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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. Touched

    OMG, how touching! This article brought me to tears. SO true.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:03 am |
  2. Gnashing My Teeth

    CNN... a 700 Club for today's America!

    Myth lovers... unite!

    January 29, 2012 at 9:03 am |
  3. RichardSRussell

    "... people talk to the chaplain about their families because that is how we talk about God."
     
    Boy, you just don't get it, do you? People talk about their families because that is how we talk about OUR FAMILIES! That's what's important to US. God may be what's important to YOU (and your dickish professor), but you obviously haven't been listening very carefully. It's not what's important to the dying.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:00 am |
    • Frances

      I said the same exact thing when I read the article. There's a reason why people don't speak of god, Santa Claus, unicorns and the such. The question you should be asking is was Jesus too busy to greet these people when they passed?
      "Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
      Then he is not omnipotent.
      Is he able, but not willing?
      Then he is malevolent.
      Is he both able and willing?
      Then whence cometh evil?
      Is he neither able nor willing?
      Then why call him God?"
      – Epicurus

      January 29, 2012 at 9:19 am |
    • CNN Rubbish

      Frances, The problem with Epicurus' reasoning is failing to factor in time.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:32 am |
  4. Todd in DC

    Things people say before they die:

    Hey, Zeke, look what I can do...

    Is that your Dad's gun? Cool. Let me see.

    Hey man, why this coke smell like flour?

    I only had 4 X's tonight. I'll take one more.

    Of course I'm sober enough to drive.

    Not sure why this merits a news article.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:00 am |
    • Jeff Williams

      You forget the classic "hey, watch this!"

      January 29, 2012 at 9:14 am |
  5. Witchy Woman

    Kerry, I really enjoyed your article. You were right even as a student: your role as a chaplain is to listen to the dying person and follow that person's lead. My opinion of your professor is that he is a sanctimonious jerk, and then he proved it by making fun of you in class. How unprofessional! I hope that when my time comes I have someone as compassionate as you at my side–in addition to my family. I also hope that my time doesn't come for a very long time, but I have no control over that!

    January 29, 2012 at 8:59 am |
  6. david williams

    The Professor was right

    January 29, 2012 at 8:59 am |
    • jd

      Eventually you'll find out he was wrong.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:08 am |
    • Gnashing My Teeth

      Gilligan: Do those headhunters really collect heads, Professor?

      Professor Roy Hinkley: Yes, Gilligan. They boil them... they shrink them... and then they mount them on sticks.

      Gilligan: Eeeeeeew, what a crazy cane!

      January 29, 2012 at 9:11 am |
    • Yuri Pelham

      The height of selfish cruelty to inhibit the patient from saying what is most concerning in the hours before death. Let him stay in the classroom. Thank God the author is at the bedside. Human beings agree with me. It helps distinguish them from programmed automatons.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:18 am |
    • Yuri Pelham

      The height of selfishness to inhibit the patient from saying what is most concerning in the hours before death. Let him stay in the classroom. Thank God the author is at the bedside. Human beings agree with me. It helps distinguish them from programmed automatons.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:19 am |
  7. JeanyB

    I think this article says a lot. God is love, as the Bible says. And we live our lives to attain it. She's a wise person to put it into religious perspective.

    For those people who have faith, they have a comfort in their belief of God and Heaven. As for the others who don't believe, what if they're wrong.

    January 29, 2012 at 8:57 am |
    • Jim

      This article is not about organized religion, but people will easily read it that way.

      Notice how the article is about "love", not christian love, not jewish love, or athiest love, but love.

      The whole religious argument that you have to belong to the "right" religious organization to be "good" is what has destroyed billions of people over the centuries, and continues to do so today.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:07 am |
  8. Charles Dawkin

    But that was for atheists.

    January 29, 2012 at 8:55 am |
  9. Adam

    "This (family) is where we create our lives, this (family) is where we find meaning, this (family) is where our purpose becomes clear."

