparrow has worn that steel ball down to the size of a bb...eternity has just begun, like an ion of water in an endless ocean.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:28 pm |
    • Chad

      JESUS WILL CURSE YOU FOR YOUR HERESY!!!!!! YOU WILL BURN IN HELL FOR ALL ETERNITY!!!!

      January 29, 2012 at 11:30 pm |
    • Answer

      Full of crap.

      Just tell everyone you're an idiot and you'll be fine.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:31 pm |
    • AdmrlAckbar

      This week on Creative Writing 911....

      January 29, 2012 at 11:31 pm |
  7. George Washington Carver

    Would it come amiss, my brethrens, if I suggested the chaplains might give those about to give up the ghost the pleasing solace of a final tasty yet wholesome snack–to wit–the sublime yet humble peanut?

    January 29, 2012 at 11:27 pm |
  8. AdmrlAckbar

    You fools! This article was written by the devil !! The writer's name "Kerry Egan" is really an anagram for Nancy Grace! Even Voldemort would cower!
    Now you must tune in to her show and watch it as you are slowly digested over 1000 years.....

    January 29, 2012 at 11:27 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Nonsense. Nancy Grace is simply one of the pre-chosen forms of Gozer the Traveler - something akin to a large and moving torg!

      January 30, 2012 at 12:09 am |
  9. Reality

    The only words that matter:

    Increase the morphine drip!!!!

    January 29, 2012 at 11:25 pm |
  10. GaryHB

    I've been working in ICUs since 1980. In all that time I haven't seen the slightest evidence of any kind of a superior being. I've seen thousands of people praying over sick people but absolutely nothing has ever happened as a result of the prayer. During the slow times when we are in the break room we all talk about the lack of reality when it comes to religion. Now I wonder if we haven't been lied to for the past 2,000 years.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:24 pm |
    • Bread and butter

      Duh! :-)

      January 29, 2012 at 11:26 pm |
    • AdmrlAckbar

      And because you didn't personally see it must not exist! Yay Science is fun!

      January 29, 2012 at 11:28 pm |
    • Aircarz

      You HAVE been lied to for the past 2000 years – by satan, and it has caused you to believe there is no God. But you are not alone...countless billions of peeps shall also reject Jesus Christ and perish as well. If you don't SEE evidence of God it's because you are not looking or it is because you do not want to see. Evidence is all around you my son. For those who shall believe, no evidence is necessary. But for those who shall not believe, no amount of evidence will ever be enough.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:35 pm |
    • Answer

      Look at aircarz .. perfect example of spreading the word of the devil and etc. Spreading the disease of his religion..

      January 29, 2012 at 11:38 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Aircarz, not all of us are so naive as to believe in something for which there has NEVER been any proof. There has never been any proof of your god, or indeed proof of any of the thousands of gods invented throughout human history.

      January 30, 2012 at 12:12 am |
  11. Bread and butter

    People need to grow up and stop giving in to religious hallucinations. You can't hide from reality, irregardless of what illusory nonsense you believe. Reality happens! To accept religion as something of value or deserving of any respect is to condone stupidity. It's like giving credence to someone who claims that the Earth is flat.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:24 pm |
    • AdmrlAckbar

      Yay science! How's that empirical disproving of the Atheist null hypothesis treating ya?

      January 29, 2012 at 11:29 pm |
    • Bread and butter

      Stop babbling. Did you forget your pills again?

      January 29, 2012 at 11:33 pm |
    • Bread and butter

      What a bunch of crock. So, the chaplain has a degree in divinity? It's the equivalent of getting a degree in "sanitation engineering".

      January 29, 2012 at 11:36 pm |
    • VanHagar

      Why should I take the advice of someone who thinks "irregardless" is a word? Next time just try "regardless."

      January 30, 2012 at 12:00 am |
    • mac

      Now THAT'S the real Bread and Butter

      January 30, 2012 at 12:16 am |
  12. JazzyMom

    Atheists............ have you learned something new today, or are you still being ignorant?

