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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. Hayden71

    I have a friend who does missionary work in a Central American country (exact whereabouts not important to disclose).

    It's customary there for doctors when they see evidence of terminal cancer in a person, not to tell them the truth but to tell them that everything is okay because they feel that it's better to make the patient feel good and not upset. They think this is better for them in the long run.

    I think we all agree that this is heinous treachery and we would want to know the truth so that we can make appropriate preparation for our family, finances etc. We would not tolerate this kind of secrecy and deception and would want to maximize whatever precious time we had left with our families.

    Why on earth do some pastors/ clergy etc practice the same deception with people's eternal well being? Is it that they don't want the person to be upset? Don't want to give the unpopular message? Jesus had strong words of condemnation and said that they are, "blind leading the blind and both shall fall into the ditch".

    Why is it that in EVERY other matter we want the clear un-mingled truth, yet when it comes to heaven and hell we just want to tell people words to make them feel good and not uncomfortable. In God's name...tell people the truth! Give them an opportunity to repent before God and take his free gift of salvation.

    How would you feel if you knew that the smooth words of a man or woman who should have helped you prepare to meet God, were instrumental in sealing your condemnation? Real love and compassion isn't always a feel good experience...real loves sometimes tells us the things that we do not always want to hear, with the true well being of the person at the forefront.

    January 31, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      Not everyone believes as you do. If they want to talk about God and any possible afterlife then by all means the chaplain should do just that. If it is not a person of faith then DO NOT talk about it!!!

      January 31, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
    • HeIsGod

      Very well said indeed, Hayden, keep on preaching God's living Truth, no matter who doesn't like it. It's time to take a stand and proclaim God's Living Word with boldness and like warrior!

      God Bless you, my brother/sister!

      January 31, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
    • alongthenarrowway

      Well said!

      January 31, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • SeanNJ

      I think we need to have "chaplains of atheism" to provide services to non-believers at exactly these times. I would also accept a chaplain from the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (may His Noodly Appendage be upon you).

      January 31, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      I weep for the weak and dying these days.
      It has been a long time since any clergy for the One True God have been able to properly prepare the ailing for the afterlife.
      Is it not a chaplain's duty to ensure that as many as possible enter the sweet embrace of the afterlife?
      When my time comes, I hope to find a clergyman devout and strong enough in his faith to challenge me to a duel and slay me in battle so that I might enter Odin's hall in Valhalla.

      January 31, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      Ahhh Valhalla....now THATS a heaven I would want to go to. Being led by Valkyries....yummmm

      January 31, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
    • rick

      hayden: not everyone believes the ancient middle eastern schtick about salvation.

      January 31, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • rick

      i think anyone who claims to know "god's living truth" is delusional and should be heavily medicated.

      January 31, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • Hayden71

      Many have said that not everyone believes as I do and you're absolutely right. I will say however that I did not believe the truth (in fact I was a major enemy of God and opposed the truth of the gospel) concerning salvation until someone urged me to read the bible. When I began to read it (with honest motives), I learned that it is not saying what I (and many) think it is saying. The picture it gives of humankind is not flattering but it also speaks of God who is rich in mercy, willing and able to forgive.

      I might not believe I have cancer...in fact I may feel great, but God be merciful to the doctor who tells me false information about my condition when I need to know the truth. There will be a day of judgment for people like that and more so when it's for matters concerning God and the salvation of souls.

      I can believe I'm healthy and be full of cancer...just like someone can believe whatever they want about God, however it does not make what they believe true. Truth is based on the Word of God and does not stand or fall on mankind's opinions.

      January 31, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      Believe what you will, but if you think that gives you some divine right to push it on other people then you've got a real rude awakening. Comparing an attempted deathbed conversion with a doctor telling a patient he/she has cancer is an idiotic analogy.

      January 31, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
    • George

      @HawaiiGuest

      Presumably these people asked for a minister and expect to hear about God. The minister isn't pushing anything on them.

      January 31, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      @George

      They do not only go there when their invited, at times chaplains will show up completely unannounced.

      January 31, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
    • Hayden71

      "...if you think that gives you some divine right to push it on other people then you've got a real rude awakening"

      Let me first of all clarify that there's no pushing anything on anybody and if you see it that way then you're mistaken. If someone refuses to listen I'm not going to attempt to force anything, however if they're that close to the brink of eternity and have common sense, then I'm telling them the truth...I'm not sugar coating the message.

