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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. chemicalbank

    We can only meet people where they are, not where we think they should be or wish they were. However well intentioned the professor's actions, they demonstrate a lack of the same compassion for the intern he apparently expected of the intern. Firstly, he presumes that everyone on their deathbed wants what he imagines he would want. How arrogant. Most importantly, she did not say that it was her wish to talk to the patients about their families – that is what they wished to talk about. It has been my experience that academics in general are all too often dogma police rather than real teachers.

    January 30, 2012 at 9:37 am |
  2. fidgetwidget

    What she said, every last word! Bravo Rev.Egan!

    January 30, 2012 at 9:37 am |
  3. Phil in KC

    Perhaps the professor should have spent some time in her shoes and then see who the patient would rather have by their bedside. I think the author shows great insight. As I gain the perspective of maturity (I'm nearing 60), my greatest regrets are for the love I did not show and the love I missed.

    January 30, 2012 at 9:34 am |
    • Sylar

      Well you know what they say. Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:37 am |
  4. catmomof13

    Your professor was a shallow, arrogant, self centered fool who just wanted to make himself feel important at your expense. He is the face of everything that is so often wrong with organized religion. I am glad to see that you were wise enough to not let him discourage you in your calling. Your words are inspiring and wise.

    January 30, 2012 at 9:33 am |
  5. Brian

    An excellent article, very insightful about a topic I hadn't considered before.

    January 30, 2012 at 9:30 am |
  6. JustAWombat

    A wonderfully written editorial – thank you.

    January 30, 2012 at 9:30 am |
  7. Katie

    nice and up lifting for a Monday morning

    January 30, 2012 at 9:29 am |
  8. BubbasWorld

    Very well written, and very good points...

    January 30, 2012 at 9:29 am |
  9. Meg

    Amazing article-absolutely compelling and moving. Wonderful lessons and well-delivered. Thank you.

    January 30, 2012 at 9:25 am |
  10. OrionsBellatrix

    One day the human race will learn that there is no supreme being and that the most supreme a being can be is by how they love.

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

      Couldn't have said it better myself!

      January 30, 2012 at 9:26 am |
    • Jessica

      Exactly. I don't need the love of an imaginary friend. I love the people I have in my life now. I don't need a bigger meaning than that.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:35 am |
  11. john

    Bravo!

    January 30, 2012 at 9:24 am |
  12. ReligionIsTheProblem

    THERE IS NO GOD. THIS IS IT. MAKE THE MOST OF IT. BE PRODUCTIVE.

    January 30, 2012 at 9:23 am |
    • OrionsBellatrix

      Yes. And remember to love.

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

      So...what are you doing on this blog again? LOL SMH...Atheists have no lives.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:32 am |
    • bigot

      "So...what are you doing on this blog again? LOL SMH...Atheists have no lives."

      lol, didn't realize this was a "christian only blog". Atheists have no lives, yet you spend your life believing in a bronze aged book written by 30+ men over 1500+ years to control the population. Ironic.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:43 am |
    • GI John

      There is no God? Really? What evidence do you have to support that opinion? Evidence of your own discovery, not what has been put into your mind by a professor or man in a white lab coat with a theory.

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

      You could simply eliminate God as love, and then see how all people are the same in the end and thinking of those who filled our lives with meaning. That's how I look at this, and I am an Atheist. I won't condemn the author for believing her God is love. She seems like a pretty terrific person helping people in their final hours and allowing them to spend it discussing what they wish. I can't think of a nicer thing in the world personally to do for another human being. We may not have the same beliefs, but I have to respect the author. I am thankful she wrote this article. Again,to me, it just shows how similar most of us are.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:47 am |
    • jheron

      GI John, the same exact thing could be said of your belief in a God.
      Atheists simply don't attribute a God being to things we can not answer. If something is unknown, it is simply unknown, it is not necessarily a God. It is not up to Atheists to prove there is no God since there is no proof that God exists in the first place.
      Just because it would be nice that there was a God, and that this being took care of us through our lives and after our deaths, does not make it so. I know it is comforting to think that, and by all means, if it makes life for you easier, then fine, believe...but you can not logically argue with Atheists and expect not to look foolish on the subject matter because your belief is not based on logic.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:21 am |
  13. M

    What the author said! Word!

    January 30, 2012 at 9:21 am |
  14. Olivia

    This was beautiful. Thank you Ms./Mrs. Egan.

    January 30, 2012 at 9:16 am |
  15. Baldwin

    Such an excellent article, truly moving. You should be proud of your work and being there for people when they need it most.

    January 30, 2012 at 9:16 am |
  16. Kevin

    Interesting professor, huh?

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

      Not really. He's just a liar. Gaming scared people for money. In reality, all we have is each other and we all die alone.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:22 am |
  17. Greg

    Why is Jesus strangely absent from this article on death–the only one who defeated death and offers us any hope at all by drinking that cup of wrath we rightfully deserved?

    January 30, 2012 at 9:13 am |
    • George

      Because the 'angry gods' (salvation) paradigm was fine for 2000 years ago, and mankind is growing up.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:18 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Jesus Christ – the only one to have defeated death.
      Aside from Horus, Attis, Krishna, Dionysys, Mithra, Baal, Melqart, Adonis, Eshmun, Tammuz, Asclepius, Orpheus, Ra, Osiris, Zalmoxis, Odin, Ishtar, and Persephone (to name a few).

      January 30, 2012 at 9:23 am |
    • JJ

      Doc...well put! I am sooooo sick and tired of this ancient fairy-tale.

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

      Greg, suggest you keep reading the article until you answer your own question. If you truly understand the word of God, then you should find it in the article – even if it is not spelled out literally, which is what the author is conveying.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:30 am |
    • Skegeeace

      I don't think the focus of this article was the afterlife so much as how we handle imminent death. Certainly in loving your family and friends you are doing as Christ commands. :-) There is victory in Christ after death- but only afterwards.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:33 am |
    • bigot

      "There is victory in Christ after death- but only afterwards."

      and you know this HOW?

      January 30, 2012 at 9:44 am |
    • GI John

      @JJ .............you won't be sick of this so called "fairy-tale" when you take your last breath and find out it was not a fairy tale.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:49 am |
    • rick

      "we so rightly deserve"?

      do you beat yourself?

      January 30, 2012 at 9:54 am |
  18. William Hopper

    Your prof had no idea what he was talking about if he thought the job was evangelizing. I too went to Divinity school. and have also worked and lived with the dying. What I've found is that you have to let the dying person decide what to talk about. If you try to lead the conversation around to a belief in God or some existential 'meaning', you're very likely to annoy them (and not be asked back). Let the person work though it as they see fit, and always remember that they are a person.

    January 30, 2012 at 9:12 am |
  19. Jennifer27

    As a secular-living and thinking person, I found this article a worthwhile alternate perspective of the end-of-life process. I am one of those spouses who wiped the brow of someone I loved and with whom I expected to live out a long and happy life. Thought-provoking, beautifully written commentary...thank you!

    January 30, 2012 at 9:12 am |
  20. EJ

    Great article, and a surprising number of positive comments – you don't see that a lot on cnn.com.

    Thank you!

    January 30, 2012 at 9:11 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.