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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. Jim

    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.

    Sounds like the first book of the Bible, Genesis. That is where the first family was created, given everything, walked and lived with God and had been shown the most outstanding love anyone could ever experience. Then, the rebellion, and us running away from the one who loves us most. If you read it, you will see that God didn't leave us even when we transgressed. He came looking for us, we chose to run from Him. It is the same throughout history, God has been calling us, still telling us he loves us, we still, continue to run and turn our backs on him. The proof of His love, His Son Jesus Christ hanging on a Roman Cross, telling all who will, come to me and I will save you. For God "SO LOVED THE WORLD" that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (emphasis mine). So you see LOVE can overcome even the most painful rejection.

    January 29, 2012 at 8:43 am |
  2. ProtectYourLovedOnesFromEuthanasia

    Then, Ms. Egan will know and understand that many of these older Americans are being maltreated in nursing homes today where sometimes their lives are taken from them unnaturally and unknown to their children and loved ones – if she visits frequently.

    January 29, 2012 at 8:43 am |
  3. sharon2853

    that was a beautifully written description of our final moments and what it all means. I actually felt a lump in my throat reading this. She is right. It really is about the people we choose, the people we meet on our journey and the people that taught us what it feels like to be loved ..and those that taught us how it feels when they don't love us back. I hope my final moments are spent with someone like her.

    January 29, 2012 at 8:43 am |
    • Gumby

      Agreed. Good comment

      January 29, 2012 at 8:49 am |
  4. peick

    Let me get this straight: You have just told us something you claim is true about God and how we relate to him. Yet you have basically dismissed theology and religion as having little to do with those things. My friend, you are giving us theology and religion! It's not systematic or scripture-based, but you have still held out truth claims to the rest of us. If we were to ask you to defend your views, you'd have to fall back on some authority or system to explain it.

    January 29, 2012 at 8:43 am |
  5. MT

    Dear Chaplain, You need to go back to school. Perhaps a much better one where you are taught about God the Father, Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit aka "The Trinity". This article shows just how God has been mininmalized in ones life but I'm shocked that this appears to also be so in the life of a Chaplain. I would hate to have you at my bedside at such a time. I'd rather die alone because really, I wouldn't be alone as I'm sure that Jesus would be there as well as an Angel. As for family, yes they are of the utmost importance and at the forefront of ones mind but the condition of ones heart and soul, whether they have foregiven those that did them wrong and that they have been forgiven is important as well. I wouldn't want to leave this world with a whole lot of burden on me and not have accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior. So to the Chaplain, you might want to get your money back on school or get involved in a bible based church where you are taught the living word of God. You definitely need some more time learning maybe both in life and as a student. May God Bless you as you will have to give an account of yourself when you meet your maker.

    January 29, 2012 at 8:42 am |
    • Gumby

      The Trinity doesn't exist. Learn the history of your religion sometime.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:48 am |
    • MT

      Gumby, The ultimate history book the "Holy Bible" and what church do you attend and how are you serving "The Most High God".

      January 29, 2012 at 8:53 am |
    • Steven Capsuto

      You would hate to have her at your bedside if you were dying? Why? This article is about what the patients she visits want to discuss, not about her own religious beliefs. She talks to people about beliefs in God and an afterlife if that's what the patient wants to talk about. If that's not what the dying person wants or needs, she has enough basic human respect to treat them with dignity and listen to what they do want to talk about. Being a hospital chaplain is tricky, since a lot of the people served by your ministry are not going to be of your own religion, or are atheists or agnostics. What would you have her do? Harass and missionize the dying?

      January 29, 2012 at 10:20 am |
    • M

      Steven!! Finally, I have read a comment that hits the nail on the head.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:28 am |
  6. JBHedgehog

    People who are about to die say..."uuurrrggghhhh".

