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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 • My Faith

soundoff (4,493 Responses)
  1. Anon

    Note to self: Tell nurses to keep religious folk away from me while I'm on my eventual death bed.

    January 30, 2012 at 3:13 pm |
    • I_get_it

      Anon,

      My friend, who lived in my home at the time of his illness and death, was formerly one of Jehovah's Witnesses and he did exactly as you said. In advance he forbade me from telling his JW family that he was on his death-bed. He knew only too well the shenanigans that might go on if they knew. He contacted them and told them that he was terminally ill, but he did not give them the specifics about where he was residing.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
    • SeanNJ

      Write it into your living will and/or medical power of attorney.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
    • I_get_it

      p.s. I had to as.sert my self quite strongly to convince Hosp.ice not to send their "spiritual" counselor to the house when he was no longer able to speak for himself. He did meet perfunctorily with one of them earlier on... and he said, "No more, please", but they continued to be quite pushy about it.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
  2. Here come the angry Athiests

    There are two types of Athiests; Scientist athiests who shed no emotions talking about rational concepts or lack of proof; and Angry Athiests, whio consistently feel the need to mock other faiths, and post incessantly any time someone mentions the word God or Jesus. Angry athiests take it personal. Like someone else's belief is an affront against them. They smell of ... burned believers. A dispassionate or simply rational Athiest would simply believe what they want, and leave it to others to believe what they want. Who cares what someone else believes? Obviously, Angry Athiests do.

    January 30, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
    • SeanNJ

      When you believe that abortion should be illegal, and try to enforce it, I care.
      When you believe that gays shouldn't be allowed to marry, and try to enforce it, I care.
      When you believe that creationism should be taught in science classes in public schools, and try to enforce it, I care.

      If you would keep those beliefs to yourself, then I would no longer care.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
    • .......

      When you give me a place to go to vent my spleen, I care.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
    • Phillip

      "Obviously, Angry Athiests do."

      There are one type of Christian , Angry Christians, who consistently feel the need to mock other peoples se xuality, and post incessantly any time someone mentions the word gay. Angry Christians take it personal. Like someone else's belief is an affront against them. They smell of ... burned believers. A dispassionate or simply rational Christian would simply believe what they want, and leave it to others to believe what they want. Who cares what someone else believes? Obviously, Angry Christians do

      January 30, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • George

      Looks to me like many atheists are a bunch of hom.os.exuals who don't like that religion condemns their lifestyle. Either that or they are just bleeding heart liberals. Doesn't matter which, they will burn in hell for their beliefs or lack thereof.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
    • rick

      Apparently, so do evangelizing Christians

      January 30, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
    • rick

      Georgie Porgie: Looking forward to eternity on your knees in front of Jesus? Take breath mints

      January 30, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
    • SeanNJ

      @George: You said, "Doesn't matter which, they will burn in hell for their beliefs or lack thereof."

      Or we won't. Could go either way.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
    • rick

      "Doesn't matter which, they will burn in hell for their beliefs or lack thereof"

      Georgie must see himself as God, to make such a prediction. Much more likely an old gaseous windbag that wants hell for those he disagrees with. Georgie.....go sod-o-mize yourself with a crucifix and a 55 gallon drum of KY jelly

      January 30, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
    • Bible Clown

      And God's okay with you making up stuff like that?
      (a)There's no such thing as an "Athiest," since there's no such thing as "thiesm." If you don't believe in theism, you are a-theist.
      (b) I bet there's 100 kinds of atheist, and fifty of those call themselves 'Christians.'
      (c) Why would I be angry at some non-existent sky fairy? There's nothing to be angry about. You have serious brain problems.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
    • Bible Clown

      George, thanks for sharing your beliefs. I'd bet you are attracted to big hairy men yourself, and God's love has apparently been wasted on your sick and twisted heart. Please die soon, and painfully; thanks!

      January 30, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
    • J.W

      Most on this board are either angry atheists or religious wackos. I am the only one who is a perfect mix of rationality and faithfulness.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
    • marilynn

      sean. too bad it works the other way as well. they should keep evolution out of the science books. and if theyre going to include it then they should include ALL theories of how we came to be here on earth. Pretty arrogant to have only evolution. then look what you get, people walking around talking about it like its true. imagine science books ONLY teaching creationism by god?

      January 30, 2012 at 7:21 pm |
  3. pathwriter

    Reblogged this on pathwriter.

    January 30, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
  4. Bodhissatva

    "I drank what?" (Socrates)

    January 30, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
    • Steely Dan

      Bodhisattva
      Would you take me by the hand
      Bodhisattva
      Would you take me by the hand
      Can you show me
      The shine of your Ja pan
      The sparkle of your china
      Can you show me
      Bodhisattva

      Bodhisattva
      I'm gonna sell my house in town
      Bodhisattva
      I'm gonna sell my house in town
      And I'll be there
      To shine in your Ja pan
      To sparkle in your China
      Yes I'll be there
      Bodhisattva

      January 30, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
    • Nonimus

      @Bodhissatva,
      lol

      January 30, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
  5. Roy

    First of all Kerry you are a very good person! My parents, both, die from cancer many years ago.When the moment came that they cannot speak because of the weakness,theirs eyes showed all the things they were not able to say.I think the first evidence of love live in the regards, when we are born, when we met the dear one... and when we arrive at the end of our life.
    The english speaking is not my language,but what you said is universal !

    January 30, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
  6. Bible Clown

    My last words are going to be "Argh! Ghkkkkkk! Ek,ek,ek, hrulp blaaaaa . . . " That's what most people's are, unless they fall from a high place, and then it's "OH SHIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII"

    January 30, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
    • marilynn

      unless you have had your throat removed..

