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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. Puddin

    Ihave heard that the last thing a soldier says after he/she is mortally wounded and knows that death is near is "Mom." Bless them all from this mom.

    January 30, 2012 at 9:10 am |
  2. sally

    My husband of many years just died of cancer. We talked about family and the wonderful things we had done. We are a very religious family – firmly believe in God – and knew he was going to heaven. I have unforgettable memories of our last hours talking about how we loved our family and friends. Yes, the preachers and chaplins came with prayers, but our love for each other and family was what we talked about. You are oh, so right. Thanks so much for your article!

    January 30, 2012 at 9:09 am |
  3. Charlie

    Most people that rush in at the last minute for a confirmation as to a person's acceptance of Jesus Christ are good for nothing. They are the ones standing by and watching needs of families going unmet. Living a life with God is more than demanding a vocal confirmation....at the last minute.

    January 30, 2012 at 9:07 am |
    • Scott in Atlanta

      What about the man that died on the cross right next to Jesus? It seems his last-minute vocal proclaimation gave him acceptance into paradise within seconds??? I'm jus say'n...

      January 30, 2012 at 9:15 am |
    • Scott

      Well said Charlie. What I don't like about this article is that is confirms exactly what scripture about our "worldly views" about God. Not once did this article discuss Jesus Christ. Typical. Again, the very essence of eternal salvation is completely by-passed for a discussion on "warm and fuzzy" family ties. Jesus made it quite clear that to follow Him is to sacrifice EVERYTHING, and that also means your family is need be. All answers are in the Cross. We've watered down God's Holy Bible to the point that we have made up man-made rules and rituals and people are going to hell because of these man-made rules and rituals. These chaplains should be bringing people to Christ to be saved; not worrying about family ties. Those family ties are not going to help you when you meet the Almighty and He asks you what you've done such as have you accepted His Son as Savior. That is the first question.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:16 am |
    • Scott

      @Scott in Atlanta; You're right on that one but Jesus knew that this man's faith was in Him and sincere, not some light-hearted attempt at trying to save one's self from eternal hell. That was the difference. Being sincere is something that only God can know. As we know, there are many who try to act sincere but in their hearts, they're lying "thru their teeth". Those people may be able to fool us not they cannot fool God.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:25 am |
    • Really?

      Really? Prove to me that they've gone to Hell, because of 'man made' rituals and rules. Just because I don't attend your storefront church doesn't mean I'm going to Hell. I've been a good Christian all my life, and part of being a good Christian is not judging others. Only HE can judge, and make that determination. Not you, your store front church or your internet-mill Deaconship.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:25 am |
    • Really?

      @Scott: Again, I ask you, who are you to judge the last words of a dying man or woman? How are the words of man in the last moments of his life any less sincere than the man who died next to Jesus? What made this man's faith in him MORE sincere?

      January 30, 2012 at 9:29 am |
  4. Bunny

    The gift was from the professor.

    January 30, 2012 at 9:01 am |
  5. John

    ...this is why many professors are out of touch with reality. Divinity professor, indeed! Great article, Kerry, and congratulations on 'getting it'!! Offering comfort by listening and allowing the dying to express their understanding of the Divine (God, for me) by talking of family and love is the ultimate expression, in my opinion, of what a real person of God should be like, especially at the end. Amazing insight on your part!

    January 30, 2012 at 8:57 am |
    • RH of WI

      @ John, You are so right. Couldn't have said it better.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:36 am |
  6. MilKrenki

    It is very emotional and sensitive topic. good article though! Family is the core to the existence.
    I had to react to last 2 comments: god does exist! and there is no right or wrong in such case.
    Only stupid person expresses such frustration that everyone else is stupid.

    January 30, 2012 at 8:56 am |
  7. janemutiny

    Finally, some reality in the Belief section. We would all be better off if people understood these fundamentals BEFORE they were dying and created the lives they knew on some level they should be living. The focus is starting to shift from the god myth and towards the realities of humane living, and I am glad.

