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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. angelosdaughter

    When my father passed away, my boss in a sympathy card said that God shows His love for us in the people He gives us to love. For me, God's love has my father's face. Love in a family is a good analogy for the love of God.

    January 31, 2012 at 2:30 am |
  2. Mike H

    Since this has disintegrated into little more than an argument for and against religion, I'll get in my two-cents' worth. I would like a clear answer as to why faith disturbs non-believes so much. Moreover, perhaps the non-believers would share their very scientific explanation as to how anything was ever created. I know it can't be done. I was once a non-believer myself who tried...with the aid of other very intelligent non-believers...to do so.

    January 31, 2012 at 1:43 am |
  3. Kelly

    I have straddled both sides of this fence, having had a near-death experience myself at age 29 (when my daughter was 3 years old) and, years later, at age 46, when I served as a student chaplain in a Level-One trauma center during graduate school. ...

    At 29, doctors told me I had 48 hours to live. Of COURSE I thought about my family - one family member in particular - my daughter. I knew she would remember NOTHING about me if I died, so I spent what I thought would be my last hours trying to write EVERYthing I had hoped to tell her over the next 70 years - about me, about herself, about her ancestors, about life. I didn't need a chaplain to help me with that, and no one from the pastoral staff intruded on that sacred task, other than inquiring about my comfort. ... Some of these posts suggest chaplains are bumbling, intrusive idiots. Those qualities emerge among chaplains no more often than they do among the general population. If you've encountered an idiotic chaplain, I urge you not to tarnish the whole profession based on one experience or, worse, on an uninformed stereotype.

    Chaplains - good chaplains - are trained to be the "non-anxious presence in the room" ... to listen ... as the student in this post did ... to be pastoral, NOT prophetic. A patient's bedside is NOT the place to preach or to wag a sanctimonious finger, and if you encounter one who does, ask him/her to leave, but don't throw them all out with the bath water (or holy water, as it were) ...

    As chaplains, we entered patients' rooms BY INVITATION, NOT BY IMPOSITION. Our supervisors trained us to meet people "where they were" spiritually, theologically, physically, emotionally. We did NOT attempt to talk them into or out of ANY theology. We asked what, if anything, they or their families might find comforting or helpful, then we attempted to provide it. Often, we encountered people (patients or family members/friends) who had a LOT of hurtful, unfinished business between them ... or ... patients whose family members might not make it the hospital in time to hear the patient's last words. Those patients often requested and said they found it comforting to have a trustworthy, nonjudgmental presence to witness and convey their last words. Family members said they found it comforting to hear those words and to know someone had been with their loved one in their absence ... or ... less often, they were glad to know the "S.O.B." was really dead.

    Often family members felt sadness, remorse, confusion, relief or anger ... toward each other, toward the patient, toward God (howEVer they conceived of Him/Her/It). Chaplains help patients and family members manage their raw and often conflicting emotions and opinions around pulling plugs, saying goodbye, forgiving (or not), donating organs (or not), blaming each other or fighting over property before the patient even dies ...

    If YOU don't feel the need for a chaplain, your course is clear; DON'T CALL ONE, but I would urge each of us not to imagine or insist that just because WE don't find a pastoral presence comforting or necessary that NO ONE would or should. Chaplains do important work. The author of this post strikes me as a skilled, compassionate presence whom I would welcome to my bedside ... not soon, I hope. The professor, on the other hand, deserves an "F." Peace.

    January 31, 2012 at 12:42 am |
    • okieatheart

      Absolutely beautifully stated. Thank you... you said exactly what I feel but couldn't find the words! Blessings!

      January 31, 2012 at 1:30 am |
    • lagne

      YES.

      January 31, 2012 at 3:11 am |
    • David B

      Oh, Kelly, we know what side of the fence you're on. Let's all jump on the professor,
      whom we never met or even heard from.

      January 31, 2012 at 8:38 am |
  4. David Monsen

    I am amazed by all the assumptions of those who comment about Kerry's wonderful learning experience. Never was there any hint that the patient was "forced" or coerced in any way- nor were any words or intentions mentioned about "saving" the patient... ya'll are reading your own prejudice into the actual words on the screen.
    As a Board Certified Chaplain of the Association of Professional Chaplains, I think Kerry did a great job of allowing the patient to talk about what the patient wanted to talk about and to simply accompany him for a part of that journey. Kerry is right religion of any stripe is about relationships. Proving or disproving God is the business of philosophy which is not a bedside activity.

