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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. jesse

    SATAN IS BETTER THAN GOD AND JESUS PUT TOGETHER!!! LOVE HIM!!!!

    February 14, 2012 at 10:45 am |
  2. k

    Every time humanity deviated from the right path, God sent down His of prophets (Noah, Ibrahim, Mosses Jesus and Mohammed were among thousands) who carried this single message to the whole humanity (And they all had the highest moral standards). That is the message of Islam.

    God speaks to the whole humanity through His book Quran..

    “Proclaim, He is the One and only GOD. The Absolute GOD. Never did He beget. Nor was He begotten. None equals Him." [112:1]

    “They even attribute to Him sons and daughters, without any knowledge. Be He glorified. He is the Most High, far above their claims.” Quran [6:100]

    “The example of Jesus, as far as GOD is concerned, is the same as that of Adam; He created him from dust, then said to him, "Be," and he was.” Quran [3:59]

    “…anyone who murders any person who had not committed murder or horrendous crimes, it shall be as if he murdered all the people. And anyone who spares a life, it shall be as if he spared the lives of all the people....." Qur'an [5:32]

    Most exalted is the One in whose hands is all kingship, and He is Omnipotent.The One who created death and life for the purpose of distinguishing those among you who would do better. Quran [67.2]

    Subsequent to them, we sent Jesus, the son of Mary, confirming the previous scripture, the Torah. We gave him the Gospel, containing guidance and light, and confirming the previous scriptures, the Torah, and augmenting its guidance and light, and to enlighten the righteous. Quran [5:46]

    Thanks for taking time to read my post. Please take a moment to clear your misconception by going to whyIslam org website.

    O people of the scripture, do not transgress the limits of your religion, and do not say about GOD except the truth. The Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, was a messenger of GOD, and His word that He had sent to Mary, and a revelation from Him. Therefore, you shall believe in GOD and His messengers. You shall not say, "Trinity." You shall refrain from this for your own good. GOD is only one god. Be He glorified; He is much too glorious to have a son. To Him belongs everything in the heavens and everything on earth. GOD suffices as Lord and Master. Quran [4:171]

    (Jesus) As a messenger to the Children of Israel: "I come to you with a sign from your Lord – I create for you from clay the shape of a bird, then I blow into it, and it becomes a live bird by God's leave. I restore vision to the blind, heal the leprous, and I revive the dead by God's leave. I can tell you what you eat, and what you store in your homes. This should be a proof for you, if you are believers. [3:49]

    February 14, 2012 at 10:36 am |
  3. Peter Flanagan

    Reblogged this on Christian Resources For Churches.

    February 14, 2012 at 9:39 am |
  4. Todd

    The Bible is very clear. There are those who will stand before Jesus to whom He will speak the words, "I never knew you." It is the chaplain's job to make an effort (hey, maybe even a STRONG effort) to see that the dying person has readied their soul to stand before God.

    February 14, 2012 at 2:10 am |
    • tallulah13

      Of course there isn't a shred of proof that the bible is any more true than any other mythology. There is equal evidence for the possibility that when you die, Osiris will weigh your heart against Ma'at's feather to determine what will happen to you in your afterlife. I wouldn't worry too much, though. There isn't any evidence for any afterlife at all.

      February 14, 2012 at 2:15 am |
    • rick

      and if the person doesn't want them there, todd?

      February 14, 2012 at 5:23 am |
    • KeithTexas

      Todd – Grow up, Santa doesn't exist either

      February 15, 2012 at 11:43 pm |
    • amalia

      Thanks for the helpful prutcie of the big journey , David.It would be good to get an update half way through the year how these relationships with first years have developed, how well the transition to secondary school life has been handled and also how the November weekend turned out !

      June 26, 2012 at 11:56 am |
  5. Joey

    THat's beautiful my child, and so true. I would hope that someone like you is talking to ne when I go. You are a senstive and brave person, and you're a child of God, one of his/her more prouder creations I might add...(-: ..