      God has commanded 2 things in respect to what you have a problem with::

      1. "And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation." – Mark 16:15

      2. "The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” – Acts 17:30, 31

      1. Clergy or anyone spiritual advisors for that matter are commanded to share the truth.

      2. The listener is commanded to repent.

      Any rejecting or neglecting of the truth will result in a rude awakening if the person is not saved.

      We need to keep in mind...it's God's heaven and if we want to be there it will be by his way, not ours. I genuinely care about the souls of people and refuse to lie to them just so they "feel" good.

      January 31, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
    • Hayden71

      ...and by the way, why on earth would I neglect to tell them of the greatest gift which God has provided at an infinite cost – yet free to the sinner?

      January 31, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
    • LMAO

      ".it's God's heaven"

      Really, how do you know that? LOL!

      January 31, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      There really is no point in trying to talk to you people. Other peoples thoughts and wishes mean nothing to you.

      January 31, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Doesn't it crack you up that Higgy can't even write a three-letter word? She needs to edit herself for misspelling "leg".

      What a maroon!

      February 1, 2012 at 10:07 pm |
  2. Tony

    Great article.So well written that brought more than 3500 comments on this page. Some comments were really disgusting and some really heavenly. I am glad we still have people working in this direction and sharing it all with us, the ones who are doing nothing other than negatively criticize and expose our opinions on subjects we do not have any knowledge.
    Thanks Kerry. I appreciate every single word.

    January 31, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  3. Ron Hudson

    i hope that the professor who disgraced you in your youth has since learned of love himself. He was so wrong to do that to you. Your article broght me to tears. I have seen such love far too many times as a 26 year survivor of HIV who has known 15+ friends go to their peace before me. Thank you for your grace.

    January 31, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
  4. Mike

    Kerry is right - God is love and to know God we must know love. But the converse is not the same; love itself is not God. The challenge of pastoral care is recognizing that our love is not the equivalent of God or God's love, but rather a reflection of it. The best we can do is to remember the mystery that God chooses to call *us* to be the hands and feet of Jesus Christ (a person whom Kerry neglects to mention in her heartfelt, but incomplete, accounting of the role of the Christian chaplain), and our job is to point the way to him; but this, and I think Kerry would agree, is best done through our loving actions and not, as the professor or "Nancy" above might suggest, through our fancy words, theology, or persuasion.

    Keep on loving the sick and dying, Kerry, as it is exactly what Jesus did, does, and clearly wants you to do. Bless you.

    January 31, 2012 at 11:31 am |
  5. Reality

    The only words that really matter:

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

    January 31, 2012 at 11:17 am |
    • Mike

      "Reality,"
      Are you really this obtuse?

      January 31, 2012 at 11:34 am |
  6. Jean Bolduc

    A notable quote from the Divinity professor " 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". So funny on so many levels ... first though .. **IF** he was ever dying ..." - I guess he plans not to exit this life.

    When my mother was dying a few months ago, all she talked about (in many timezones) was her family. Her parents. Her diseased brother and uncles and aunts. She worried about taking care of her 12-year old son (my near-50 year-old brother). Her family was her life, now slipping away. She had great anxiety - not for herself - for us (her children). She would talk to anyone about it. She cried and wailed about it sometimes. So will this dopey professor when his time comes. And if he cleans up his act, maybe he'll be lucky enough to have a chaplain in training to listen to him.

    January 31, 2012 at 10:57 am |
  7. maggie

    This is an OPINION article....with the author's opinion. Why do people need to get worked up over an opinion?

    January 31, 2012 at 10:36 am |
    • Jonas

      This sort of topic touches everyone, fear of death is the one thing everyone on the planet has in common. Also many of us can identify with dealing with a cynical professor making you feel bad for having a personal belief they do not share, it's comforting to find out that there are other people who've been there.

      January 31, 2012 at 11:23 am |
  8. Yokie

    "Nope" you neglected to mention this portion of the study: "One caveat is that with so many individuals receiving prayer from friends and family, as well as personal prayer, it may be impossible to disentangle the effects of study prayer from background prayer," said co-author Manoj Jain, Baptist Memorial Hospital, Memphis, Tennessee.

