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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. Mother in Texas

    This was a wonderful piece. If I was alone at the end, it would be you I would want by my side. Someone to listen, then a little prayer. :O)

    January 30, 2012 at 12:07 am |
    • Bzlbb

      Your pain will please them because it is yours and not theirs. JesusSatanGod loves to see you suffer. They worship pain and suffering and death. They will be very glad to sit next to you, oh yesss.....

      January 30, 2012 at 12:09 am |
  2. Nostalgie

    being devoid isn't that bad it's quite fun,unlike your sad life.

    January 30, 2012 at 12:07 am |
    • A guy in the mountains

      Nostalgie has nothing and shares nothing

      January 30, 2012 at 12:13 am |
  3. Nostalgie

    Seriously enough with the FBI....oh wait omg! oh nevermind that's only the neighbor

    January 30, 2012 at 12:02 am |
  4. RANDALL WILLIFORD

    That was a great story. Thank you.I think forgiveness is the most important emotion there is.If you can forgive yourself and others you have found true happiness. For years I carried grudges for so many people. It was like poison. With age comes wisdom. I have learned to let it all go. I don't hate anybody. I'm not after anybody and nobody is after me!

    January 30, 2012 at 12:01 am |
    • Bzlbb

      Just wait until you sh.t all over yourself and cannot scream from the pain because they did not let you have any meds!
      All your wisdom will simply become a whimpering for the pain to stop you won't care how or what it takes but they will not help you because your suffering pleases them and their god Satan. Suffering pleases Satan, I mean Jesus God.

      January 30, 2012 at 12:07 am |
  5. Loved

    Thank you for this article. I lost a beloved family member almost 4 years ago to brain cancer... and my experience with her reflects what you are saying. Whether there is a god or is not a god, all that really matters, in the end, is love and forgiveness.

    January 30, 2012 at 12:01 am |
  6. Nostalgie

    hey look my brother is an atheist and i'm a believer,I don't go shoving my opinion down his throat like many of my fellow believers do,plus I believe in the holy trinity but i also believe evolution. so bash me I don't give a crap.

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

      you're too devoid of anything interesting to bash

      January 30, 2012 at 12:03 am |
    • A guy in the mountains

      Don't understand your points, this isn't about religion it's about being Human and whatever love is all about.

      January 30, 2012 at 12:12 am |
  7. Mike

    Guys, I never do this, but this is the second time that I have bumped this post today. This was written earlier today by a guy named Tom Estill, and is one of the deepest things I have ever read on the internet. I am a grown man...fly F-16s in the Air Force and think I can be a pretty tough guy. I read this and cried like a baby. This is what Tom wrote:

    Straight Up Kerry,
    My children and I were with my wife when she passed on from cancer. We really didn't speak of God much, but we spoke of family often. At the moment of her death, I whispered in her ear to reach out and take her mother's(who had passed on years earlier) hand, and that I would take good care of the children, and that I loved her very much. It wasn't until after she died that I spent much time thinking of heaven and asking for God to watch over her. And after reading your article, I know my wife would have liked having you by her side at the end.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:58 pm |
  8. Cristina

    What the??? Uhhh this is all well and good from an ATHEIST's point of view but I need to ask a question. Do you believe in the God of the Bible Kerry? You quoted the verse "God is love so I assume so. If the answer is yes, then I must say in firm admonition that you have completely and utterly dismissed God's ultimate act of love and dismissed it for some eartly mush that ends at the persona last breath. You see Kerry, "For God so LOVED the world that He gave His only begotten son that whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life."

    THAT is love... THAT is the good news, THAT is what God from Genesis to Revelation sends His servants and ministers to share to a lost and dying world.... You may have missed hundreds of opportunities to share with souls the fact that they do not have to go into an eternal oblivion without God (and if you truly believe in Jesus- HELL!).

    My question is this... If you are going to go in and share in what may seem lovely sentimentalities and veer away from the DIVINE eternal truth of God, why go in as a chaplain- a minister- just go in as a social worker or a volunteer. Do us and yourself a favor, relinquish your position as a type of minister and make room for those hungry to minister to dying souls about their eternal destination....

    January 29, 2012 at 11:56 pm |
    • Answer

      There isn't any way a christian will ever get to heaven.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:58 pm |
    • tallulah13

      I am staggered by the utter selfishness of christians, who seem to think it is their DUTY to interfere with the dying moments of an individual, not to offer comfort, but to lecture instead of listen. How shameful.

      January 30, 2012 at 12:03 am |
    • Louisa

      TOTALLY agree! Go as a social worker or volunteer if you aren't there to share the Gospel.

      January 30, 2012 at 12:04 am |
    • Bill

      What shallow, small minded, bigoted crap! Talk about the shallow end of the gene pool! With Christians like this, who need Romans!

      January 30, 2012 at 12:09 am |
    • Wayne

      I've got cancer and am in treatment. I hope I make it. But if I don't and it's the end I'll be glad if someone like Kerry is there to listen (or talk) to me about whatever I like. That doesn't mean my faith is not strong. It means it is strong. But it won't be stronger with some theocrat like you, Cristina, trying to preach to me. No, Kerry has it right. She understands. GIve her a break and spare us all you divine wisdom – which I doubt is either.