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

      Still true that most religious nutbags are still delusional.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:25 pm |
    • Bread and butter

      Please explain.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:27 pm |
    • AdmrlAckbar

      Please rephrase post in Yoda verbal phrase fronted language...

      January 29, 2012 at 11:30 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Not really. I've always known that compassionate people will be compassionate, no matter what they believer or don't believe. I was also already aware that christian fanatics are selfish people I don't want to be around - especially in that future time when I am dying.

      January 30, 2012 at 12:14 am |
  13. William

    Very well said and written Kerry Eagan. Very moving and true. It brought me some peace. Thank you.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:22 pm |
  14. i'M HAVING CHEST PAINS

    true story

    January 29, 2012 at 11:22 pm |
  15. Priest

    This article made more and more people convert to Christianity to be saved and enter kingdom of heaven. Thanks CNN!

    January 29, 2012 at 11:21 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Who? I'm curious. Who has converted because of this article?

      January 30, 2012 at 12:14 am |
  16. Messianic Jew

    † † † † † † † † † † † † † † † † † † † † † † † † I love Jesus 4-ever!

    January 29, 2012 at 11:20 pm |
    • Wholly Goats

      Twenty-two lower case "t"s ?!

      Wow! That's some stutter you have there...

      January 29, 2012 at 11:28 pm |
  17. Agnostic

    This is beautiful. I never thought I believed in god but maybe I believed in him (or her) all along and just never understood.

    Thank-you.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:19 pm |
    • Chad

      Total lie. You are no agnostic and you are just a liar and will burn in HELL! JESUS CURSE YOU TO HELL!

      January 29, 2012 at 11:20 pm |
    • Priest

      Chad @ Shame on you. Jesus loves everyone

      January 29, 2012 at 11:22 pm |
    • Answer

      Love watching the fanatics pounce on each other "no he will burn" "no he loves" .. hilarious.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:24 pm |
    • Chad

      JESUS HATES HYPOCRITES! YOU WILL BURNNNN! BURN BABY BURN IN HELL!!!

      January 29, 2012 at 11:27 pm |
    • Answer

      Oh pipe down Chachie!

      January 29, 2012 at 11:28 pm |
  18. Michael

    Thank you CNN for publishing this beautiful essay.
    One time I was sitting with someone of a different religion as he was dying. He was giving me suggestions on re-roofing of all things. I tried prompting a discussion about religion. He gave a very insightful answer. It really did not matter so much that we were from different faiths. What matters is whether you are a good person or not. Some people are good enough to visit someone in their last hours, and others are not. He said I was one of the former. That made me feel good, and it will stay with me the rest of my life. Hopefully I can pass it on to someone when my time comes.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:19 pm |
    • suguar777

      Hi Michael:
      Thanks for passing it on now!

      January 30, 2012 at 12:30 am |
  19. KalleOskar

    Having been on both sides of the pain, you have expressed beautifully what suffering folks need to talk about - the one who made them and who gave their lives meaning. I'm going through Chemo therapy now, and in the depths of my pain and the worst that the chemicals can do to me, I wandered about my house crying before the photos of my children, my long dead parents, and my sweet wife. These are where God has touched me most deeply. I am saddened by the easy judgmentalism of some of the commentors. When we are most ill we need someone who will hear our cries. Chaplain, you have faithfully done that. Thank you.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:18 pm |
  20. aspire2see

    Some parents aren't able to talk before they die–they forget your name and how to talk years before their last breath. When they are close to you, and you feel you need their advice or voice or consolation, you feel that God's ability to communicate to you has come to an end. A lot of what God is has to do with our need for loving parents. Jesus, like a lot of us, was a fatherless son who called the anticipated fulfillment for his need "Father." "Comforter, where is your comforting?" –That's a Hopkins' line that describes what most of us are left wondering for years after one of our parents dies.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:16 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.