    February 14, 2012 at 12:20 am |
    • Marybel

      The image of Christian protesters jonniig hands and forming rings around Muslim demonstrators to protect them is one of the most beautiful images I have ever seen.

      June 27, 2012 at 4:46 am |
    • Kristin

      Not all military coflticns are religious coflticns, but I'd be much more comfortable with a chain of command that realizes that than I would be with one that thinks that this war or that war will usher in the end times .And, as far as the few military members I know go, there are definitely atheists in foxholes.

      June 29, 2012 at 2:52 am |
  6. JJGuy

    I'm 72 and have lost my parents, my brother, my wife's parents and three of my best friends. All reached out to me and I to them in the final days and moments. There was no talk of God, though all were believers.

    February 14, 2012 at 12:11 am |
  7. parkviewj

    Kerry, You lost me at "Harvard." I always hate it when Ivy League educated ministers drop their fancy educations at the start of articles, forgetting everything Jesus said about humility...

    February 13, 2012 at 10:36 pm |
    • GinnyL

      If you'll look at the context in which she "name drops" Harvard, it does not reflect positively on Harvard. The prof was a complete dimwit and demeaned the author in front of a large lecture class. And that is where she "dropped" the Harvard name.

      February 14, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
  8. hamrose

    This was one of the best articles I have ever read. And as usual, it's followed by the stupidest comments from the bible thumpers of america. You people truly make me ill. You ruin God for everybody every time one of you communicates in any form with other human beings.

    February 13, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
  9. jj

    God is love. The love of one's family, mostly. My mother had Alzheimer's and did not respond to anyone around her. Shortly before she died, my sister saw her face brighten. She looked intently at the foot of the bed and said, "Well, hello there!" To this day, we think she saw our dead father.

    February 13, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
  10. Michelle O'Neal

    I came within weeks of dying last year from stage four liver cancer. When I knew the end was near all I could think of was my family and close friends-I just wanted them to know just how much I love them and forgive them as I hope they'd forgive me. I sought council with a psycologist to help me ease into death and teach me how to teach those I love to let me go. He was no help-I wish I'd had someone like you. I've walked the path of forgiveness-true forgiveness and I hope however many days I have left I never forget the feelings of love-it's all that matters and it's where my God lives. Michelle

    February 13, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
  11. Outopic

    Moved me to tears. Thank you!

    February 13, 2012 at 11:39 am |
  12. Candude

    I'm absolutely astounded that many of you presume to know the mind of God...

    February 13, 2012 at 10:44 am |
    • Jerry

      Why would you be astounded? God revealed Himself to us in His Word, the bible. We, as humans, cannot fully comprehend the Glory of God, but we can the know mind of God as he revealed to us in His Word.

      February 13, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
    • rick

      yeah, jerry, nothing as pure as edited translated hearsay.

      February 14, 2012 at 5:25 am |
  13. Linda

    All of you are basically alive. I wonder what it will be that YOU will talk about, if you even have the chance, as you lie dying. Shame on you for judging this kind young woman. Shame on you for not being more kind. There but for the Grace of God go YOU.

    February 13, 2012 at 10:41 am |
  14. Fredrik Portin

    Reblogged this on missa and commented:
    Detta är ett av de mest intressanta blogginläggen jag läst på länge. Den är skriven av Kerry Egan som är sjukhuspräst och hon skriver om vad människor talar om vid deras dödsbädd. Läs den gärna.

    February 13, 2012 at 1:08 am |
  15. Chan

    I understand that when someone is dying we should be there to listen to their story, but if that is all we do how does that bring them closer to God or even bring glory to God? All they did in their last moments is think about their lives; when our greatest joy comes in glorifying God. If the talk about love does not lead to what Christ did for us and the question of whether they truly believe or not is not answered then something is wrong here. Honestly, who cares about talking about family when the person might end up in hell?

