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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. RagingLamb

    We love God because he first loved us – I John 4:19. I appreciate Kerry's compassion and believe she is meeting a need for these patients. Just curious though what responsibility a Christian chaplain has when it comes to discussing spiritual matters. I would love to talk about my family, but I would also like my chaplain to read from the Psalms or play some worship music.

    February 9, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
  2. AmericanSam

    I really enjoyed the article. God is love.

    February 9, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
  3. Rachel

    this is one of the most wonderful, eye-opening things i have ever read. definitely brought tears to my eyes. thank you for sharing this with us.

    February 9, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
  4. Ron Smith

    Kerry,

    Thank you post posting this. For someone who is young and, hopefully, a long way from your the time of your own death, you have captured the essence of the needs of a person facing their own impending death. Thank you again.

    February 9, 2012 at 8:49 am |
  5. Jim Somerville

    Reblogged this on .

    February 9, 2012 at 7:58 am |
  6. michele

    The reality is that, at that stage of the dying process, these folks need to talk about what THEY need to talk about, not what ANY minister, priest, rabbi, imam thinks/feels they should talk about! It is their process, not that of anyone sitting with them. Those that get to have the privilege of being in the sacred space of someone who is getting ready to cross over are simply a container, one who should be listening...not imposing any of their own beliefs or will at that point!

    February 8, 2012 at 8:13 pm |
  7. michele

    Kerry- such an amazing piece you've written! I had the privilege to do this kind of work as a volunteer for about 2 years, and you hit it spot on! Blessings to you as you continue to provide such a wonderful service to these folks, and their families!

    February 8, 2012 at 8:05 pm |
    • Riah

      Percodan Abuse Dot Com welcomes you to post motmencs on the subjects of Percodan Abuse and other types of drug abuse topics. We look forward to your motmencs

      April 1, 2012 at 10:02 pm |
  8. Lenny Pincus

    Beautiful.

    February 8, 2012 at 7:46 pm |
  9. elisa d

    if i could choose, i would wish for someone exactly like kerry egan to be with me in my final hours. thank you for your beautiful message.

    February 8, 2012 at 7:06 pm |
  10. PAIGE

    wonderful article. I ususally don't comment... too much mindless speech from rude people. But this is truly a good article. I can tell she loves her job and is enjoying the journey and is willing to learn new things.

    February 8, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
  11. TrueReality

    While the professor is portrayed here as being callous and ridiculing, he does have a valid point. This woman's theology is pretty screwed up. It's not that we learn about God by learning about love; we learn about love by first learning about God. And seeing God's love reflected in our life and relationships with others is wonderful – but the way she speaks sounds dangerously close to pantheism, the idea that God is some sort of general force of love. The Christan God, however, is a personal God, not an impersonal force. If that's the education they get at Harvard Divinity, I wouldn't want a graduate to minister to me either.

    And atheists, kindly don't start trolling here. I know you don't believe in God. Why do you care at all about theological discussions, when you reject the very foundation that theology is built on?

    February 8, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
    • Lenny Pincus

      Talk about trolling. You're the one searching for arenas to spout your views while calling the writer "pretty screwed up." Judge not, lest you appear dumb.

      February 8, 2012 at 7:50 pm |
    • wvbailey

      Two years ago this March I was with my mother in the last days of her life. Ours was never an easy relationship. But in those last days it was (speaking for myself and I hope for her) a time for learning and understanding for both of us. Your god played no part in it. Your god was nowhere to be found. It was the connection to her and her to me that was the core what we both experienced. I miss HER, the essence of her. That, believe it or not, is the redemption: the visceral, animal, almost unspeakable illumination about what being human entails. Your empty prattle about some god or other, your shallow philosphy, has nothing to do with me or my mother, nothing whatever.

      February 8, 2012 at 9:09 pm |
    • JK

      Well said, TrueReality.

      Pay no attention to Lenny, you have every right to spout your views, as he is doing. And wvbailey wouldn't recognize God if he/she saw him face to face. It's not that God didn't have anything to do with the last moments with the mother. God was behind the connection. Wvbailey doesn't know God and therefore, cannot recognize God. You only recognize a person YOU KNOW.

      Since FAITH is a prerequisite to KNOWING GOD, Lenny or wvbailey are not be enlightened.

      February 8, 2012 at 10:34 pm |
    • Robin

      Bologna, This is a GOOD article and she is right!! You sir, need to experience more of REAL life and get off your "TrueReality" kick.

      February 9, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • rick

      Her theology is screwed up? With what authority do you make this claim?