    January 31, 2012 at 12:14 am |
    • David B

      David, do you believe in Easter? Just wondering.

      January 31, 2012 at 8:50 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      How is the chaplain's belief relevant? Why should it matter what David believes? You simply don't get it. It's not the role of the chaplain to exhort anyone near death to do anything.

      January 31, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • David B

      Tom Tom, the question is for David.

      January 31, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      I don't care whom it's for. This isn't a private chat. It's a public forum. If you can't or won't answer, then that tells me everything I need to know about you and your question.

      January 31, 2012 at 9:00 pm |
    • David B

      Thanks Tom Tom, but I rather hear from David. He's the Chaplain...Board Certified.

      February 1, 2012 at 8:59 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      I don't give a ripe fig what you'd 'rather'. Answer the question, you weasel.

      February 1, 2012 at 10:04 pm |
    • David B

      Tom Tom, why do you hate Christianity?

      February 2, 2012 at 8:00 am |
  5. Reality

    The only words that really matter:

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

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

    January 30, 2012 at 11:58 pm |
  6. Laura

    So this was a pastoral care professor, was it? And was this as deep as his understanding of pastoral care went? To mock a student to her very face in his class? I hope he reads this and is mortified at how little he has understood of his own profession, of what he supposedly taught.

    January 30, 2012 at 11:51 pm |
    • Sasha

      I agree!! How cruel and ignorant.

      January 31, 2012 at 1:48 am |
  7. HeIsGod

    sybaris said:

    "Ever pray to regenerate an amputees limb?"

    @ sybaris – I strongly doubt that if God regenerated an amputee limb, you would believe in him. Only people who doubt God is searching for evidence that will not be given to them because of the lack of faith. You must walk by faith and not by sight. There is plenty of evidence that there is God. There is no way that we came from nothing. God is interested in the salvation of the soul of every man and woman, so, what good would it do for a person to have an arm or a let to grow again when he/she is living in sin and in his/her way to hell?

    January 30, 2012 at 11:26 pm |
    • HeIsGod

      *leg*

      January 30, 2012 at 11:31 pm |
    • Dan

      We couldn't come from nothing...I never thought about it that way. I guess it's a good thing that God could though, huh?

      January 31, 2012 at 12:02 am |
  8. Penny

    Beautiful. Thank you!

    January 30, 2012 at 11:03 pm |
  9. shannon

    so beautiful. thank you.

    January 30, 2012 at 10:44 pm |
  10. Tom

    Thanks Kerry for this posting. My mom was a wonderful woman of faith and I was gifted to be at her bedside the last five days of her life. I spoke of God; she listened and prayed with me. She spoke of family; I listened to her yearning to see her mom and dad again and, as I listened, I affirmed her hope to be reunited with them. A student recently reminded me of a line from Les Miserables, "To love another is to see the face of God." When my mom went home to God, she went home to those she loved, to family who preceded her. My hope is one day to see her again.

    January 30, 2012 at 10:30 pm |
  11. bub

    People need to grow up and stop giving in to religious hallucinations. You can't hide from reality, irregardless of what illusory nonsense you believe. Reality happens, and nothing is more real than facing death! To accept religion as something of value or deserving of any respect is to condone stupidity. It's like giving credence to someone who claims that the Earth is flat.

    There's a message here in how people behave just before death, and the message to all religious frauds in the form of chaplains is: go away, leave me alone!

    January 30, 2012 at 10:12 pm |
    • JonSEAZ

      bub, you are so wrong. You sound bitter towards people who are fortunate to have faith, belief is some system which gives them hope. I am writing this to you as a non-Christian, so don't start telling me that I am stupid for believing some nonsense. I lean towards many principles and concepts embraced by Tibetan Buddhism as explained by the Dalai Lama, but I am not a Buddhist, either. Personally, I am rather eclectic, having drawn from quantum physics, Tibetan Buddhism, Biocentrism, and, yes, Christianity, mostly because I was raised in that culture, I imagine. As a very old man, one who has worked at developing some kind of understanding of who we are, what we are, why we are here, and where we are going, I can tell you that no one has definitive answers, but without some underlying system of belief about these questions you will not grow old gracefully. Instead, as your end approaches will be afraid, anxious, and fearful of the unknown, the end of all you have ever known, this short-lived physical world we experience during our physical lives. bub, don't diminish yourself by belittling the honest beliefs and hopeful yearnings of others. You know no more than they the truth or the extent of our existence.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:54 pm |
    • DS

      May God draw you near to Him & richly bless you.