    January 30, 2012 at 8:52 am |
    • acts 431

      I have no way of knowing if this article describes a general, universal truth. I am not Kerry Egan; I have not been in the dying rooms with these specific patients in order to know what these particular patients talked about before death. The article, however, left me sad - sad about the lack of depth of these specific patients. There is absolutely nothing wrong with family. I am also certain that many people have regrets about their lives. Certainly, many of us will wish we could do things differently and that we had a little more time to make things right. If people halfway understood eternity,however, the focus would not be on such "human" things. This article made me reflect on how self-centered we are - even until the very end.

      Maybe I will do the exact same thing this article describes. I don't know; I haven't been near death yet. However, I would hope I have a realistic picture of some key facts....
      – eternity will be spent in either one of two places (heaven or hell)
      – the difference between the two eternal destinations will be my relationship with Jesus Christ
      – I hope I will be excited, looking forward to eternity in heaven
      – eternity will not be about family
      – my life, though certainly not perfect, will serve as inspiration and an example for others

      I was also saddened by this chaplain's lack of understanding of her role. While comforting patients is nice, what about eternity?! It seems that a chaplain, of all people, would understand that holding someone's hand and simply being a good listener does not mean much in the scope of eternity. There seem to be a lot of missed opportunities for this chaplain to explain how one can have a wonderful eternity awaiting.

      The Bible predicts that we will become a self-absorbed people. It will be more and more about "us" - who we are and what we have accomplished. This article is a sad reminder about that fact.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:06 am |
  8. Doug

    I loved your article. I just hope your professor is still alive so he can read it.

    January 30, 2012 at 8:52 am |
  9. LordEarlGray

    Bravo to the author. Your Divinity prof was a jerk for thinking that and a real jerk for saying what he did in class with you right there.

    January 30, 2012 at 8:52 am |
    • Gedwards

      IMO the worst part was mischaracterizing what she told him.

      January 30, 2012 at 8:58 am |
    • Jim

      I don't know about that. I like to think that the professor challenged her to see deeper into what exactly she does. I say this because her simple answer is the same now to us, as it was to her professor, "we talk about family." The difference is now, she understands deeper about what it really means to "talk about family." The events haven't changed; it is her that changed. His perceived callousness was a catalyst for her growth.

      Could it be the professor was wiser than you and even Kerry realize?

      January 30, 2012 at 9:19 am |
    • Cedar Rapids

      Not really Jim, not if you need to use mockery to get your point across and still apparently not have that person recognise your point years later.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:28 am |
  10. keith

    they say 'I buried the body in the backyard, next to that ugly statue your mother gave us'

    January 30, 2012 at 8:50 am |
  11. Joe

    Thanks you for that article. I hope it reaches many more readers. I agree with you and I think most reasonable people do also. Please do not let the zealots like Mark bother you. He and others like him are the reason wars are fought. If more people bleived like you there would be more peace in the world.

    January 30, 2012 at 8:48 am |
  12. matrix

    Great article!!! It really helped me understand life more!!!

    January 30, 2012 at 8:45 am |
  13. Diane

    Beautifully said.

    January 30, 2012 at 8:44 am |
  14. Salvatore Cuciti

    I appreciate this article so much. I have been in both of those places, at the side of a death bed and I will never forget the horror of being mocked by my college professor. I am an elder in the Presbyterian Church, I have 2 college degrees and a professional license. Your professor was as wrong and as arrogant as mine was. Maybe it's no coincidence. Empathy may seem like foolishness to those who don't have it. Peace

    January 30, 2012 at 8:42 am |
    • janemutiny

      Well said. Thank you.

      January 30, 2012 at 8:59 am |
  15. bored2death

    @Truefax: That is what you had to say? Great input. As for myself, I am not exactly the religious type, but found it to be a decent article. The one thing that stands out in my mind is that the teacher mocked her in his class..... interesting how pompous arrogance never stops, and people continue to mock even when this person did something so selfless as to meet with people before they die.