    January 31, 2012 at 9:58 am |
    • UhOh

      The study still showed that prayer makes it worse.

      January 31, 2012 at 11:18 am |
  9. Nick Ballenger

    This is a prime example of the spiritualization of liberal theology, where "love" is more important than Christ. It's a "feel good" message that gives everyone warm feelings before they die and go to Hell because the "chaplin" wanted to make sure that they were "at peace" in their current state, and lost sight of the state to follow. Trading the comfort and complancency of now at these last moments for the weight of glory that could have followed eternally. This is a great example that shows focusing on the now (temporal) and not the then (eternal).

    Also, it sounds like someone got upset by their college professor, and now since they have a CNN blog they figured they would soundoff on them because they are "successful" in the sight of the liberal (theologically) media, where "god" is anything we desire.

    January 31, 2012 at 9:06 am |
    • Donna

      Right, comfort a person in their last hour by making them feel that they are going to he'll. There is no deathbed salvation. If you lived as a muderer, rapist, criminal, etc you don't get heaven. You have made your spiritual choice before you die, whatever it is.

      January 31, 2012 at 9:46 am |
    • rick

      Nick: Do you feel god-like saying who is and who isn't going to h.e.l.l? Must give you wood, no?

      January 31, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • rick

      Donna: You must remember that folks like Nick speak for (their) god. Petty people find comfort in a petty god.

      January 31, 2012 at 9:49 am |
    • rick

      Wow, Nick your words are a prime example of being judgementally over the top!! Love and Christ are they not the same. Did Christ not teach that relationships are the most important thing. You would have us believe that Jesus taught your style of religion when we all know he taught about spirituality and Paul taught religion and then man perverted religion by saying saying there are certain steps to quote being saved....when Jesus simply said it was a belief of the heart. Nick you must be one of those religious genius's that worship teh worship the church, the bible, because you don't hear what Christ says

      January 31, 2012 at 9:52 am |
    • john

      Nick, your destinantion is not decided by how you spend your last moments. Does that mean a rapist and a murderer can "accept" Christ as his "saviour", minutes before his death and go to heaven? That makes things a lot easier. What dying people need is comfort and assurance, not a lecture or "salvation'. That is for the ignornant.
      And let me ask you, since you think God exists, does that mean Santa Claus does his rounds according to you?

      January 31, 2012 at 10:03 am |
    • JohnRJohnson

      Well, Christ himself seemed to think pretty highly of love.

      January 31, 2012 at 10:06 am |
    • rick

      nick: how many Christian denominations are there? apparently, "god" IS whatever we desire.

      January 31, 2012 at 10:13 am |
    • Jessie

      Donna
      Many believe that the example of the criminal who repented to Jesus as they hung from the cross establishes that you can be the worst kind of person imaginable, repent with your dying breath, and still bet into heaven over a non-believer who never hurt a fly their entire lives. To me, this illustrates just how much Christianity isn't about helping people be better behaved. What it's about is believing in the magical incantation "Jesus, be my personal savior."

      January 31, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • rick

      jesse: i agree with you. it is not at all about being a good person, it is about being subservient. free people do not need salvation, slaves do

      January 31, 2012 at 10:34 am |
    • Nick Ballenger

      Right, comfort a person in their last hour by making them feel that they are going to he'll. There is no deathbed salvation. If you lived as a muderer, rapist, criminal, etc you don't get heaven. You have made your spiritual choice before you die, whatever it is.

      - theif on the cross; not sayting "comfort" them by saying they are going to Hell, but at least present the gospel

      Nick: Do you feel god-like saying who is and who isn't going to h.e.l.l? Must give you wood, no?

      - disgusting. secondly I don't say anything, Scripture does; argue with it

      Wow, Nick your words are a prime example of being judgementally over the top!! Love and Christ are they not the same. Did Christ not teach that relationships are the most important thing. You would have us believe that Jesus taught your style of religion when we all know he taught about spirituality and Paul taught religion and then man perverted religion by saying saying there are certain steps to quote being saved....when Jesus simply said it was a belief of the heart. Nick you must be one of those religious genius's that worship teh worship the church, the bible, because you don't hear what Christ says

      - Love and Christ are not the same because Christ defines love whereas love does not define Christ. Christ did teach us that the most important thing is a relationship WITH HIM. I do worship the Word of God (Christ) and Religion is not Christianity.

