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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. Amanda

    Thank you so much for being willing to take this job on. It must be so hard, yet so rewarding at the same time. We need more people like you in the world. I'm sorry that professor didn't understand you and was so rude. Thank you.

    January 30, 2012 at 11:04 am |
  2. godofredo

    If one followed the apparent thinking of that professor, then they would be guilty of a great evil. Trying to occupy a person's last thoughts with something contrived like a ritual is a crime and a theft. If you've got a problem with that, stop by the Westside Barbell Club and they'll help you understand it better. If that professor is still alive, he should definitely stop by.

    January 30, 2012 at 10:59 am |
  3. Rainer Braendlein

    "14 And Enoch also, the seventh from Adam, prophesied of these, saying, Behold, the Lord cometh with ten thousands of his saints, 15 To execute judgment upon all, and to convince all that are ungodly among them of all their ungodly deeds which they have ungodly committed, and of all their hard speeches which ungodly sinners have spoken against him."

    As anytime we all will face death, how can we escape God's judgement?

    We can hardly grasp the full meaning of the word "death" (death is somewhat beyond reason), thus we should regard, what we can understand regarding the topic of death.

    Two things are clear and can be understood by everybody: Death can befall us every moment and we have to die anytime at any rate.

    Christians sometimes discuss about the time of Judgement Day. Let us just assume Judgement Day would come in 10000 years (in fact it may come sooner or later, I don't know it). Let's suppose that would be true, then one could say: "Why should I worry about a day, which is so far away in the future?"

    Of course, objectively seen, the day would be far in the future. It is only that after death we lose consciousness of time and assumed we would wake up again after 10000 real years minus our remaining lifetime, which would be still about 10000 years, we would feel that only a moment had gone by after we had died. Maybe we will think: "I just had a short snooze."

    Hence, subjectively seen, Judgement Day is not far away from us. Judgement Day is at hand. It can befall us even today (subjectively), when we would die today, although it may happen first in 10000 years.

    We should ask ourselves, if we can encounter our creator and if we can answer for our life before Him?

    As long as we live, we should accept the gospel of Jesus Christ:

    "Jesus Christ has borne our sins, when he died for us on the cross."

    If we believe that and get baptized into the Holy Trinity, we well get delivered and will become able to live a life, which pleases God.

    January 30, 2012 at 10:59 am |
  4. Surfdad

    Ms. Egan's article is on target. Faith is God is often a very private matter, even for those with strong faith. Family and friends that matter, or should matter, are quite different. When your life is coming to an end, its the thoughts of loved ones that provide comfort. Yes, many people could have loved more or been loved more. Don't wait until you are on your death bed to fix bad situations. Leave this earth knowing you have no regrets and sincerely apologize if you do have regrets.

    January 30, 2012 at 10:56 am |
  5. ak2k

    Very nice!

    January 30, 2012 at 10:52 am |
  6. Mike 57 yr-young That's what I needed to hear

    What a Great article; Family and love these are out teachers of what God & life is all about

    January 30, 2012 at 10:50 am |
  7. chris

    what a hard job to do. god bless you

    January 30, 2012 at 10:49 am |
  8. Robert Gordon

    One day while I was alone, I collapsed on the floor on my way to the washroom and what flashed through my mind, was that I wanted God to know that I love and beleive in Him. I responded with this prayer, while being paralised on the floor for 15 minutes plus." " God if I am about to die, I ask that my soul be returned to you God, who gave it, as soon as my flesh body dies ". ! One could say that for any dying person . . . Ecclesisiastes 12 states that very thing, in Ch.12 verse 7 !

    January 30, 2012 at 10:49 am |
    • bro

      Cool story, bro.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:50 am |
    • fred

      Yes, may my dust return to the earh and my soul to God who gave it !
      Thank you for bringing that verse to my attention. We all agree about what happens to our physical bodies and what a blessing it is to know and understand our soul belongs to God.

      January 30, 2012 at 11:01 am |
    • rick

      We all agree about what happens to our physical bodies and what a delusion it is to think we know what is in the mind of god.

      January 30, 2012 at 11:37 am |
  9. John

    I am in such a awe moment right now. You are a chaplain, representing God, the person whose main role is to guide them to God and you let them leave this world without them accepting Jesus as their personal savior? You may have given them comfort before last breath, but what then afterward.

    January 30, 2012 at 10:48 am |
    • catholic engineer

      We never know what transpires between a soul and God at the moment of death. I wish I could think of that old poem. It's says that a person can be riding a horse, be thrown from the horse, the salvation acheived between the horse and the ground.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:58 am |
    • itchy2say

      I think you need to re-read the article and stop looking for certain words.

      January 30, 2012 at 11:01 am |
  10. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things
    Prayer is talking with God
    God is love
    Prayer changes things

    January 30, 2012 at 10:48 am |
    • Nope

      We've been praying you would stop posting this crap, yet it continues, proving prayer doesn't work.