    January 29, 2012 at 8:42 am |
  7. L

    Blessed are the meek for they shall see God

    January 29, 2012 at 8:40 am |
    • Gumby

      No, they won't. That is just a silly preaching point that is used to lure in the unhappy and the dispossessed.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:47 am |
  8. jeepster455

    Thank you for this article, Kerry, and for sharing what you learned working with people who are preparing to die. You apparently knew a lot more than your professor did. Listening is a lost art, you seem to have perfected it. Please keep up the good work.

    January 29, 2012 at 8:40 am |
  9. JoeF

    Arrogant religion as demonstrated by the theology teacher is what drove me away from organized religion, and I think turns many people off. (Side note, I know many good clerics and religious, so this does not apply to all.)
    Too bad the teacher doesn't read the bible, and see how Christ treated the arrogant Pharisees.
    To Kerry, thanks for bringing the warm side of religion to those in need. You are the one doing God's work, not the teacher.

    January 29, 2012 at 8:40 am |
    • Gumby

      If you believe in Christ, you're still trapped in a religion. I get a kick out of you addled "I hate religion but I have a relationship with Jesus" types.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:46 am |
  10. Kat

    Very thoughtful article. It articulated my understanding of love and God. Thank you.

    January 29, 2012 at 8:39 am |
  11. McWhortevis

    When I was 27 I spent some time in intensive care in very bad shape. For about 24 hours I couldn't breathe on my own. I was conscious for about 5 minutes of that time. My doctor was trying to explain to me what had happened but I was sure I was dying because I wasn't breathing. I quickly quit hearing what he was saying and started thinking about dying. I was raised in a very religious family. I never once, in those 5 terrifying minutes when I was sure I was dying, thought of God or the afterlife or heaven or hell. All of my thoughts centered around my relationships.... first to myself....I quickly realized I didn't even know who I was....my life had been almost exclusively controlled by outside conditioning and that was an extremely sad realization..... I also realized how destructive an extremely abusive childhood had been in terms of me being true to who I really was. That extremely short stretch of time changed my whole life. I realized how important it is to be true to your own dreams and purpose for being here. Its each person's highest calling. I also realized how much power we have to either help or discourage others from reaching their highest potential. We all need to wake up and quit making up stories about a future we don't control or know. Its not doing us any good and actually moves us away from the moment to moment experiences of our own existence. Love starts with being loving to yourself. If you can't be kind and true to who you are how can you authentically help anyone else? Religion is a bad attempt to cover up a painful reality which is we don't know how we got here or where we are going when we die. Religion is also a form of mind control that makes it easier for people who are addicted to fear, conflict, power and material wealth to rob you of your true life and turn you into the modern day version of a slave. Each day take time to ask yourself the question "If I had one month to live what would I do differently? If you honestly answer that question and truly take action with those answers in mind you will make the world a much better place than fear based religions ever will.

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

      Excellent comment!

      January 29, 2012 at 8:40 am |
    • jeepster455

      Thank you for sharing your near-death experience. I believe every word you say because you were given 2 gifts, one was the gift to continue your life, and the other was the vision and knowledge to know how to live it. You are a lucky person, take care and be well.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:45 am |
    • md2205

      I am not commenting on this man's touching story, as the pain of his life and how he overcomes it shows through very clearly. What I am commenting on is his example of people who come across as religious while violating the very principles of their religion. If G-d created us all, we all have equal value in His eyes, then we all must train ourselves to find that equal value of the other and treat him with that equal value.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:47 am |
  12. pjwylie

    Very insightful article. Unfortunately, the professor is typical of many who profess to have "faith" in America today. Those that use "faith" as a weapon to belittle others and elevate themselves as "better" than others because of their beliefs.

    January 29, 2012 at 8:38 am |
  13. Colin

    One would think that, if Christians really believed 100% that their sky-fairy would make them live happliy ever after they die, death would be a joyous occasion, met with impatient anticipation. But let's face it, at some level most of them know it is nonsense. That is why they soooo fear death and build up all their silly, infantile rituals around it.