      Nick, your destinantion is not decided by how you spend your last moments. Does that mean a rapist and a murderer can "accept" Christ as his "saviour", minutes before his death and go to heaven? That makes things a lot easier. What dying people need is comfort and assurance, not a lecture or "salvation'. That is for the ignornant.
      And let me ask you, since you think God exists, does that mean Santa Claus does his rounds according to you?

      - theif on the cross; I love Santa, however, nope not real (sorry to the children)

      Well, Christ himself seemed to think pretty highly of love.

      - I agree

      nick: how many Christian denominations are there? apparently, "god" IS whatever we desire

      - tons of'em. I agree in a sense, people have divided up the body of Christ. Whatever we want god to be is a pluralistic subjective idea; not Christian.

      Donna
      Many believe that the example of the criminal who repented to Jesus as they hung from the cross establishes that you can be the worst kind of person imaginable, repent with your dying breath, and still bet into heaven over a non-believer who never hurt a fly their entire lives. To me, this illustrates just how much Christianity isn't about helping people be better behaved. What it's about is believing in the magical incantation "Jesus, be my personal savior."

      - Exactly, theif on the cross. Now in regards to "Christianity isn't about helping people be better behaved," that's on them not on Christ. Christ was perfect man is not, and if you're just looking for a set of rules to follow then pick a religion not a relationship with Jesus.

      rick
      jesse: i agree with you. it is not at all about being a good person, it is about being subservient. free people do not need salvation, slaves do

      - it's not about being a "good person" we are all evil (me too); "free people do not need salvation"...what about a free person who is about to drown...do they need saving?

      thanks for all of your replies I have to go to lunch now (i do try to occasionally post on here on CNN Belief Blog; i enjoy discussing this stuff with everyone; good to have discussion without having to be put in prison).

      January 31, 2012 at 11:01 am |
    • Jessie

      Nick Ballenger
      "...what about a free person who is about to drown...do they need saving?"
      Ask yourself who threw the free person into the ocean just to show up in order to "save" them?

      Or, if you mean that we are all in danger of "drowning" in our own pit of selfishness, or some such, perhaps we can all swim to safety if we put our minds to it. Religion then tries to convince us that we can't do it by ourselves, that we need a "savior", whose price is then the worship due him and his agents forever afterwards. Sorry, but some of us don't fall for scams so easily.

      January 31, 2012 at 11:22 am |
    • rick

      "we are all evil"

      you speak for yourself, and yourself only

      January 31, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
    • Nick Ballenger

      "...what about a free person who is about to drown...do they need saving?"
      Ask yourself who threw the free person into the ocean just to show up in order to "save" them?

      Or, if you mean that we are all in danger of "drowning" in our own pit of selfishness, or some such, perhaps we can all swim to safety if we put our minds to it. Religion then tries to convince us that we can't do it by ourselves, that we need a "savior", whose price is then the worship due him and his agents forever afterwards. Sorry, but some of us don't fall for scams so easily.

      - We "jumped" by choosing evil to sin. Scripture says that there is NOTHING we can do to EARN salvation (even if we put our minds to it). Religion is NOT Christianity; it might be the American Version of Christianity, but not the one written in the Bible.

      whose price is then the worship due him and his agents forever afterwards. Sorry, but some of us don't fall for scams so easily.

      - there is no "price" (again American Christian reference, not biblical); "his agents": if you mean the Holy Spirit and/or Christ then since those are God then it's just the worship of God because you DESIRE to worship Him not as if there was anything any of us could offer that would be reciprocal for Christ's sacrifice. Also, if you don't want to "fall for a scam" that's ok, Christ didn't go begging people to beleive in Him (guy who wanted to bury his dad, rich man, etc.), but I think (getting back to the article) that it's important if we are in the position of Chaplaincy then we should share the good news of Christ focusing on His love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.

      still enjoy discussing this; I believe that all the people who "hate" Christainity most likely misunderstand it, not of their own fault, but because Christ's followers (if they are that) are really not good at showing Him to the world (and that's on us).