      January 30, 2012 at 12:12 am |
    • RockwoodON

      Sicko

      January 30, 2012 at 12:14 am |
    • Jessie

      Louisa
      So, a pastor visits a non-believer and you would criticize them for not reminding the dying person of the belief that they're going straight to hell? Compassion doesn't rank high with folks like you, does it?

      January 30, 2012 at 12:15 am |
    • Huh?

      What??? Based on your response to Kerry, you obviously do not understand God yet. Go back and read your bible again Cristina, you self-righteous bigot.

      January 30, 2012 at 12:17 am |
    • Christopher

      Well, in case you were wondering if people like your former professor were still around, you can be assured that they are...in the personas of Louisa and Christina. Please ignore them. The last thing I'd want (and if I had the strength whom I would push away) would be people trying to witness to me to make themselves feel like THEIR lives were worthwhile. To believe that your final moments make or break how God feels about is so ridiculous that it's almost funny...it amazes me how often the conceptions of God that some religions make portray Him as more petty than many people. News flash, Christina and Louisa...the author is 100% right. Please, please, please stay away from people who are near death...they deserve better than some deeply insecure person witnessing to them when they should be relaxed and experiencing the love and compassion that the author does.

      January 30, 2012 at 12:19 am |
    • Think Before You Write

      Cristina,

      The good Samaritan never "knew" God, but acted the way that Christ wants us all to be towards others. The Pharisee proclaimed how much he paid tribute to God, and his actions were chastised by Christ. You see Cristina, it is more so by our actions that others are drawn to God, and not so much by our words. What this lady did for the dying was to be a compassionate heart and ear for them, something that Christ would want us to be for those in such situations. So before you take that moral high ground, let me ask you . . . . . . . . do YOUR actions speak louder than your words?

      January 30, 2012 at 12:23 am |
    • Fr33th1nk3r

      The only difference between someone like Cristina and the Taliban, is one lives in an industrialized Christian nation, and one lives in a third world nation– the presumptuous and arrogant mindset is there though.

      I can't believe the blatant narcissism and arrogance of Christians who think they should inconvenience a person who may be breathing their last breaths by interfering and "witnessing" to them instead of providing comfort and allowing that person to pour out their last thoughts as they may.

      January 30, 2012 at 12:27 am |
    • Wholly Goats

      Christina and Louisa,

      Go satisfy your disgusting, zombie soul-hunger gnawing on each other's brains.

      Jeez, I hope that this isn't Justina, Adelina, Madelina, Forest Rainbow Sea Spray back again from her oblivion... :twisted:

      January 30, 2012 at 2:28 am |
    • TR6

      Just another example of the total lack of compassion and empathy that so many Christians display so proudly

      January 30, 2012 at 5:24 am |
  9. Nostalgie

    Life sucks,than you die,than it gets worse. cheerio!

    January 29, 2012 at 11:55 pm |
    • Huh?

      Dude, life obviously doesn't suck for you!!! I want whatever you're smoking!!! :)

      January 30, 2012 at 12:37 am |
  10. Mike

    CNN...I have been monitoring this story all day...and it is one of the most moving pieces that you have ever produced. Some of these posts have my eyes welling up. Bravo CNN.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:54 pm |
    • Huh?

      Agreed!!!

      January 30, 2012 at 12:39 am |
  11. allah_licked_little_boys_ballsacks!

    the oldest and biggest union ever
    child r#pers union
    headed by the pope

    January 29, 2012 at 11:54 pm |
  12. maryf

    This is a beautiful story about dying......it's that simple.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:53 pm |
  13. matthouse

    people with alheimer's really talk some crazy stuff before they die, god and love don't have a damn thing to do with it

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

      SAD

      January 29, 2012 at 11:59 pm |
  14. allah_licked_little_boys_ballsacks

    god is the pimp
    j e s u s is the b # t c h

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

      Remember FBI could track your IP-number.... so enough with your hatred your moron!

      January 29, 2012 at 11:43 pm |
    • Answer

      Allah is the literal word for "god".

      So in essence you've said that "god licked little boys ballsacks". Which is true. Congrats on telling the truth.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:43 pm |
  15. Christine

    WARNING! Chad is a troll and all of those who says 'you will go to h.ell' etc. Jesus is nothing but loving!

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

      Christine is that you? We can get back together now. Jesus told me women are more closer to Him!

      January 29, 2012 at 11:58 pm |
    • RockwoodON

      Before Jesus, if you did something bad you and your descendants would be punished by God, for several generations. But thanks to Jesus, meek and mild, we have a hell where most of us will be tortured for all eternity. Thanks Jesus.

