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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. KeithTexas

    I have held the hands of many dying young men 40 years ago and none of them talked about God. We were in hell, so if they weren't going to your heaven I am not interested in your opinion. They all talked aobut their Brothers, Sisters, Mothers and Fathers. None of them wished for a prayer they all wished for one more minute with the people they loved.

    The women that wrote the article is a better Christian than most. The professor was an ass and wrong.;

    February 11, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
  2. dave

    I always pull over for a funeral procession because I know it will only be this one time.

    February 11, 2012 at 12:43 am |
  3. RevMum

    Ummm....yep.

    February 11, 2012 at 12:42 am |
  4. People are horrible

    Atheist or religious, there are some sad excuses for human beings on this blog. Can't discuss the merits of the article or the ideas, just expressing their mutual hatred for each other and their derision for each other's world views. And what's worse, it's the same trolls over and over again, with no respect for the ideas presented. Just an endless and futile tirade against other people and their beliefs. Grow up.

    February 10, 2012 at 6:37 pm |
  5. Johnny 5

    We are the 5th ape species of this planet. Fossils !!

    February 10, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
  6. HHR

    This is one of the best articles I have ever read on the CNN website. Purely honest. Thank you Kerry.

    February 10, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
    • ClaudiaL

      Yes, truly beautiful. One of the greatest blessings of my life has been that I was present at my father's passing. There was a sense of peace and a recognition that families are a cycle of love.

      February 11, 2012 at 12:57 am |
  7. Just a guy

    WoW, what a great article. Having gone through a cancer death with my mother resently, it is really touching to see it form the other side. I completely concure with everything she says. Our lord is so amazing.

    February 10, 2012 at 11:22 am |
    • Rica

      Yes, he is:)

      February 11, 2012 at 12:54 am |
  8. JY

    Talking about one's family–a fact observed while interning as a hospital chaplain– and, which, of course, makes more sense than talking about such abstract, theoretical and constructed notions as God, Faith, Love and the like, speaks both, as addressed by the article in question, how such phenomena are experienced and the developmental stage (of awareness) we humans have evolved to, operate at and make meaning from as a specie. "Family," the metaphor and symbol of dependent origination, defines the nexus of meaningful relationships–although, they cannot be reduced to what "family" stands for, it tends to be perceived, as such, nonetheless. "Forgiveness" or what is ought to be implied by it, arises on its own accord by gaining insight into the situation in question and which is dependent on a certain degree of inquiry into one's lived and given life experience. Postponing doing so until the advent of death emerges on the horizon proves to be futile, at which point, as highlighted by the respective article, talking about family matters takes precedence...empirically validated by the related professionals in this particular field.

    February 10, 2012 at 1:25 am |
  9. Stephen Wheeley

    I'm stunned at all of the comments about this article by people who apparently think they are followers of Christ yet show not one ounce of His love, compassion ,mercy or comprehension of the needs of the dying–or the living. What a bunch of holier than thou hypocrites ! The author of this article truly demonstrates the love of God in her interaction with her patients, while those who are condemning her for not "preaching" to them show no love whatsoever. Do you have any idea what Christ meant when He told the Pharisees, quoting the Old Testament, " God desires mercy rather than sacrifice " ? It would appear that you do not. This article was a beautiful statement of what Jesus said was the 2nd Commandment "Love your neighbor as yourself ", which is exactly what Kerry Egan is doing. And as He also said " Go and do likewise. "

    February 9, 2012 at 9:00 pm |
  10. 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 utterly stupid you are to the world.
    Prayer exposes your backside to pervert priests.
    Prayer makes you think doilies are exciting.
    Prayer makes your kids avoid spending time with you.
    Prayer prevents you from getting badly needed exercise.
    Prayer makes you frothy like Rick Santorum. Just google him to find out.
    Prayer dulls your senses.
    Prayer makes you post really stupid shit.
    Prayer makes you hoard cats.
    Prayer makes you smell like shitty kitty litter and leads you on to harder drugs.
    Prayer wastes time.

    February 9, 2012 at 8:27 pm |
    • Teresa Kidd

      please take your post off
      I am very offended

      February 9, 2012 at 9:53 pm |
    • LinCA

      @Teresa Kidd

      You said, "please take your post off"
      Unless he/she is a moderator of this blog, there is no way to take a post down (anymore).

      You said, "I am very offended"
      Don't get offended. It doesn't help (neither does clicking the "Report abuse" link). Just ignore it.

      Did you also get offended by the post below (see link), or the dozens just like it?

      http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2012/01/28/my-faith-what-people-talk-about-before-they-die/comment-page-75/#comment-1017594

      If not, why? If you did, why didn't you reply to that one as well?

      February 9, 2012 at 10:00 pm |
    • April

      Heard from a wise person who has been ministering to terminally ill patients, " Here in America, no one is an aethist. At the very end of their life they all cry out "Help me God". Just my $0.02

      February 10, 2012 at 7:09 pm |
    • KeithTexas

      If you intend to demonstrate how stupid you are on every comment section on Belief Net then you should at least have the courage to post your name.