      January 31, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
    • Nick Ballenger

      "we are all evil"

      you speak for yourself, and yourself only

      - I'm just quoting Scripture, not my opinion.

      January 31, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • rick

      nick: you are quoting the words of man. apparently, they are words you agree with. modern man is not bound by bronze age "scripture"

      January 31, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
    • Jon

      Jessie:
      It is the epitome of human pride to believe you don't need a savior to enter Heaven and God's embrace. You're argument is akin to saying "I don't need a history teacher to learn about history. I can learn about it by living it." The mere fact is that you can't. You are not all-knowing and do not know the truth, this is why the way to God is through religion.

      January 31, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
    • rick

      jon: that implies that religion knows the way to god

      February 1, 2012 at 5:46 am |
    • rick

      It is the epitome of human pride to believe you don't need a savior to enter Heaven and God's embrace"

      It is the epitome of human arrogance to believe you know the mind of god

      February 1, 2012 at 6:09 am |
  10. Brice K

    Wow, the world is full of unsaved pastors and chaplains. Way to share the gospel with a dying person. . .good grief.

    January 31, 2012 at 8:32 am |
    • Hayden71

      It's interesting isn't it Brice.

      Common decent folks warn people when they're heading toward danger like a cliff, fire etc.

      Why wouldn't a so-called chaplain warn people about the need to be forgiven before they can enter into God's presence?

      People are quick to say that Jesus was loving, accepting etc but they do so to the peril of their own souls' welfare.

      Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God...Do not marvel that I said to you, You must be born again.”

      I wonder if the chaplain has faithfully and lovingly been telling people this?

      If he's telling them comforting words when they're not right with God it's the worst kind of treachery.

      Is this someone who really loves or cares for the people when he's withholding the truth?

      I've had to do this and the person I spoke to was so thankful someone was willing to tell them hard things...he took a hold of Christ like a drowning man takes hold of a lifeline.

      I cannot imagine what would've happened if I would have given him smooth comforting words that were not true.

      January 31, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
  11. Bob Gee

    Kerry Egan is a wise chaplain. By the time a person is dying (s)he has already chosen his "forever" destination. When I lay very ill I did not even think about salvation. How would the pseudo-Christian men and women like it if someone knocked on their hospital door while they were suffering their final hours and be asked to make Jesus their personal savior? Just asking, no harm intended.

    January 31, 2012 at 7:33 am |
  12. Giulie

    Beautifully written and very true. For those who do not profess a religion it is true, since love is something we all experience (as the author says, if we do not experience it directly, we are aware that it is missing in our lives and we should have had it). I personally do believe that God is Love and that my expressions of love for my family and those in my life (guess that should count for all 7 billion+ animals) are how I reflect God.

    January 31, 2012 at 7:17 am |
    • David B

      Wow, I wonder if "chaplain" Kerry believes that as well.

      January 31, 2012 at 7:53 am |
  13. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things
    Talking with God in the morning
    Brings joy to the day
    Prayer changes things

    January 31, 2012 at 6:46 am |
    • Mirosal

      So, do we have a bet that says you're wrong?

      January 31, 2012 at 6:49 am |
    • Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

      Prayer changes things
      Safe and secure in the full council of God
      Prayer is assured thing
      Prayer changes things

      January 31, 2012 at 6:53 am |
    • Mirosal

      The only thing prayer wuill change is the level of dopamine in what we laughingly call YOUR brain. Other than that, it accomplishes nothing.

      January 31, 2012 at 6:56 am |
    • Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

      Prayer changes things
      Let this mind be in you
      That was also in Christ Jesus
      Prayer nourishes the soul
      Prayer changes things

      January 31, 2012 at 7:02 am |
    • Nope

      STEP research proves you wrong.

      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 31, 2012 at 8:24 am |
  14. Cyndi

    This may have been the most comforting piece I have ever read. My mother's death at 88 was peaceful because I was with her as "family". My devotion to my family is my faith. Thank you for confirming that.

    January 31, 2012 at 6:29 am |
  15. Mark P. Kessinger

    The difference between the author's insightful understanding of her chaplaincy role, and her professor's understanding of that role, illustrates the fundamental difference between a pastor and an academic theologian. Both the pastoral and theological inclinations have their place, but on their death beds, most people, I suspect,would much prefer to have a pastor at their side. Kudos to Ms. Egan for recognizing the priority of pastoral care over and above theologizing, particularly when dealing with the sick and the dying.

