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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. dbagged

    Life is not about GOD. Dying is not about GOD. Let the dying talk about whatever they want, do not interject YOUR personal opinion. If some chaplain came to my death bed talking about GOD, I would do my damnedest to make sure they met him before me.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
    • rick

      makes sense to me

      January 30, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • FYI

      They would ask if you wanted a Chaplin first so he wouldn't be there to talk about God with you.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
    • Ran

      Then why would you need a chaplain? So you can talk about your family, your woes, loves and harships? They better talk to you about Jesus, if you don't already know Him, because that's the last chance you have to be saved. The other option is eternity in hell. Eternity is a long, long time. It is forever and forever and forever with no end or recourse. My friend, you may think it's intelligent or hip to deny the existence of God, the truth is denying Him is not going to make His existence a fallacy. He exists. He has a Son who died for our sins. Unless you believe in His Son, you will die what is called a second death and spend eternity in hell with the satan and the fallen angels. There will be suffering that we have never seen or heard of before here on earth. Don't harden your heart to this truth. God exists! Denying Him won't make Him go away. Accept Him and His Son today and assure yourself a place in heaven for eternity where there will be no more sadness, no more crying, no more sickness and getting old. Where there will be no more suffering and war and any and all evil things we are accustomed to seeing here on earth. Accept Jesus today!

      January 30, 2012 at 6:33 pm |
    • rick

      ran: free people do not need to be saved. slaves do

      January 30, 2012 at 7:06 pm |
  2. tori

    Kerry Egan,
    I am a christian and I think what you are doing is great but if you claim to be a christian too (I apologize if I am wrong) how come you don't mention Jesus once. I think your professor wanted you to share the power of Jesus, and his ability to save you soul. A side from what ever belief you have you have to admit that the sole thing that allows Christianity to be different from any other religion ( Judaism, Islam, etc) is Jesus. If you don't mention Jesus once in an entire article about faith, you are not a christian because CHRISTians preach Christ. Just think about it, this article is more Unitarian then christian.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
    • okieatheart

      You missed the best part of this experience.. she didn't have to say His name... He was working through her, just by her being there. You can talk about Jesus like the best preacher in the world - but the test is can you BE like Him... and that's where many fail, isn't it.

      January 31, 2012 at 1:39 am |
  3. Reality

    The only words that really matter:

    Please increase the morphine drip to the "easy death" level !!!!

    ==================================================

    January 30, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
    • ......

      turn off the drip hit report abuse on every reality post

      January 30, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
  4. time will tell

    Very moving piece. My father-in-law was a spiriitual man, but not a religous one. As he lay dying, the minister asked if he could pray for him. My father-in-law said, I will pray for you. You are the one staying. Ms. Egan is the type of kind-hearted person I would want to ease my soul if I am in that place.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
  5. anchorite

    I don't understand what that professor would talk about if he was sick in the hospital. Would he really call in a preacher and have the guy reach passages from the Bible, or debate theological questions? I seriously doubt it. I've been to funerals and encountered this kind of prejudice where those leading the service insisted you must be a member of their religion to get over grief, and you can only really talk about it in the language of the Bible, no other discussion has any meaning. As if atheists will never feel any better than they do the day their spouse dies, or that people who lived before Christ had no ability to cope with anything or experience a true family.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
  6. Sean Murphy

    I had a near death experience, that was sudden and abrupt. The first thing I did was call for help to people i love and to tell them I loved them. I thought about how lonely I was, and how I needed to work on my relationships and be more sacrificing for others and my friends and family.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
  7. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things
    Through prayer
    Become a member of Gods family
    Prayer changes things

    January 30, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
    • anchorite

      Actually, religion is not healthy for children. Children should be at least 12 before they are introduced to Jesus and God. Until then you are just having them parrot back phrases like a robot they can't possibly understand, using them cynically to enlarge your social club. But go ahead, usually when children are forced to believe some dogma they rebel and become atheists. Try it if you don't believe me.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
    • robert

      er, what do you mean?

      January 30, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
    • robert

      Prayer changes things <– Can you be more specific
      Through prayer Become a member of Gods family <– Which god? Jupiter, Odin, Yahweh, Brahma?
      Prayer changes things <– Again, can you please give some examples of when and what was changed?