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

      Nail, meet hammer. Well said.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:40 am |
    • Puzzled in Peoria

      Here's something for atheists to think about: Does anyone love you? Of course! Can you PROVE it, by numbers, statistics, measurements? No. You know love only through faith, and that's how Christians know God. God cannot be known through reason. Love, although unprovable, exists. God is love. The next time you deride Christianity, you are also deriding the love you receive, by turning it into a scientific experiment. You don't have to understand something to believe it, and you don't have to be able to prove it to know that it's true.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:56 am |
    • k5150

      I'm a Christian and I look foward to every day and I also look forward to the end of every day because I know I'm one day closer to heaven.

      January 29, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
  14. Martin-Luther

    This is the Profs. understanding of religion. It is not a surprise since so many Christians (like your prof.) have hate as
    a core value. They hate people of other beliefs and hence disrespect those beliefs and want to seek converts.
    Do you hate Ms. Chaplain? That is, hate people of other faiths who are not Christians. If not, then respect them and stop
    support of missionary activities of hate based conversions.

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

      Hey Peoria–Of course you use reason to determine if someone loves you. It isn't based on faith. You know because they want to spend time with you and feel sad when you are away. When they buy a separate cell phone, start a secret bank account, and start working overtime at work, you know they probably don't and then you hire a private investigator to follow them to that "conference" they told you about. When they speak in expletives and chronically roll their eyes at you and don't want to share a bed, they don't love you.When they do stuff for you and they call you at work just because they want to, you know you are in good shape. It is a ridiculous proposition that you don't monitor the behavior of your loved ones every day to assess the status of your relationship. We all do. We don't have faith. We use behavior to measure trust.

      January 29, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
  15. bob

    For those who are about to die, ( and everyone else) I advise looking up "The return of Christ" in a search engine and keep on searching until you find the religion that will lead you to what that means and where you can find Him (Them).

    Seriously.

    If you are sincere you will assuredly be guided to Him and what guidance He has for us today and be guided aright.

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

      Your god doesn't exist.

      Now what?

      January 29, 2012 at 8:41 am |
    • Steve

      To Gumby, it does for them. Why do you feel compelled to deny them their belief. You must lead a very sad unfulfilled life.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:44 am |
    • Steve

      Gumby, it does for them. Why do you feel compelled to deny them their belief. You must lead a very sad unfulfilled life.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:45 am |
  16. orlop

    Until you have cared for and witnessed the death of someone that you truly loved one really knows nothing of this world and what it is all about. I and my daughters have experienced this when my wife died too young of cancer.

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

      A dying person knows no more than what they have learned here in this life. To find out about religion does not mean to gather together a limited amount of what we have learned at our death and consider it better than what we have or have not studied before that time. We know what we know. And if we haven't searched we surely won't know just because we are now dying. Respect for people is one thing. Admitting to the ascendency of our Creator is another.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:45 am |
  17. Pcahontas

    It would be interesting to know what the chaplain's experience has been with orphans who were grew up without biological family ties.

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

      I bet those orphans would do what others do – they would talk about the people they were closest to. They just wouldn't be biological relatives, that's all.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:44 am |
    • Ashley

      I would agree with your question. My dad was bounced from Orphanage to Orphanage and the chaplain's he came in contact with, at the time, were not as compassionate as they should have been (you'd think it would be different considering these were children they had contact with). Thanks for your thoughts...made me think a little deeper about this :)

      January 29, 2012 at 8:44 am |
  18. Larry

    "I smell bread" (MASH)

    January 29, 2012 at 8:36 am |
  19. Reality

    The last words my Mom said before she died as she handed me her rosary beads, "That is enough religion".

    January 29, 2012 at 8:35 am |
  20. Nancy

    The instructor failed the class.

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

      Yes he did. Too many Christians fail the class. That is because they chase the Paul-manufactured imaginary Christ and don't follow the words of the possibly-existing mortal man Jesus.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:42 am |
    • Billy

      Gumby, Yes Paul might be the true anti-christ. He corrupted most of what Jesus the man taught.

      January 30, 2012 at 12:42 am |
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