    January 31, 2012 at 5:50 am |
  16. mmi16

    Organized religion is the death knell of faith ... there are 7 Billion people on this planet and there are 7 Billion relationships with faith – with no two being the same. Organized religion by trying to define 'the right way' of having faith shoots itself in the foot.

    January 31, 2012 at 4:50 am |
    • rick

      absolutely! i agree totally.

      January 31, 2012 at 5:27 am |
    • Julie Ann Brown

      Every organization (disorganized or organized) is made up of people. If comfort and growth is found for those who "belong" formally to a "religion" then their is goodness in it. To make a "blanket" statement about "organized religions" whether negative or positive is ignorant. This is where discrimination and hate begin.

      January 31, 2012 at 6:57 am |
    • Jessie

      If, by Faith, you mean what we understand to be true then yes, but some of us don't have any "religious" faith in things supernatural.

      January 31, 2012 at 10:32 am |
  17. Jen81

    Talking about family is not always "how we talk about God" as the author says. A dying atheist would not see it that way, nor would a person indifferent to religion or God. I cannot help feel disappointed. It's normal that people will talk about their family and want to be with them, but it is more important to put yourself in His hands and ask for forgiveness. As a Catholic, I would want a priest by my side, and if that does not happen, then you can be sure I will be saying my Rosary, Divine Mercy Chaplet, a Hail Mary, or a "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a miserable sinner" is enough for Him. Just being with family is not a promise of salvation. The author is offering an escape of the unpleasant reality which is Satan and making all peachy. This is not faith Kerry.

    January 31, 2012 at 4:30 am |
    • Booka

      what I hear is religious arrogance. IT has to be God, my concept of God, flying virgins, prescribed rituals. No where in what you wrote is there a humanity that transcends dogma. You do not understand, and are disappointed by the reality of what REALLY matters, because you surrendered yourself to what others have told you SHOULD be. Such belief breeds only validation for what you have been told and not what you have learned on your own. This religious certainty stems from fear. Fear that you and your 'Soul' are not capable of finding internal peace with yourself or the world. Intolerance for any experience other than illogical fantasy that has no basis or proof other than a stubborn insistence that it is the only possible way. Live that way if you really think it's going to help 'save' yourself, but do not confuse your foolishness with the fact that others do NOT need your idea of salvation...and just might actually lead a richer life than the one yours.

      January 31, 2012 at 5:04 am |
    • JOJO

      God is within each of us. You really don't need an 'emissary from God'. to be able to communicate with God. That is the Catholic Church arrogance.

      January 31, 2012 at 7:43 am |
    • Jessie

      JOJO
      So, you don't need any clergy, authoritative books, or anything to guide you in your understanding of God?

      January 31, 2012 at 11:10 am |
  18. Sil in Corea

    This is so true. Our imperfect love is just a reflection of Divine Love; we can always do better. A wise old man once told me, "Love like a lighthouse, not like a spotlight."

    January 31, 2012 at 4:03 am |
    • Jessie

      I don't know why you think there is such a thing as "Divine Love", but I like your lighthouse saying. Thanks!

      January 31, 2012 at 11:12 am |
  19. Kitty

    Thank you so much for this. The night my husband died, the last thing I wanted to talk to the chaplain about was religion. But he insisted, and I have resented it ever since. Now I understand why, and I"m going to quit kicking myself for it. Bless you.

    January 31, 2012 at 3:32 am |
    • David B

      If the last thing you wanted to talk about was religion, why were you talking to a chaplain?

      January 31, 2012 at 7:39 am |
    • LinCA

      @David B

      You said, "If the last thing you wanted to talk about was religion, why were you talking to a chaplain?"

      Sometimes these assholes just show up uninvited.

      Decent people tend to be accommodating and not kick them to the curb, where they belong. Sometimes, to keep the peace and not argue in front of a dying family member, a decent person will let the asshole have his say. But just being decent can leave a very bad memory because these assholes take up and waste a lot of the limited time left.

      January 31, 2012 at 8:55 am |
  20. Jennifer Smith

    Thank you********************************************

    January 31, 2012 at 3:26 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.