      February 11, 2012 at 11:38 am |
    • David B

      Because, LinCA, it's not "the other side of the coin".

      February 11, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
    • LinCA

      @David B

      You said, "Because, LinCA, it's not "the other side of the coin"."
      You are correct. The post above, while somewhat crude, reflects the effects of prayer accurately, yet the one below is merely a collection of vile insults (very likely posted by the same religiot that constantly posts about the supposed effectiveness of prayer).

      February 14, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
  11. Sam

    I don't believe in god and cannot, for the life of me, understand why people believe in him/her. But this is one of the most beautiful articles I have read on CNN. Thank you for sharing this with us.

    February 9, 2012 at 8:12 pm |
    • Ann Marie Stanley

      Thank you for reading this – and understanding....it makes my heart swell with understanding....

      February 11, 2012 at 1:21 am |
  12. Convert to Christianity

    Reasons why Atheism is TERRIBLE and unhealthy for our children and living things!

    † Atheism makes you stupid, ignorant & blind.
    † Atheism is a disease that needs to be treated.
    † Atheists are mentally ill, that's why they have no faith.
    † Atheism won't take you to kingdom of heaven and paradise.
    † Atheism making you agree with Stalin, Mao & other terrible mass murder leaders.
    † No traditional family lifestyle, boring and feeling 'outsider'
    † Atheist try to convert people over internet because they feel "safer" behind closet.
    † Atheists do not really exist, they just pretend that they don't believe in God and argue with religious people.
    † Atheists have had terrible life experience, bad childhood and not being loved.
    † Most Atheists are uneducated... No Atheists could run for presidency.
    † Atheism brought upon the French Revolution, one of the most evil events of all of history.
    † Atheism cannot explain the origins of the universe, therefore God exists.
    † All atheists believe in evolution, which means they don't believe in morality and think we should all act like animals.
    † The Bible says atheism is wrong, and the Bible is always right (see: Genesis 1:1, Psalms 14:1, Psalms 19:1, Romans 1:19-20)
    † Atheism have no holidays, no culture, no nothing. Waste of living in this planet...

    †† Our Prayers goes to Atheists to be healthy and seek their creator ††

    February 9, 2012 at 7:27 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      That's a whole lot of crazy your showing. Isn't there any decency laws where your from?

      February 9, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
    • Walter Joseph Holynski

      You said that "Atheism makes you stupid, ignorant & blind."
      What is your excuse?

      February 10, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
    • Dan Sutton

      But atheists can both spell and punctuate. Also, we can use English grammar properly. That's because we have higher IQs: you should pay attention to that fact, and realise that perhaps we're on to something: it's a concept akin to the idea of a godlike alien talking to a caveman: the caveman, while he's bound to fail to understand most of what the alien says, has to admit, deep down in his grimy, religious little rat brain, that the alien probably has a point.

      February 10, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
  13. Paul

    I spent the last ten years of my mother's life as her primary caregiver–the last thing said she said to me was mama...thank you for a lovely written sermon on the power of god and faith.

    February 9, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
    • Joan

      AWESOME!

      February 9, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
    • Maxentius

      Paul, you spent 10 years caring for her and then she called you mama?

      February 9, 2012 at 8:23 pm |
    • Paul

      @ Max yes–it was for me a moment from god–her transition was well underway.

      February 9, 2012 at 10:26 pm |
  14. Julie

    This is ridiculous. She is still a chaplain who does not speak to her patients about GOD or HEAVEN or HELL. How pathetic it is that the one thing she could do for her dying patients, she fails to do. Sure, talking about family is important. But on the brink of eternity a road sign is in order. Good grief.

    February 9, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
    • Willie

      You know i thought the same thing! I hope i speak out to Jesus .....'Lord take me with you"....before I die

      February 9, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      @Julie

      So it's pathetic to have compassion for the dying? It's pathetic to not push your own agenda at someone's death bed? Your black and white interpretation of life and the role of a hospital chaplain is what is truly pathetic. Self-righteous people like you are the people that make me sick, and a large reason I disavowed religion all together. When will you people realize that intolerance will only push people away from you, and just let people believe what they will?

      February 9, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
    • Jake

      What a empty article! I was expecting to hear that someone saw Jesus at the foot of thier bed and talked to him before they left this was terrible!...............know God know peace!.................... No God No peace!

      February 9, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
    • MTurk

      Amazing. What a cold, rigid, legalistic view of religion you must have. I'm sorry for you.

      February 9, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
    • Joan

      I agree this was a terrible article, very black & white. im going to see vivid colors in heaven standing next to the great white thrown and bowing down to the almighty GOD.....did you hear that non believers??? GOD IS AWESOME!

      February 9, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
    • God

      Julie, better lay off the booze if you've been prayin at the great white "thrown".

      But thanks for getting on your knees for me. 'preciate the job.

      February 9, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
    • God

      Joan that was, not Julie. So many of them I get the names wrong. Gotta ask that Jagger dude how he copes.