      January 31, 2012 at 12:09 am |
    • CypressSteve

      @JonSEAZ: What an excellent post. Thank you.

      January 31, 2012 at 1:41 am |
    • Jay

      Amazing. A person who thinks "irregardless" is a word is calling other people stupid for having faith.

      January 31, 2012 at 3:13 am |
    • Kim

      Bub, why are you on this site anyway? Just curious...

      February 1, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
  12. Lorraine

    My husband, an atheist, died 3 months ago after suffering a sudden ruptured brain aneurysm...instantly unconscious. I made the decision to withdraw life support. I am indifferent to religion. To me, this article is about compassion and tolerance. Take from it what is helpful and live the best life you can.

    January 30, 2012 at 10:08 pm |
  13. Danny

    Oh no you didn't. You're bringing politics into this? The Democrats are the ones who've lost sight of reality, and the reality is this...we have an enemy, and his name is Satan, he is the one who had our Lord crucified 2000 years ago and is still around to seek and destroy. What? did Satan leave? If so, where did he go? Of course he hasn't left, and he's really good at keeping a low profile. So to think that someday we're all going to hold hands and sing "i'd like to buy the world a coke" is a bit far-fetched. The only hope we have is in Jesus Christ the Son of God. We can have peace but, not as the world gives it, will Christ give it unto us. I understand that not everyone is going to believe in God(Jesus) cause I've read it in the book of Revelation, it's all there. Anyway, if I were on my death bed, I would want to be surrounded by real born-again believers, which automatically includes most members of my family, and The Scriptures. Finally, I would vote for presenting Jesus Christ / the Gospel to anyone that was nearing their end.

    January 30, 2012 at 10:06 pm |
  14. G

    Kerry, I'm sorry that your professor belittled you like that so long ago. Things like that can have a corrosive effect. Good for you that you didn't let it derail you.

    You don't need to know holy books inside out to connect with people in those desperate situations you describe. You just have to have a shred of decency and humanity, which you obviously do.

    This piece brought me to tears. I'm middle aged, and I've been in situations where i haven't given enough of myself, but by the time I have come to that realization, it's been too late.

    January 30, 2012 at 10:01 pm |
  15. Bill

    The chaplain appears young but her article conveys a wisdom exceeding her age. The professor could learn something from his young student

    The young Chaplain is wise beyond her years. The old professor could have learned something important from her if he had an open mind.

    January 30, 2012 at 9:52 pm |
    • CathyDee

      Agreed! The author provided a compassionate ear to a dying person; I can think of few acts that are more "holy." Her professor was, simply put, a pompous jacka**.

      January 31, 2012 at 12:50 am |
  16. conchislgirl

    yes forgiving and loving is wonderful... sometimes after a while we just cannot subject ourselves to continued abuse
    believe it or not parents can be abused by our children... sometimes we are spent , used up, and spit out.
    And have to let the ones who think they know it all have their sowing. Sometimes we just have no fight in us.
    It is sad when we come to a place that we have to shut everyone out just to keep our sanity... and function.
    it is what it is I guess.... Also I think people abuse the fact that we are to forgive inevtabley and continue to reak havoc and be recless and not care at all . Sometimes I think they think it is ok or normal. I just don't get it....

    January 30, 2012 at 9:47 pm |
  17. A. Gabriel

    Kerry, thank you. Those who mock are simply lacking in spirit. . .we must pray for them.

    January 30, 2012 at 9:44 pm |
    • sybaris

      Ever pray to regenerate an amputees limb?

      Payer is like pinball, feels good for the moment but like the quarter, time is lost and nothing gained.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:29 pm |
    • HeIsGod

      sybaris –

      Have you ever has a prayer answered? Well, from your comment, I would say no, why, because the Lord doesn't hear the prayer of a sinner who refuses to turn away from his/her sins. Light and darkness can not dwell together and you must come out from within the dark place where Satan has kept you in, then, you will see for yourself if prayer works. Prayer doesn't work for the non-believer only for the believer that doesn't waiver in faith.

