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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. davide

    Kerry, Great article with insight. It's good to see your strength. You've probably heard the saying, "Those who can – Do; Those who can't – Teach." That's the professor and I've encounter the same before.

    January 30, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
  2. Jorin

    People frequently ask for prayers. As someone who does not believe in a deity, I spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to "pray". I also developed a very strong sense of fellowship and the inherent good that is the most common thread and stabilizing factor among my fellow human beings, despite their faith or lack thereof. Because I couldn't pray for these people, I was vexed about what I could do to help them in their time of need. But, I had an epiphany one day. What they're really looking for is love. And I decided that love is the healing force for us all, whether one believes it comes from god or from others around us. And love is something I can freely offer in heartfelt ways. So, I love ...

    January 30, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  3. steve

    Nice powerful article in such a small space, im getting the book.

    January 30, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
  4. Brien

    Wonderful article by someone who has obviously spent a great deal of time with the dying. The professor was/is a moron. Clearly a person of no practical experience. I've spent a good deal of time with the dying and it's been my experience that family is always the topic of concern.

    January 30, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
  5. jimtanker

    Pascal's wager is a logical falacy. How about this, the musIim heaven is better than the christian heaven because you get 72 virgins, therefore you should be musIim. Even better, you should be a Pastafarian. The FSM heaven has a beer volcano and a strip.per factory. And the FSM heII is the same as the heaven except that the beer is stale and the strip.pers have VD. I will be accepting your conversion in your reply.

    January 30, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
    • George

      Actually, it's not a logical fallacy. If you think so, point out the fallacy instead of just parroting what you read on atheist's websites.

      January 30, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • SeanNJ

      @George: It's the fallacy of the excluded middle.

      January 30, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • tim

      Actually, there are at least five or six logical fallacies in Pascal's wager, but there no sense in reciting them. Anyone who believes isn't interested in logic. That is what religion is: believing in something for which there is no scientific evidence.

      And the other thing that never gets mentioned: the majority of this planet does not believe in the Christian god, so I guess they are all wrong?

      January 30, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  6. JeramieH

    > We can hardly grasp the full meaning of the word "death" (death is somewhat beyond reason)

    I'm not sure why people insist that death is so mysterious and beyond understanding. It's simply lights out, maybe with a little bit of brain short-circuiting in the minutes beforehand. Not exactly the most incomprehensible topic.

    January 30, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
  7. PD

    Thank you!

    January 30, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
  8. Mike

    Amazing all the hate and insults hurled by the enlightened atheists that have posted here

    January 30, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • sickofit

      Its probably just in response to all the hatered and disrespect from the religious right aimed at non-beleivers.

      January 30, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
    • tim

      That's a pretty funny comment, given the millions of people slaughtered over the centuries in the name of religion.

      January 30, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • rick

      mike: given the pompousness of the theists who feel they know the mind of god, insults are called for

      January 30, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
  9. theolo149

    freaking non-realists, I'm sick of this existentialist bull crap. "Oh we just need to express our feelings then we will understand the meaning of life." Sorry but no, I'm glad this student listens to the dying and comforts them. But to then derive from their conversations that to learn about God we shouldn't read any books or learn any theology but love each other is ridiculous. Of course loving each other is extremely important, and it brings important experiential knowledge about God and how God works, but theology is important to, as a Christian I am called to be intellectual as well as compassionate. To suggest that studying the Bible, theology, and other intellectual matters is not necessary to understand God is to rip the essence out of Christianity an replace it with an eastern understanding of truth. In other words it is literally trying to make Christianity into a form of Buddhism or Hinduism.

    January 30, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
    • Cat

      I don't think that's exactly what she's saying. No where in her article did she say, "Do not study the Bible" she's simply saying that love is one of God's teachings and it's often the topic people want to discuss most of all when they're near the precipice. She is not saying the Professor was wrong for scolding her for not adhering praying with them but rather that he was wrong for not realizing that, even though she's just talking about their families, it's still God's work. Because in all honesty, when you're sitting with someone and you're talking to someone about your children or any other member of your family, how many times do you say, "Thank God" or "Dear God" or anything similarly invoking his name? You've studied theology, I believe, so I'll assume you know these few verses: 1 John 4:8-12 "Anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us." ESV That's all she's saying.

      January 30, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
  10. Pete

    That professor was a moron. He was like a salesman upset that his student wasn't trying to push religion into their final moments.

    January 30, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
  11. GhostColin

    Although I am not religious, the condescending nature of your Professors tone is exactly the reason why when I was trudging through med school, I came to the conclusion upon entering the workforce – I would politely decline invitations to become a cog in the domesticated medical system and instead take my knowledge elsewhere – medical missionary work overseas. I would rather be broke, living in a mud hut and surrounded by others with the same outlook than the nutters who've forgotten why they chose the fields they have. Fantastic article and I'll be checking out your book.

    January 30, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
  12. Donna

    What a great story. Hopefully the professor who mocked you will see things in a better light by now. Sometimes people just need someone to listen when they need to talk.

    January 30, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
  13. Rick

    This was a great article. I needed to see someting like this. Thanks you !!!

    January 30, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
  14. Tony

    Absolutely beautiful. Just attended two funerals this weekend and family above everything else was the core of their love for the departed and the departed for their family. Spiritual was the only way to describe these two sad but joyful occasions.

    January 30, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
  15. MC

    The most ancient Churches have a tradition of recognizing families as "little churches".... I think this story is a nice reminder of that....

    January 30, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
  16. jenn976

    This was beautiful. Kerry, I'm so glad that you stuck with your studies after the embarrassing prof. pretty much made an ass of himself. We need more people like you.

    January 30, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
  17. Robert Harper

    I hope Kerry Egan's experience is drawn to the attention of that theology professor who obviously knows little about what concerns the dying and NOTHING about the practice of Christian virtues. But then again, Philistines can be found anywhere,
    including the faculty of divinity schools. I thank God that Kerry survived the mockery of one of them.

    January 30, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
  18. sordog1

    This is beautiful. Now you are the professor. Thank you for teaching me something! You are definitely doing God's work.

    January 30, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
  19. @rflyer17

    I never spoke with someone before they died, but I did dream about someone after they did. When I was 14 one of my best friends hung herself in her closet. That was the first time I ever really thought about death. It was very heart breaking.. the night after her funeral I had a dream I was walking on the right side of a building towards the back and then in the back was alot of tables like at Sonic. Then i saw a girl with very long beautiful hair. She turned around and it was my friend. It was just us two back there. She looked at me and i remember feeling so sad, she told me " Earth is a beautiful place, stay here as long as you can". Then she just faded away. I am 23 now and still think of her all the time.... This is a very touching article.. for some reason it reminded me of my dream

    January 30, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
  20. Nancy

    The lady "chaplain" is probably not a believer. Neither are most of the people commenting on this blog.

    January 30, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
    • Nonimus

      It must be lonely in your world.

      January 30, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
    • iamdeadlyserious

      If by "believer" you mean "condescending, bigoted piece of trash," you're right.

      January 30, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • Alan

      Nancy, Anyone who is a "believer" would not say something like that...He who casts the first stone...Yanno?

      January 30, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • Alan

      Beautiful article none the less

      January 30, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
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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.