      January 30, 2012 at 12:18 am |
  16. TheScampiCat

    This is probably one of the most beautiful pieces I have ever read. My father died of colon cancer. It was a long goodbye. On his last – brilliant spring day when hundreds of daffodils were blooming and the wind whipped and wrapped itself around everything it came in contact with. Sunlight twinkled across the two ponds were the labs waited for someone to play dock diving with them. I sat w. my mother in his roof while he went on about yet another experimental treatment at Washington U. in St. Louis. I asked, "dad, don't you know you are dying"? From his blue eyes that had in his sickness turned to gray, the eyes went slate. "Yes", he finally admitted..Struggling to sit up he raised one finger at me to say "you know you really could have been someone if you had tried." Then he stopped speaking. Except for the little bleats he would make for his morphine when the pain got too bad. Later that evening, after the wind was threw dancing across the water, it swirled up high above the trees and set them sighing in the night Somewhere between dark and midnight he left. And never one word about God.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:38 pm |
    • b4bigbang

      Seems that women never fail to broadcast the details of the most intimate exchanges involving the men in their lives....

      January 29, 2012 at 11:57 pm |
    • Jakey

      Wow, that is incredibly dumb.....and means absolutely nothing......

      January 29, 2012 at 11:58 pm |
    • *frank*

      If you ever write a novel, please remind me not to buy it.

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

      When people are threw with their snide remarks they may come to appreciate the beauty threwout this piece. Threwout this piece I say! Yes, threw and threw it captures the feeling when going threw a loss, something threw which we may all travel, threw which we may experience the sadness of life, and threw which we may learn and grow. Though we might have thought differently and thought thoroughly; though the thorough thoughts of those thinking things might inspire thought, I think I have no taste to go this thoroughfare threw.

      January 30, 2012 at 12:41 am |
  17. j e s u s is my b e aaa t cc h!

    god is the pimp
    jesus is the b e a t c h

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

      You're parents didn't show you love didn't they? You should seek a physical doctor asap.

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

      Don't be surprised if you see FBI outside your house even during middle of midnight just to let you know.... it happens all the time

      January 29, 2012 at 11:44 pm |
    • Answer

      Religious freaks telling other religious freaks that the police will show up at their house. Congrats.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:45 pm |
    • allah_licked_little_boys_ballsacks

      go molest ur litlle boy!

      January 29, 2012 at 11:46 pm |
    • Answer

      Yah! Let the religious freaks go molest dem little boys..

      January 29, 2012 at 11:47 pm |
    • Christine

      Believe it or not. If I see one more hatred thing I will contact the police and make them track you. I promise because we cannot tolerate any racism and hate speech. You accepted Privacy Policy and Terms of Service before posting here.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:50 pm |
    • allah_licked_little_boys_ballsacks!

      the oldest profession?
      cjild molestation
      oldest union?
      MANLA headed by the pope for church officials

      January 29, 2012 at 11:55 pm |
    • allah_licked_little_boys_ballsacks!

      nambla not manla

      January 29, 2012 at 11:56 pm |
    • allah_licked_little_boys_ballsacks!

      the current pope is a nazi loving child murderer and rapist

      January 29, 2012 at 11:58 pm |
    • Throbster

      Jesus has a hard on for you Christine! He wants to fuuuuuck you! And he has herpes!

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

      Christine, you crack me up. Are you serious about calling the cops on someone making ridiculous statements about God here? C'mon just ignore them, and move on dear.

      January 30, 2012 at 12:02 am |
    • allah_licked_little_boys_ballsacks!

      how many times did ur daddy molest u christina?
      i bet he passed u around to his friends at parties!

      January 30, 2012 at 12:05 am |
    • allah_licked_little_boys_ballsacks!

      Christine-i bet ur husband cheats on u!
      i also bet he goes to church every sunday!
      u bible fr$%ks r all da same
      on the surface u pretend to be so good
      but beneath the surface ur all sc#mbags!

      January 30, 2012 at 12:14 am |
  18. Bread and butter

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

    January 29, 2012 at 11:37 pm |
    • b4bigbang

      Please don't insult the sanitation workers by comparing them to the charlatans who come out of the Ivy League semataries.

      January 30, 2012 at 12:20 am |
    • RockwoodON

      No, sanitation engineering is real. And saves lives.

      January 30, 2012 at 12:45 am |
  19. mark

    best thing ive read on cnn.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:37 pm |
  20. Rational

    I can see tat a lot of people that don’t like that I disagree with the article dismissed my earlier opinion as hate, I certainly don’t have as much experience in hate as this people that read about it very often in their sacred books. So may be they are right, and it is hate according to their standards.
    As I said, I am not Atheist, Agnostic, or have any dogmas, I just keep learning everyday. In fact, I have not, or maybe have a very tiny wisdom relative to the “maybe” infinite universe. It is for this reason, that if I they offer me a chaplain in my last moments in life, and I don’t have any better company, I would happily accept, since I know that something else I will learn, what is a pleasure for me. I think that these last moments are very powerful and can draw serious attention, so I would try then to “save” the chaplain of wasting time in life and entertain the possibility of other better opportunities and intellectual growing in life rather to stop in the negative ways of religion.

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

      I'm not sure you understand why people think you're a self-righteous moron. And it's not just religious people who think that here.

      There isn't an argument in this article for you to disagree with. You are making a completely unrelated point.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:49 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.