      January 30, 2012 at 11:18 pm |
    • HeIsGod

      *had*

      January 30, 2012 at 11:18 pm |
    • Dan

      @HelsGod

      Prayer didn't work for the literally thousands of children who died today of starvation. If he didn't see fit to feed the innocent, what makes you think that he's going to see fit to fulfill your comparatively small wants?

      January 31, 2012 at 12:06 am |
  18. Joe

    This is one of the best articles that I've read in a long time, and I will forward it along to family/friends.

    Not too long ago, I had a near death experience that landed me in the emergency room. At the time I thought it was the end for me, and most of my thoughts were focused on my family. I wanted to tell everyone that I loved them. I felt regret that I might not get the chance to say that. Thankfully, everything turned out okay, but it was a pretty scary day. Now I tell my family, especially my parents, that I love them whenever I get the chance or say goodbye. You never know when it could happen and I would encourage everyone to do the same so that you don't feel regret during your last moments.

    I agree with everything that was said in this article and I hope that even if you don't you at least tell your friends/family that you love them once in a while. That way, at the end you won't feel regret and maybe you will be more at peace.

    January 30, 2012 at 9:40 pm |
  19. ROC

    What many of you do not realize is the dying are most often not fully aware – often drifting in and out of comprehension, and their words are most often of what is foremost in their mind – and that is family – what good does it do to witness to someone who's brain power and cognizance is quickly fading? You act as if they lie there talking lucidly then suddenly choose to shut up and die.

    January 30, 2012 at 9:39 pm |
    • Sky baxter

      I realize your point, but until you have someone very close to u, and they are near death, or facing death imminantly, u can't understand it. I have had a lot of significant loss at a very young age. I questioned the belief in God, being a child that lost his dad at 8 years of age. My mom died before her time, at least in my idea, I felt like it wasn't fair, and I still do to this very moment. I will share something with u. I have been blessed with my wife giving me twin boys. Twins run on neither side of our families, we researched this deeply. I take traction that there are things that docs, and science cannot explain, but I feel that God has given me back something that was taken away from me. There are a lot of things im leaving out. Mi won't say I was an atheist, but I am saying that I do believe there is a higher power, much more than we can ever understand. Keep an open heart and mind. It helps u from being so presumptuious, without outside influence.

      January 31, 2012 at 1:11 am |
  20. Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

    What I find truly incomprehensible about some of these comments is this: if God is all-knowing and all-seeing, why does a chaplain have to intercede for Him? Can't God save these souls without the assistance of some third party? Why do you imagine a dying person needs to be badgered about being "saved"? Do you really think a person who's dying hasn't already come to grips with the idea of death and given thought to what happens? If he or she wants the guidance of a chaplain to help 'guide" him or her to 'salvation', don't you think he or she can ask? And if the person doesn't want that guidance who in the world do you think you are to demand that a chaplain force it on the dying?

    Really, you people are just insane.

    January 30, 2012 at 9:38 pm |
    • ROC

      Thank you

      January 30, 2012 at 9:40 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      I liked you post, too. I just have to wonder if some of these nut-jobs ever actually sat with a dying person!

      January 30, 2012 at 9:47 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Really good post. The morons could really learn something from it. I just wonder if any of them can read it.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:54 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      I mean, if everybody could post like that (OK so not everyone can post like that) everything would be really really swell.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:04 pm |
    • Juli Dalton

      I don't see how your comment is even relevant to this piece. There was not mention of "forcing" anyone to speak to the chaplain. Honestly... not every one is so bitter as to want to spend their dying moments alone and unaided. Get a grip.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:58 pm |
    • Jay

      No one said anything about "needing a chaplain". Quit making straw man arguments. Also, are you actually praising your own post in a reply? That's pretty funny. Looks like the religious folks aren't the only "nut-jobs" around, huh?

      January 31, 2012 at 3:18 am |
    • Jay

      I love the way I can post under anyone's name. Even yours, Jay. See how that works?

      January 31, 2012 at 10:22 am |
    • Kim

      Tom, Tom, you sound like a preacher in the way you are ardently, rather, RELIGIOUSLY soapboxing. Is that why you're on this site? Sounds a lot like proselytizing to me. But, of course, what would I know. I'm just another "deluded" Christian who is just not as smart as you are. I think you would do well to get yourself a finer brush for painting your religious pictures.

      February 1, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      And I think you'd do well to get a bikini wax.

      February 1, 2012 at 10:05 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.