      January 30, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • just sayin

      look around you robert do you see churches?Are they dedicated to jupiter or odin? how hard up are you? Prayer changed my life. There is the example you asked for.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
    • Nope

      Again...

      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 5:31 pm |
  8. Michael K

    What that chaplain/professor didn't understand is that not everyone is religious. Everyone comes from a family though. You might not like your family or maybe you love your family but either way you come from a family. Maybe its a single parent family, maybe its a two parent and many brothers and sisters family but you came from your family.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
  9. GeorgeBos95

    For the Professor to mock her – or anyone – as he did demonstrates a level of arrogance and self-righteousness that is mind-boggling. He's certainly not the kind of person I'd want to be talking to in my last days – I'd clock him.

    As for his opinion on what she should be talking about with people who are dying ... she has it right. You talk about whatever they want to talk about, you don't lead them into something YOU think they should be focused on.

    Unless, of course, you're an unsubstantial, arrogant Harvard Divinity School Professor. That appreantly grants a license to be insensitive and overbearing.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
  10. Anon

    My last resonating words will probably be F*** your POS Abrahamic deity and everything related to it.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
  11. Kathie

    It is wonderful to talk to people about love, and their families and things that were special to them, but as a Christian, I realize that having compassionate and loving thoughts and words is not the requirement for heaven. The Bible and Jesus clearly state that thru faith alone, in Christ alone are we reconciled to Holy God and thru His grace promised eternal life with Him. God so loved the world He gave His son Christ ... I would not want my last hours on earth to be filled with only kind words, but also with the truth of salvation thru Christ....because of God's gracious love. That is not preaching. That is the comforting, hope inspiring, truth that our Lord has shared that can remove our fear of death.

    January 30, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • JeramieH

      That's your belief, not everybody's.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • I_get_it

      Kathie,

      You are free to have a whole platoon of preachers at your bedside, or a Sufi dervishes, or a troop of voodoo witch-doctors (as long as they don't light fires 'n stuff); but don't insist that it is necessary for everyone else.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
    • rick

      Bully for the bible, Kathie. It is only relevant to those who accept it

      January 30, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
  12. Patrisa

    Kerry Egan, what a gift you are! Your experience so mirrors my own as a hospital chaplain that I bow to my colleague and salute your authenticity and wisdom. Namaste/ Patrisa

    January 30, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
  13. UWF Center on Aging

    Reblogged this on uwfcenteronaging.

    January 30, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
  14. nosnobunny

    Wow! I saw several of my own family in the writer's descriptions. Beautiful and sobering all at the same time.

    January 30, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
  15. Nicholas Voss

    I am really surprised to know what exactly dying people really think and talk about.

    January 30, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
  16. Uncouth Swain

    This was a very nice opinion piece.

    January 30, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
  17. ellkay

    I'm an agnostic and this touched me deeply. One doesn't need a belief in 'god' to understand the point you make here. Thank you for this. I'm glad people like you exist in this world

    January 30, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • Sean Murphy

      I am the same opinion and had the same feeling.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
  18. MarSch7

    What a beautiful article. Sweet and Painful at the same time, which many times is just like death. I agree about the talking about families, and learning about God from families (or relationships), BUT, I could never let someone go without at least mentioning Jesus and see their reaction. If there was any opening at all, proceed to share the Gospel with them. Urgently.

    It's one thing to help people go thru the final moments of life, but it's ALSO NECESSARY to ensure that their spirits don't end up separated from God forever; that they're able to be WITH this God that their family taught them about. Maybe I wouldn't PUSH HARD, but I sure would bring it up and go as far as they would let me without upsetting them. I've found that most older people appreciate talking about what's coming. Most, but unfortunately not all. I wouldn't want to miss that last opportunity...

    January 30, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
  19. Deborah Lima

    A lovely article. When I am dying, I do not want to be preached to. I would like to be comforted.

    January 30, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
  20. Does it matter

    I like this article! not that it matters much. All I see is people in this world dying everyday as we inch towards are last days..The greatest evidence of god's forgiveness is not allowing us to live in this man created world forever!! Unless that thing about reincarnation is true!! hope not because one life here among the worlds people is enough!

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

      If it's that bad, why are you still here?

      January 30, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
    • rick

      I agree with Jeramie. If it is so bad, what are you still doing here? Are you afraid of facing your god?

      January 30, 2012 at 4:10 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.