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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 • My Faith

soundoff (4,493 Responses)
  1. Drinnc

    To read this article, and take away only a deepened distain for people who believe, is proof enough of a soul that has hardened itself to become only a shadow of true humanity. So disappointing to hear the cold and emptiness the pot into words of distain.

    January 30, 2012 at 8:30 am |
    • SeanNJ

      1) The word is "disdain"
      2) You are not the arbiter of what constitutes "true humanity."

      January 30, 2012 at 9:27 am |
  2. daveinla

    Best and most important story ever posted by CNN.you are a beutiful human being Ms. Egan.

    January 30, 2012 at 8:30 am |
  3. Adam

    Great article. It is nice to know there are people like you in this world. Keep up your amazing work.

    January 30, 2012 at 8:27 am |
  4. Ken

    Well done.

    January 30, 2012 at 8:25 am |
  5. GI Joe

    To Kerry: Your Professor was wrong. You are right. I've been at deathbeds one too many a time. If I were in my deathbed, I'd want you as my chaplain. Thank you for your devotion.

    January 30, 2012 at 8:24 am |
  6. Mark

    This article is proof positive that we live in a world full people who truly don't know who God is or how important it is to have a relationship with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. People don't really believe that if you haven't accepted Christ as your Savior you are eternally damned to an existence of complete and total separation from God. People think seem to cling to only one side of God's character which is love. However, they seem to ignore or forgot about the Holy part of his character and total disregard the part about his Judgement.

    I say to you Kerry, if you are unable to bring Jesus Christ into the fore thoughts of a dying person's mind and are unable or don't desire to truly determine if they are indeed saved I suggest you find a new line of work. Because the folks who are unsaved that you simply speak or listen to about their families are doomed to a fate that I wouldn't wish on a worst enemy, an eternity in HELL. If you or anyone else reading this comment doesn't believe me pickup the Bible and read starting in Genesis 1:1 and keep reading until you reach Revelation 22:21. It will be a long journey that will expose a lot truths that may very tough for some to accept. Don't give up though, seek the Lord's face and he will give you what need to continue. Once you have done that please reread this article and see if your opinion is still the same. I assure you that it will differ greatly.

    January 30, 2012 at 8:21 am |
    • Debbie

      The bible clearly says everyone will be saved. Fire and brimstone Christiians ignore this. The word eternity is not a correct translation of the Greek. The word aeons means for a time. Yes, some will be punished for a time. No one will be punished forever. God created us out of love so that he could torture 95 percent of us forever. Really? Areyou kidding me?

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

      Mark, you are an arrogant religionist.

      The last thing I want on my deathbed is some self=righteous gitwit trying to bring me to Jesus when I want to be with my family. MY loved ones, not some sky-child.

      January 30, 2012 at 8:32 am |
    • stephen

      Mark, having you at a deathbed is a scary thought – thanks, Ms. Egan, for your compassion and wisdom.

      January 30, 2012 at 8:48 am |
    • Cedar Rapids

      Sorry Mark but if your god is one that judges and condemns more than he loves, then he can go s crew himself.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:22 am |
    • rick

      And there are people who abdicate their responsibility in living a moral life to a book

      January 30, 2012 at 9:40 am |
    • rick

      Marky-Mark: Oooh....Hell.....

      Your bible is only valid to those who accept it. And to try to frighten people into belief just identifies your god as a petty punk.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:43 am |
  7. Wafflestomper

    I suppose talking to the dying about their families is all well and good if the dying are all confirmed Christians, but I believe it was C.S. Lewis who articulately bemoaned the friends and doctors who tell a dying patient the classic "everything is going to be all right" when from a Biblical viewpoint, everything will not be all right.

    As Jesus said, the every person remains under judgement for rejecting the light (aka Jesus) and remaining in darkness (though we could probably all agree that even this darkness gets pierced by the light from time to time).

    At least one place Lewis explains this problem was in the Screwtape letters, where a demon exclaims, "How much better for us if all humans died in costly nursing homes amid doctors who lie, nurses who lie, friends who lie, as we have trained them, promising life to the dying, encouraging the belief that sickness excuses every indulgence, and even, if our workers know their job, withholding all suggestion of a priest lest it should betray to the sick man his true condition!"

    Kerry Egan, chaplain, priest–are you helping to diagnose and heal the patient's "true condition", or do you falsely promise life to the dying?

    January 30, 2012 at 8:20 am |
    • Jake

      How arrogant wafflestomper, how foolish to think you can know the mind of the creator within that squirmy gray organ between your ears. Your opinions mean nothing. It is within your family, and your other earthly connections that you serve the work of the creator and it is for that reason you were put here. What you believe means nothing. Your opinions are the brain equivalent of intestinal gas. Do the next right thing. Everything will be okay.

      January 30, 2012 at 8:32 am |
    • suki

      Thank God you're not a chaplain.

      January 30, 2012 at 8:33 am |
  8. Linda

    You are seeing quite well. thanks for using the gifts that God has given you and for sharing this very insightful and very important understanding wtih all of us.

    January 30, 2012 at 8:12 am |
  9. Anne

    Very insightful, and so true.

    January 30, 2012 at 8:12 am |
  10. Reality

    The only words that really matter:

    Increase the morphine drip to the "easy death" level !!!!

    January 30, 2012 at 8:09 am |
    • ......

      Put the drip on full hit report abuse on ALL reality garbage

      January 30, 2012 at 8:11 am |
  11. Caaronmd

    As a professor, I try to be not so arrogant, so thanks for the article in that respect.
    More substantially it certainly cotributes to the disdain I feel for organized religion, and the cluelessness of those who lead it. I long ago lost any belief in God, but if she exists and cares about us humnas I would think she would want us to think of our loved ones first. So thank you

    January 30, 2012 at 8:08 am |
  12. J.D.