    Apparently this chaplain also struggled in philosophy class. Nothing, and I repeat nothing, can give meaning, value, or purpose to life outside God. It logically is an impossibility. Without God, we're on a conveyor belt to nothingness. So without God, we can't logically state anything in this world has a meaning, a purpose, or any value whatsoever. We can't logically say love has value or that hate is void of it. That family gives meaning to life. We can't say these things. Or we can say them, it just won't make sense.

    January 29, 2012 at 8:54 am |
    • Colin

      That's odd. I am an atheist and I and many of my atheist friends live very fulfilling, happy lives. No all of us need sky-fairies.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:57 am |
    • Adam

      Colin,

      I have a reason for putting value and meaning and purpose to life. You do not. That's the difference between our beliefs and actions.

      I have a reason. You don't. Or can you give me one? ... lol

      January 29, 2012 at 9:00 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      What arrogance. Of course there is meaning in life without a belief in God. Really, Adam, if the only meaning you have in your life is a belief in a God, then your life is pretty lousy.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:02 am |
    • Adam

      Colin,

      Sorry you can be happy. Just know you have no logical reason to found that happiness in anything. You are the one living under a delusion.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:03 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      How sad that you cannot find (or create) meaning and purpose within your own life and have to look elsewhere to see if anyone else has some to spare.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:04 am |
    • Adam

      Tom,

      Please, give me a reason for value, meaning, and purpose in life if God does not exist. Many theist and atheist philosophers have attempted and failed.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:04 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Do explain what "logic" is behind your reason, Adam. There is no proof your God exists. None.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:05 am |
    • AtheistSteve

      With God you diminish the value and meaning of life. With God you treat life as a temporary transitional state. With God you feel no sense of actual loss because you believe the departed are still living. With God you deceive yourself into living in fear and guilt about being judged.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:05 am |
    • Adam

      Tom,

      There is good evidence God exists. Morality's existence is the best evidence in my opinion.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:07 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Name the "failed" philosophers and give evidence that they failed.

      You can't. Your beliefs are not based on logic or facts.

      Life has different meaning for each person. What would make you even begin to think you know anyone else's life?

      January 29, 2012 at 9:08 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Your opinion does not equal fact. Morality is not exclusive to believers. Give proof that believers are all moral and that all atheists are immoral.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:09 am |
    • Adam

      Atheist Steve,

      There is no logical contradiction with the "problems" you just mentioned and God's existence. There is however a logical contradiction with stating life has meaning, value, and purpose if God does not exist.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:09 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Stating your opinion as if it were a fact doesn't make it factual, Adam. Pretending your belief is based on facts doesn't make it so. You are simply giving your opinion. Nothing more.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:11 am |
    • Adam

      Tom,

      A reason for morality's existence is exclusive to theists. That is true. Atheists have no reason for morality's existence.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:11 am |
    • jd

      Adam, why do you feel the need to argue with everyone? Believe what you believe and let others do the same.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:11 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Still waiting for that list of philosophers and the supposed failure of their ideas, Adam. Perhaps you might come up with it if you actually thought a bit before jabbing at the keyboard and simply repeating the same tired plat itudes.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:13 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Of course they have reason. Prove that atheists are immoral. Prove that believers are moral.

      Before you do that, I suggest you look up the words "moral" and "morality". Define what 'moral' means. Then prove it's exclusive to believers. Back it up with facts.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:15 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Adam: "That is true."

      I love it when people make these kinds of statements. No, Adam, it is not an absolute truth. You simply believe that.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:16 am |
    • Jeff Williams

      Adam says: """Just know you have no logical reason to found that happiness in anything. You are the one living under a delusion."""

      Really, Adam, how dare you use the word "logic" in your deluded holier-than-thou missive?