      February 9, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
  12. Team Discipleship

    I thought the article was well written except for one point she made,

    'If God is love, and we believe that to be true, then we learn about God when we learn about love.'

    its actually the opposite, 'we learn about love when we learn about God'. We must develop a personal relationship with Him first through his son Jesus Christ so we can love like Christ loved. reference John 3:16

    February 8, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
    • LOL

      "'we learn about love when we learn about God'. We must develop a personal relationship with Him first through his son Jesus Christ so we can love like Christ loved. reference John 3:16"

      People who don't believe in your God are still capable of deep committed love, it's through our intimate relationships with other human beings we learn the true meaning of love. Your god doesn't exist.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
    • TrueReality

      LOL: The Christian perspective is that God does indeed exist, and because of that, all human beings (including the ones who deny His very existence) are still endowed with some of the gifts He's given us – such as some capacity to reason, create, and love, though all imperfectly. It's as if there were a child who complains about all their Christmas presents, then tells his parents that he doesn't believe they exist.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
    • LOL

      "It's as if there were a child who complains about all their Christmas presents, then tells his parents that he doesn't believe they exist."

      There is no proof your god exists and there is not proof the is derived from it. It's all about the brain and yes science has shown the chemical reaction for spirituality. So sorry dude...it's all in your head. We learn about love through our intimate relationships with others, if we followed your hogwash, women would still be bare foot an pregnant in the kitchen. We know better now don't we, no god needed.

      February 8, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
    • JK

      LOL – There is a love you will never ever know personally, intimately – a love you will never experience – without knowing Jesus Christ of Nazereth. Plain and simple.

      February 8, 2012 at 10:37 pm |
    • rick

      JK: And that is merely conjecture.

      February 9, 2012 at 5:09 am |
    • LOL

      "There is a love you will never ever know personally, intimately – a love you will never experience – without knowing Jesus Christ of Nazereth. Plain and simple."

      You're wrong, I know love more deeply because I don't need the crutch of a bogus god to learn and understand about love. It's that love that drives me to help my community to better themselves while you are in your church accomplishing nothing.

      February 9, 2012 at 8:22 am |
  13. northshoresurfdog

    Cool. I like it

    February 8, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
  14. jdun

    Maybe God is us, our family, our lives. The churches are just extended families that care for each other (and sometimes hate other churches). Some of us don't need that social group to make us feel a part of a family. Often religion just drives wedges between us as humans. My dad was a minister and often remarked that people die alone and it isn't always bad. As George Carlin said, "death is so good you shouild save it for last."

    February 8, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
  15. Terry Helwig

    Birth is the front door we enter into life. Death is the back door from which we exit. Life is what happens in between. Marianne Williamson says human behavior is one two things: "either love, or a call for love." If given a choice between Kerry Egan and her professor, I would choose Egan to listen to what mattered most to me before I exited the back door. I fear her professor might use the moment to pontificate on the model number, architecture and dimensions of the door. Thanks, Kerry, for your work and your thought-provoking article.

    Terry Helwig, Author of Moonlight on Linoleum: A Dauther's Memoir
    http://www.terryhelwig.com
    @TerryHelwig

    February 8, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
  16. Prayer is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer takes people away from actually working on real solutions to their problems.
    Prayer wears out your clothes prematurely.
    Prayer contributes to global warming through excess CO2 emissions.
    Prayer fucks up your knees and your neck and your back.
    Prayer can cause heart attacks, especially among the elderly.
    Prayer reveals how stupid you are to the world.
    Prayer exposes your backside to pervert priests.
    Prayer prevents you from getting badly needed exercise.
    Prayer makes you post really stupid shit.
    Prayer makes you hoard cats.
    Prayer makes you smell like kitty litter and leads you on to harder drugs.
    Prayer wastes time.

    February 8, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
    • Virginia McElvaney

      This is very sick.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
    • John

      I've seen plenty of messed up comments after articles but never has someone been so totally and utterly wrong.....I pray you'll grant sight and wisdom soon.

      February 9, 2012 at 12:11 am |
    • rick

      prayer is individual, and some benefit from it

      February 9, 2012 at 5:12 am |
  17. Guest Speaker

    It is a beautiful sentiment in the article and we can all appreciate the Chaplain's good work. Thank you and keep it up.

    Still, I can't help voicing that religion here seems to be stealing a perfectly normal, biological, and secular part of the human experience with the silly assertion that "God = Love".

    We are social creatures and interpersonal relationships play a central part in the human experience. It's not surprizing that, at the end of a person's life, she thinks mostly about family. But how does this have anything to do with "God" (whichever one).

    February 8, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
  18. James

    So very well stated. Sadly many in our society don;t understand, it all comes back to love. With unconditional love in our lives, we really don't need anything else, and without it, we live with a terrible void.

    February 7, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
  19. Michaeleen Swanson

    I am a chaplain–yes that is what chaplains do. So beautifully written. Thanks Kerry

    February 7, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
  20. kadira

    How truly well put, stunningly beautiful.......not only did you express your experience perfectly but you have offered many of us who wander and wonder a sense of the greater peace through the door of love and forgiveness ... acknowledging the fact that a steeple, a sermon, nor an offering plate are a requirement in finding God at the heart of us all.....................

    February 6, 2012 at 4:51 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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.