    God Bless you...you have got it right. I witnessed the dying of my dear Grandmother last spring. In her last day, she was surrounded by her six children at home. There were profound expressions of grief, love, and faith from her to her children and her children to her. I am grateful that God allowed me to witness t his loving expression, it taught me so much about how to continue living my own life and what I MUST teach my children. This to me was the ultimate fulfillment of our Catholic faith and more broadly the faith of all people. To love. To be loved. To forgive. To comfort. Jesus gave us the golden rule. God gave us the commandments. These are not abstract ideas to admire from afar, but laws of daily life, from which we must organize our entire being and living. We live in families. Our families are the perfect expression of how we have lived the law, theology, faith of God. Of course, we should talk of our families in the end; they are the embodiment of our faith! The theology made living! Why would God have given humans the capacity to understand this deep and holy mystery if not to live a good life by it!

    January 30, 2012 at 8:08 am |
  13. neverwas

    Allah Akbar!!!!!

    January 30, 2012 at 8:06 am |
    • Luke Skywalker

      What does Admiral Ackbar have to do with this??

      January 30, 2012 at 8:12 am |
    • Admiral Ackbar

      It's a trap!

      January 30, 2012 at 8:34 am |
  14. David B

    Oh yeah, Liberals love swarming all over this one. Hide behind the family and don't have
    to do what it takes to be a good Christian. Yes, we ALL love our families. Duh! But God
    comes first. Get your lazy butt up and go to church.

    January 30, 2012 at 8:04 am |
    • cc3

      You miss the point. Please reread.

      January 30, 2012 at 8:10 am |
    • NC Nick

      David B, You don't need to go to a church to find god. If that were the case, we would hold service on every Death Row in the country. Most who reside there seem to find him. God is in your heart and makes his presence known though the actions of people. Judge not. Rather assist those who are ready to find him.

      January 30, 2012 at 8:15 am |
    • LinCA

      @David B

      You said, "Oh yeah, Liberals love swarming all over this one. Hide behind the family and don't have
      to do what it takes to be a good Christian. Yes, we ALL love our families. Duh! But God
      comes first. Get your lazy butt up and go to church.
      "

      May I suggest you get your head out of your ass and get a grip? Your imaginary friend is just that, imaginary. There isn't a single solitary shred of evidence even suggesting that there are any gods, let alone yours. There is therefor not a single valid reason to believe he/she/it exists. Your god is equally likely to exist as the tooth fairy. Even Santa Claus is more likely to still be alive than your god ever to have been.

      Picking a figment of your, or someone else's, imagination over real people is sad beyond words.

      By the way, a recent study showed that conservative views, low intelligence and prejudice are strongly correlated. You appear to fit the profile.

      January 30, 2012 at 8:17 am |
    • Tom

      David,

      Note that you said to go to Church and not to go to God. You have missed the point that God is everywhere. I invite you to explore a direct spiritual connection to God and not worry so much about your middle-man the priest or minister. Take the responsibility personally.

      January 30, 2012 at 8:19 am |
    • Craig Smith

      why is this about liberals or conservatives, for that matter? You so missed the point of this article in your rush to inject political dogma into a piece about humanity.

      January 30, 2012 at 8:21 am |
    • Cedar Rapids

      I think one thing a 'good' christian does is not be judgmental. Guess you failed.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:25 am |
    • rick

      David: How did this become a political issue? Do you really have you crucifix shoved so far up your rectum that it is cutting off air supply to the brain?

      January 30, 2012 at 9:45 am |
    • dj1s

      Why would I go to church to find "god"?

      January 30, 2012 at 9:50 am |
  15. gary

    As we can tell from the article – religion is for idiots. Divides people and has little use in society except to comfort narrow minded people that they can impose their views on others, in the name of God.

    January 30, 2012 at 8:04 am |
    • jerry

      religion is not for idiots if you dont believe in the god who gave up his olny son for and us thats just your problem so may God be with you

      January 30, 2012 at 8:21 am |
    • rick

      jerry: and if you believe that translated, edited bronze age hearsay represents the mind of god, then you have the problem

      January 30, 2012 at 9:48 am |
  16. Jorge

    Reading the account of how this professor expressed himself about the author's experience with the dying begs the question in my mind,-How many religious scholars and clergymen are as truly enlightened about life, death and the nature of things as they self-satisfyingly claim to be doctored in religion? The two are certainly not mutually inclusive.

    January 30, 2012 at 7:59 am |
  17. Laurie

    God bless you for doing what you do. My dad lost a battle with cancer 17 years ago and I know he was thinking about his family at the end and not any larger questions about life. He was a religious man who always chatted with the nuns at the hospital when they made their rounds. One of the things he hated most about his illness was that he couldn't recieve the host as he couldn't eat. But he made peace with his death. And he thought about those he was leaving behind and those he was going to see again. In fact at the end he looked like he was saying hello to somebody we couldn't see.

    January 30, 2012 at 7:57 am |
  18. Ax

    Nice article. Thanks.

    January 30, 2012 at 7:55 am |
    • Dave in Florida

      Well said. Thanks

      January 30, 2012 at 8:09 am |
  19. Deligoer

    I also visit the dying, and counsel the living. We listen because that is our gift. You must be very good at what you're doing – keep up the good work. I know you are a blessing to many.

    January 30, 2012 at 7:51 am |
  20. john

    Kerry, I hope it is someone like you that is there by my beside at the end instead of "j". Please keep doing exactly what you do. You show God's love in your work.Youw article is very moving. I thank You for it.

    January 30, 2012 at 7:44 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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.