      You believe, you have faith. That, my friend, is the very definition of "delusion". Consult your Funk & Wagnal. Really – read it. We'll wait.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:19 am |
    • AtheistSteve

      Life has value simply because it is precious, temporary and finite. There is no intrinsic meaning or purpose to life. That is just the assertion claimed by your religious viewpoint. A house of cards with no base beyond your assumption that belief in god id valid.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:21 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      I guess Adam's busy looking up the definition(s) of "morality" and all those 'failed' philosophies.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:26 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      I love Beethoven's 9th Symphony, the smell of hot toast on a cold winter's morning, the smiling face of a tiny little blond 2-year-old girl I know, and a thousand other things. I'm sure there's a reason for each and every one of those values and judgments if I were to investigate them deeply enuf, and almost every one of them can be traced to the biological adaptation of my species to the particular ecosystems in which we evolved. The fact of the matter, tho, is that my emotions and values are just as human, genuine, and unintellectualized as some Bible-thumper's — and so are EVERYONE ELSE'S. We don't need to know WHY we appreciate a beautiful sunset to be able to appreciate it. In fact, it's like trying to explain a joke that somebody doesn't get, or vivisecting the patient to find out what's wrong. You may satisfy your intellect, but you ruin the joke and kill the patient.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:27 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Excellent response, Richard. I hope Adam soon surfaces from his research on those 'failed philosophers' and the definitions of 'morality' so he can read it.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:52 am |
    • Steven Capsuto

      Adam – There were well-developed systems of morality in place long before anyone was worshiping the Jewish/Christian/Muslim god.

      January 30, 2012 at 12:18 am |
  10. pmmarion

    I have met god and he/she/it is us. The "god" of the bible, koran or other "holy" book is merely a figment of their imagination. Good article.

    January 29, 2012 at 8:53 am |
    • TheBossSaid

      pmmarion isn't a real person. They don't exist. The comment was created by a computer program and therefore pmmarion is a figment of our imagination.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:58 am |
    • Mabel

      Wrong.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:00 am |
  11. ohdeargod

    I read this article to my spouse. Thank you for writing it – and in such simple terms that an ordinary person can understand what you are saying.

    January 29, 2012 at 8:53 am |
  12. aginghippy

    In my profession, I have also seen more than my share of terminally ill patients. I have seen way too many unfortunate individuals who are, for all intents and purposes, already dead, being maintained on life support. And it has been my experience that their families, more often than not, demonstrate anything other than love. The families stubbornly and selfishly refuse to allow their "loved ones" to die with dignity, choosing instead to keep them in a perpetual state of suffering, with no hope of ever returning to a happy and meaningful life. I am an atheist, so the question that always perplexes me is this: Why, when so many of them profess a belief in God and an afterlife in paradise, do they insist on delaying their loved one's transition to the afterlife?. Some will say that removing life support would be "playing God". I contend that keeping a shell of a human being alive with machines, feeding tubes and chemicals is the true act of playing God. I always wonder how many of my patients who still have any cognitive function are wondering why their families, who are supposed to love them, won't simply let them go. Could it be that despite all the talk of God and heaven, they really are not all that convinced that heaven awaits? Or maybe it's just pure selfishness in thinking more about how much they will miss Mom, Dad, wife, husband. sibling or child than what is best for the person living in h*ll on earth.

    January 29, 2012 at 8:52 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      This subject was covered by America's Finest News Source (hint: not CNN):
         tinyurl(dot)com/7lyfvxp

      January 29, 2012 at 9:08 am |
    • Yuri Pelham

      Thank. Am copying this. Affirms what I've been preaching for years... in vain to my colleagues. These difficult families are few. Doctors often don't have a clue as to how to focus on comfort, abandoning the "heroic" false hope needless suffering algorithm they follow.
      The author of this lovely piece allowed the patient to communicate their deepest concerns. The professor would impose his own agenda during a patient's last hours, which I regard as an act of selfish cruelty. On my deathbed I want you and the chaplain lady at my bedside.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:14 am |
    • aginghippy

      Thanks for the laugh, Russell!

      January 29, 2012 at 9:15 am |
    • Witchy Woman

      These same people would, however, put their pets down because they don't want it to suffer. I agree with you, aginghippy. I have a relative who is suffering from Alzheimer's disease, and every morning, I pray that, if there is a God in heaven, she and her family will be released from this prison so that they can all have peace. At the last family gathering, she didn't know who her oldest child was. That had to hurt him, even though he is rational enough to know that it isn't her fault. She isn't on a machine, however, but we are heading down that path. I cannot understand why people postpone the inevitable.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:23 am |
  13. bob

    After death there is no pain or sickness, only growing closer to Him. We are spiritual creatures who return to their Creator.