    January 30, 2012 at 8:41 am |
  16. xeno

    I hope the "professor" reads this and recognizes himself. How can someone so arrogant even fathom themselves spiritually competent to teach others? Humiliation is not teaching.

    January 30, 2012 at 8:41 am |
    • Jared

      Sadly, not all professors are hired and kept because they know what they are talking about. Many have never seen life outside the classroom.

      January 30, 2012 at 8:50 am |
  17. Janet

    You are so right. Your article moved me to tears.

    January 30, 2012 at 8:39 am |
  18. rationalfew

    This is the first good article I've ever read in this Belief section.

    January 30, 2012 at 8:38 am |
  19. Pamelahaley

    It's nice to know I won't be berated with "accept jesus and save your soul" as I pass into the next life. People talk about life, family, love... They don't talk about God because, it has nothing to do with God. Why can't we just be good people and reflect on life without bringing God into it? God has nothing to do with anything. Take it from the dying. God does not exist.

    January 30, 2012 at 8:38 am |
    • xnay

      Please go away

      January 30, 2012 at 8:45 am |
    • Lipityloo

      God exists and the love that can be between friends and family is because of God. A life wothout God is a life without truly knowing love and that in turn means you were always dead. Life and love without God does not exist.

      January 30, 2012 at 8:49 am |
    • Wow

      "A life wothout God is a life without truly knowing love and that in turn means you were always dead. Life and love without God does not exist."

      Talk about the sin of arrogance, you're an idiot. You DON"T need to know a god to know love. Your love is shallow because you need a crutch to love, we don't.

      January 30, 2012 at 8:51 am |
    • keith

      who says you won't be? Better hope you don't have your final days in a catholic hospital or those crazy nuns and priests won't stay away until they have dumped their jesus loves you spheil on you

      January 30, 2012 at 8:51 am |
    • SarahJo

      Oh Pamela,
      I am so sorry that you are dying, but it breaks my heart even more to hear you don't believe in God. It always amazes me when i hear people say that because I simply cannot fathom my life without my faith. I pray that you will be healed, but more than anything I pray you will find God before your death. If I can answer some questions for you, I would love to do my best.
      Many Blessings,
      SarahJo

      January 30, 2012 at 9:03 am |
    • Michael

      Lipityloo... Cross out the word God and replace it with the word Humanity. Then you'll have it right.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:05 am |
    • upgremlin

      I agree with you Pamela. Judging by the acrimony of the other replies, I'd much rather be in your group than in their's.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:07 am |
    • Scott

      @Pamelahaley; you're delustional. God does not care about your warm and fuzzy feelings about Him or trying to be good and it sounds like you're living on man-made heresay about what you think God expects of us. Being good is subjective. No one is "good enough" to stand before Him. Only Christ can make you righteous to stand before Him. That is not berating someone but merely informing them to alternate solutions. Read the Bible because it's all you need not a man-made religion.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:21 am |
    • Albert

      @SarahJo, If praying actually WORKS I would believe you..but other than that nahh, there's no God. We understand it's hard for you to let go of your fairytale dreams. As a child I really believed there was a santa, but as I got older and became more mature and wise, I realized I was a just a silly kid believing what my mother told me. With that said, I feel sorry for you Sarah.

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

      I found it interesting you decided to capitalize 'God' - considering you don't believe in Him, I would have thought you would have given less credibility by keeping Him lowercase.
      Too much beauty in this world for me to believe it all just happened by chance. Too many signs that I've seen to chalk it all up to just how the universe worked out. What is the point of love, to be honest? What purpose does it serve in the evolutionairy development of our species? Is it just a biological reaction that helps preserve our species – if you love, you are less likely to kill? Perhaps that's the 'how' part of why we came to be – many things that science can explain the 'how' on - but it has such a hard time with the 'why'. I think there is a reason for that – I believe there is a reason for that. Do I know for sure? How can I – but I believe.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:49 am |
  20. Truefax

    You're both wrong, and stupid.

    January 30, 2012 at 8:31 am |
    • Jeff

      Thank you good christian example!

      January 30, 2012 at 8:47 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.