      January 30, 2012 at 7:26 pm |
  7. Sandy

    Wonderful article...thank you for being there!

    January 30, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
  8. Rev. Gregg Alan Smith

    All I'm saying is that you cannot talk about love without first talking about God...in spite of what we humans do with that word/concept, God is at the core of it. God is at the core of family, community, peace, grace, mercy, compassion, beauty...all of that. We humans make God contemptible because of our prejudice, taught/learned hate, and our desire to make God over into our image (you know, the cool dad who lives with his perfect family in the cul de sac and belongs to the same golf club you do, etc, etc.). God is beyond all of that, but that fact makes us uncomfortable. That's o.k. Why? My belief is that God welcomes any welcome of GodSelf in our lives here...because God is always there...

    January 30, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • bigot

      please PROVE, using empirical evidence, your statement is true. I guarantee you cannot, but keep telling yourself you can.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
    • HPNIII

      Just stay away from my room okay, I just want to talk about my family, anyone over 65 already has their Godly beliefs and don't really care about hearing yours unless asked for.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
    • Menthu

      Well, Warm up the collection plate here I come. Satan loves you too.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
    • Snow

      Well I gotta ask then, when your dog comes to you with its tail wagging.. excited to see you, does the love it shows due to its prayers? is it because the dog spent a few hours every week in the church listening to "god's words" that it totally understood what love is all about?

      January 30, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • Bible Clown

      I love my wonderful wife and my cool son, my family and friends and my pets. I love the good world and the beautiful creatures that live in it. Love is a universal concept found anywhere people are found. Some people worship dogs and snakes, but not me. How's that?

      January 30, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
  9. captainboss

    While this was a well written piece, the most important comforting feeling is knowing that it is well with one's soul. When facing the very "valley of the shadow of death", where even family members can't go, the good news of Jesus Christ, is what quells the sting of death and the grave's victory. A loving family can never be taken for granted. However, even family can fail and forsake when its only the cold hand of death and its victim. However, its the eternal promises of the Lord Jesus Christ that brings comfort and peace to the soul.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • bigot

      "However, its the eternal promises of the Lord Jesus Christ that brings comfort and peace to the soul."

      sorry but those words are the promise of the MEN who wrote them, as those MEN never knew jesus.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
    • HPNIII

      What do you talk about with people on their death bed, whatever THEY want to, you can talk about you want to on YOUR death bead.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
  10. fg

    Excellent!!

    January 30, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
  11. rika

    this is just beautiful, its something alot of people should read.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
  12. timmy

    Amen

    January 30, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
  13. beth

    very well written and thought provoking article in a time of change in america

    January 30, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
  14. Terry Frazier

    I think that this was truly a wonderful article... It takes a strong person to be there for a person willingly at their passing. There aren't to many people that would elect to do this of free will. To be able to get the other side of a person last comments, joy, pain, regrets, and conversation has had to impact your life, mood, tone, and day to day living. I encourage you to keep writing and educating people like me who sometimes lose focus of what's really important.

    January 30, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
  15. sara johnson

    I spent ten years with my husband of 50 years as he died. We were together from the beginning and at the end. He did not speak of God but of us, his desire for me to be the last thing he saw before he died. He spoke of his children and who did and did not come to visit him in all stages of his illness. We were each other, and still are. This was an excellent article about the reality of death and not about miraculous death bed confessions.

    January 30, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
  16. paul lechner

    This was the most beautiful article I have ever read. Thank you Keri.

    January 30, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
  17. Christina Sanantonio

    Thank you for this beautiful essay.

    January 30, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
  18. Name*HENRY

    We should continue to share the word of the wisdom of the Lord to every man of this world till the end.for in the word is the understanding of everything created by the almigthy, the word comes with understanding of the existance of the holyspirit which drives us into love,peace and harmony and great things will always be with us forever we will never be caugth on the wrong side.

    January 30, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
    • SeanNJ

      Please don't. Thanks in advance.

      January 30, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
    • Rev. Parson

      Amen Henry!

      January 30, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • rick

      Don't be very surprised if some of the people you decide to share with suggest you sod-o-mize your crucifix

      January 30, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
    • Amused

      You do not seem to have grasped the rather profound insights revealed in the article above. Either A. You didn't actually READ the article or B. You didn't understand a word of it. Inellectual blindness is the worst kind of handicap a person can have.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
    • Bible Clown

      But when you die, your last words will be "There was an old man in December . . .. gasp . . .who said I can barely remember . .gurgle . . . how the girls in July . . gack . . . used to kiss me and tie . . gasp . . . daisy chains round my sun-dappled member . . gasp . .choke . . . argh."

      January 30, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
  19. Kunal

    Beautiful article.

    January 30, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
  20. Vickie

    God created man in His image; God is love.

    The first Book of I Corinthians written by Paul the Apostle describes the wisdom of God vs. the folishness of man. Chapter 13, sometimes referred to as "the love chapter" best describes the meaning of love

    True depth of understanding comes from learning the truth through reading God's word and constant communion with HIm.

    January 30, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • Really?

      Your god is not about love – far from it. It' killed all living things except a few based on your book. It's a brutal tyrant that if you don't love it then you burn for all eternity, what a monster.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
    • Amused

      I disagree. If you study the history of religious writings, it becomes rather clear that it was MAN who created GOD in man's own image.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
    • bigot

      not gods word, but the word of the MEN who wrote the bible.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
    • Steve

      And when your time comes, may the God that you took from a printed book go with you, Vickie!

      January 30, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
    • rick

      Vickie: Man created "god".

      January 30, 2012 at 4:16 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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.