      February 9, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
    • Dan Sutton

      @Julie: You're wrong. The last thing I'd want to hear about if I were dying would be some delusional little-mind's imaginary friends. Why on Earth would a dying person want to listen to the psychotic ramblings of a schizophrenic, talking about something like a god? Much better to do exactly as the author has said, and let the person get off their chest whatever needs to be dealt with in those final moments.

      February 10, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
  15. Mona in Tulsa

    What a compassionate and wise young woman.

    February 9, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
    • Ann Marie Stanley

      I agree with you....I sent this to several of my close friends hoping they will understand...maybe not yet for all, but for some (like me) it brings tears of understanding to my eyes

      February 11, 2012 at 1:23 am |
  16. Willie

    My father died suddenly when I was in the Navy during Vietnam. I just barley made it home after the Red Cross told me my father was gravely Ill ....he called from the hospital in a very weak voice, his last words were "son I love you" I hung on to those 4 words all my life. My father & I never really got along that well untill I entered the Navy. He was proud of me when he realized his son grew up and was never coming home the same person. I felt robbed after his death. He was the glue that held our family together. Today our family is messed up angry and split over politics and worldly junk. when we do get together theres always an argument. It seems that the bible is right....in the end times many families will be devestated. Father aganist son mother aganist daughter......theres a purpose i guess to expose the sins Im not sure

    February 9, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
    • KeithTexas

      There is no love in your family. Things of the world are holding you apart. Those of your family holding onto the things of the world is what is doing it.

      Someone has to be the adult in the relationship for it to heal. You could forgive them and yourself and be that person. Your family doesn't need God you need each other.

      February 11, 2012 at 11:43 am |
  17. MarshallAlum

    I just lost my Mom and brother within 2 months of each other and now have no surviving members of my family. The author nailed it. It was also the hospital chaplain that lead us to better care when we weren't getting it. God Bless people who make a difference.

    February 9, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
  18. Robert

    How sad to claim to be a chaplain and not be able to tell a dying patient anything about the specifics on the other side of the veil; what will happen to a person who has died, what they will be doing, what is the exact nature of God and those who depart from this life. This is why I love the Book of Mormon. It answers all of these questions with specifics. And it does not ask you to just believe what it says. It tells you how to get specific confirmation of these things from God, by the power of the Holy Ghost.

    February 9, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
    • rick

      How pretentious it is for people to claim to know the nature of god

      February 9, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • Jespo

      A chaplain in a hospital ministers to people of all faiths, not just their own, and serves secularly more often than not. If the person dying has been a person of faith their whole life, I'm sure they haven't forgotten the drill and it'll be there on the other siode no matter what, if that's what they believe. If they're dying and wish to spend their last few breaths talking about their loves and sorrows, you might want to listen and not speak...you shouldn't spend their last moments for them, but with them.

      February 9, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
    • Jayneau

      Oh, brother. No one knows the "specifics" of what happens when we die. Not even Mormons. Sorry, pal.

      February 9, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
    • Maxentius

      Wow, this blog is genuinely full of freaks!

      February 9, 2012 at 8:25 pm |
    • city1360

      how would that person know anything about that? If someone tried your suggestions on me- I would turn up the volume on my head phones that contain music that I have selected for this event– more meaningful to me than anything some religious person could say to me- and hope that you go away.

      February 10, 2012 at 11:24 pm |
  19. Jespo

    I am an atheist, an apostate from the Catholic Church, and I have to thank the author for this beautiful, beautiful article. So little is written about end of life moments, the bulk of what I come across seems to be fervently focused on what's important in the here and now to the author without seeing the forest for the trees. I've lost many people in forty some odd years...to illness mostly. All my loved ones ever talked about were famiily and their own lives, their memories, their sadness at not having more time. It's heartbreaking to see religious folk attempting to exclude others from the discussion, as if love and family, peace of heart and mind were religious prerogatives only. The article was on the author's faith, but she showed how that faith can be expressed in a manner unthought of to some and not always in sync with dogma. Odd though, that she didn't need to explain herself to me...I knew what she meant. Love and forgiveness have nothing to do with theology, but theology has much to do with them...there is a difference.

    February 9, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • Frank

      Well put!

      February 9, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
    • Ann Marie Stanley

      Thank you for expressing in words what I was thinking in my heart....

      February 11, 2012 at 1:25 am |
  20. JUSTICE FOR THE DEATH OF ANASTACIO HERNANDEZ AT THE HANDS OF THE BORDER PATROL

    I wonder what Anastacio Hernandez felt when he was being beaten to death and tasered to death. What were his last thoughts, as he lay dying, terrorized by a pack of brutal border patrol agents? This is a good article. Hopefully it will make some of you start caring about immigrants, the poor, the disenfranchized, before they die. Great article, though. Full of compassion. Can you readers send some of that compassion to Alabama, Arizona, Conneticut, and to every state and community where immigrants are abused?

    February 9, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
    • Maxentius

      This article is about immigrants?

      February 9, 2012 at 8:26 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.