      Oh, and how about all those prayers for world peace that go unanswered.

      Oh and then there's the prayers of starving people around the world whose prayers go unanswered, dying by the millions.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:54 am |
    • just sayin

      Nope – a – Dope

      January 30, 2012 at 10:56 am |
    • Ummmm

      If "just sayin" only had a brain.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • Nope

      Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School and other scientists tested the effect of having three Christian groups pray for particular patients, starting the night before surgery and continuing for two weeks. The volunteers prayed for "a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications" for specific patients, for whom they were given the first name and first initial of the last name.

      The patients, meanwhile, were split into three groups of about 600 apiece: those who knew they were being prayed for, those who were prayed for but only knew it was a possibility, and those who weren't prayed for but were told it was a possibility.

      The researchers didn't ask patients or their families and friends to alter any plans they had for prayer, saying such a step would have been unethical and impractical. The study looked for any complications within 30 days of the surgery. Results showed no effect of prayer on complication-free recovery. But 59 percent of the patients who knew they were being prayed for developed a complication, versus 52 percent of those who were told it was just a possibility.

      January 30, 2012 at 11:03 am |
  11. possum

    This is a powerful story and the author is correct in allowing people to have their say. The last thing I want before I die is somebody I don't know and who does not know me telling me I am going to hell unless I accept Jesus or whatever. An individual should have the right to decide their own last words and conversations and to express what is most important to them before they go.

    Darwin was converted long before he died. He first went to med school but dropped out after witnessing surgery on a child (that was before anesthesia). He then studied divinity.

    January 30, 2012 at 10:47 am |
  12. Ann

    Really great article!

    January 30, 2012 at 10:45 am |
  13. return to God

    to God we belong and to HIM we return

    January 30, 2012 at 10:44 am |
    • *facepalm*

      Yup – we return to nothing. Good call.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:47 am |
    • fred

      *facepalm*
      Sad that your view is so closed off to that which even the Neanderthal knew as they made provision for their loved ones. Thank God you are alive as there is still hope for your soul

      January 30, 2012 at 11:05 am |
    • rick

      fred: sad that you accept the view of morality espoused by bronze age sheep boinkers

      January 30, 2012 at 11:30 am |
  14. kme

    So basically, in the end their is love and life. God optional.

    January 30, 2012 at 10:43 am |
    • palintwit

      I'll probably remind everybody one last time that Sarah Palin is an oaf.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:49 am |
  15. Paul

    Excellent post

    January 30, 2012 at 10:43 am |
  16. [[[[[[[[[ 007 ]]]]]]]]]]

    Yes, this is a moving article, well written, and so very true. I want to thank the author for heightening my self-awareness & contemplation of "learning to forgive," my mother. I have seen many people die and have heard incredible thoughts that come out of their mouths, love or lack of, being one of the most often talked about. Often mistakes and missed opportunities. The moral of the story is to always execute love 100% over a lifetime and never have regrets by the time youre on your death bed. Fix what you can, it's never too late.

    TO KERRY EGAN: You talked about the strength of the 'human soul,' and how people know what they were missing in love. Well, it's not due to strength of soul, but that we learned about what we have been missing by looking around at others who do have it. The way it should be.

    *******And the dfference is that you can not miss what you never had! *******

    The only sad thing is when you have self-realization of what you were missing. The greatest strength here is learning to muster enough forgiveness, especially if that 'relationship' is still alive. To break that shell of cold, emptiness and bring about closure.

    January 30, 2012 at 10:41 am |
  17. Betsy J.

    Thanks for sharing this. It will help with my life (and perhaps death) journey.

    January 30, 2012 at 10:39 am |
  18. Snookie

    What an amazing article! The view on the way out is definitely different from the one we come in as. The family is the sacred unit where we are to learn about God and love. Jesus said, :Whatever you do to the least of my brothers you do unto me." This is not the first time I have heard of talk about the family upon one's death. The family is where it's at and those are the people who will be with you when you pass over and those are the ones who will meet you on the other side to welcome you home!

    January 30, 2012 at 10:38 am |
  19. mullahfullahbullah

    I think they mostly say " I told you I was sick....".

    January 30, 2012 at 10:37 am |
    • CoffeTimeGirl

      I would venture to say what an enlightend life you have lived. NOT.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:48 am |
    • rick

      Or....."Hold my beer while I do this...."

      January 30, 2012 at 11:32 am |
  20. Jack, 61 yr-old believer; my father left mom when I was a baby

    Good article. Correct insights; the scriptures are crucially important, but we 'see' God thru the love given and received from others. On the night preceding his death Jesus stressed to his disciples that 'by this shall all men know you are my disciples, that you love one another" in the way he loved us (John 13:34-35).
    This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. – 1 John 3:16.
    Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love – 1 John 4:8.
    For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. – 1 John 4:20b

    January 30, 2012 at 10:34 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.