    January 29, 2012 at 8:51 am |
    • Todd in DC

      Prove it.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:55 am |
    • Eug.

      Scriptures required in support of your statement, please

      January 29, 2012 at 9:00 am |
    • TheBossSaid

      Not if your name is not found in the Book of Life.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:10 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      "After death there is no pain or sickness". No argument there. The evidence is right before our eyes. Everything after that is a wish-fulfillment fantasy with no evidence whatsoever.
       
      I'm always bemused at how many deeply religious people who believe in a glorious afterlife are so reluctant to leave this world behind and head off to their "eternal reward". As an atheist, I can tell you in no uncertain terms why THIS life is important to me: because it's the only one I'm ever gonna get, and I don't want to waste any of it!

      January 29, 2012 at 9:12 am |
  14. Rusty

    I'm not a religious person, so I understand what the author is saying. It is a very good article and I was able to connect.

    January 29, 2012 at 8:49 am |
  15. William

    Beautiful article. I consider myself thick-skinned but this caused me to weep heavily.

    January 29, 2012 at 8:49 am |
    • Dale R

      Amen brother.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:14 am |
  16. bob

    Choose God. The people He created with us will also be there.

    January 29, 2012 at 8:48 am |
    • Gumby

      You don't know that. You only believe that.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:50 am |
  17. Pete Moss

    Why is the dying person black? This is discrimination!

    January 29, 2012 at 8:46 am |
  18. salvatore

    Kerry, you understand life better then most religious leaders. I wish there were more people like you that understand that life is only complicated because most choose to make it that way.

    January 29, 2012 at 8:46 am |
  19. Patrish

    I so don't want a religious person at my death bed! I'll go where I'm suppose to go, GOD or no GOD. Kinda of a waste reading this article...

    January 29, 2012 at 8:44 am |
    • bill.x

      your sentiment sounds very sad, but also sounds like hope is holding it up. you should reread this peace, and concentrate on what she covered little, forgiveness. but especially forgive yourself first, and know you are loved and that you, your soul, is connected directly to love that is pure and incapable of being destroyed or changed. everything else that happenned or you know ocurred in your mind and will die there – but you are eternal and pure love - god bless you

      January 29, 2012 at 9:02 am |
    • Green mean guy

      You would know all about " a waste"..huh!?!

      January 29, 2012 at 9:05 am |
  20. Darlynn

    As being one of Jehovah's Witnesses we talk about death being temporary. There will be a time very soon now that God will wipe away death,sickness. He will put an end to all of this. We are living in the last days as mention in Rev 21: 3 & 4. Death is like going into a deep sleep.

    January 29, 2012 at 8:43 am |
    • Mirosal

      If there ever was a cult, you're in it!! seek deprogramming NOW!!!!!!

      January 29, 2012 at 8:48 am |
    • james

      You even get your own planet!

      January 29, 2012 at 8:49 am |
    • Gumby

      JW's – the worst of the worst.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:51 am |
    • AtheistSteve

      No it's Mormons who believe they get their own planet. Jehovah's believe they will be resurrected to a re-Edenised Earth as fully fleshed people.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:53 am |
    • Charles Dawkin

      Yeah...Planet of the apes.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:55 am |
    • JORGE

      Delusion at its best.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:55 am |
    • Charles Dawkin

      But that was exclusively for atheists.

      January 29, 2012 at 8:57 am |
    • CNN Rubbish

      I suppose it is easy to go after the JW. They don't believe in war, don't want couples to divorce and tell their people to be honest and pay their taxes.

      Rather ironic to others that they end up the "worst" or a "cult". That door knocking is really fearsome. Look out, the decently dressed JW's are in the neighborhood so lock the doors and turn off the lights.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:20 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.