    February 12, 2012 at 11:38 pm |
    • cubbybounds

      Let's see what you are talking about and thinking about when you are taking your last breath

      February 13, 2012 at 10:36 am |
    • tallulah13

      Or maybe they'll end up in Hades or having their soul weighted against the feather of Ma'at by Osiris, or maybe they'l be reincarnated as an insect. Gosh, Chan, you'd better start covering all your bases, because since there's no proof that any god EVER existed, all of them stand an equal chance of determining your afterlife.

      Meanwhile, compassionate people will allow the person who is dying to dictate the path of conversation.

      February 13, 2012 at 10:46 am |
    • literate

      Christ said that whatever you do for others, you do for Me. When you talk about love of family and friends, you talk about love of Christ.

      February 13, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
  16. Believer

    Amen! Beautiful perspective Kerry. May God bless your work as you minister to the sick and dying, just as Jesus did. May His Spirit inspire you to love the patients how they need it. Surely, the last thing a dying person needs is to be preached to. I'm sure if they have a spiritual question weighing on their heart, they will ask you. Otherwise, it seems like the perfect opportunity to give another human some human love in their last moments on earth.

    February 12, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
  17. Sheila

    If I was dying and didn't know for certain where I would go when I died....ie was I good enough to go to heaven, etc. I would definitely want a chaplain with me who knew and shared those answers. I would want to know that heaven was a free gift, not earned or deserved. That man was a sinner and could never earn his way into heaven but that Jesus died to pay the penalty for my sin and that I just needed to transfer my trust from myself to Jesus Christ alone. I agree when someone on here said she was in the wrong class. What a waste of a perfect opportunity. :(

    February 12, 2012 at 11:23 am |
  18. sandie

    as a chaplain i agree that presence of family and being surrounded by love is crucial to the healing of the soul. it is also true that talking about family gives meaning to one's life. but to consistently negate talk about the promise of God's forgiveness is to take away the chance to give the person peace. lkewise, failing to share God's promise of eternal is to leave out the assurance of life after death. i wonder why a chaplain or pastor would fail to discuss God's promises? is it based fear or disbelief?

    there have been times that the person was given the assurance that his soul was to be with God and very soon the person died in peace-giving peace to the person's death and solace to the family. on the other hand there have been time when a person's soul was wrenched with fear because of lack of assurance of eternity. this is not to say that a theological discussion is a given with each person on his death bed. but neither is the power and assurance of God's presence to be negated.

    February 11, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
    • Nate

      You both come from different perspectives; Kerry is merely listening and responding in kind. She is not preaching.

      February 11, 2012 at 11:48 pm |
  19. David B

    "As a divinity school student..." Kerry Egan begins. Then when asked if she talks about God, she says, “Umm, not usually.”
    Me thinks, Ms. Egan, you were in the wrong class. Then in her final paragraph she says, "We don’t have to use words of theology to talk about God; people who are close to death almost never do." What a lie. What a phony. What a liberal.

    February 11, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
    • bobcat

      She is speaking the viewpoint of our founders you are the liberal and your kind has hijacked our nation.

      February 12, 2012 at 1:25 am |
  20. nobody

    Interesting article....vey interesting to see what other people comment. Interesting how there's always those that criticize their grammar, their faith, their intelligence, or what every they can find wrong with a comment from someone they don't even know. I understand why so many don't have faith anymore or ever in GOD when so many religious leaders have stained GOD's reputation by their unchristian behavior. But then why are atheists interested what the BELIEF blog has to say? What ever your cause, don't hate. Just let it be, be at peace. Love for ALL!

    February 11, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
    • David B

      "I understand why so many don't have faith anymore or ever in GOD when so many religious leaders have stained GOD's reputation by their unchristian behavior". Would you mind explaining that one?

      February 11, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • bobcat

      Where have you been, the crusades, the dark ages, persecution of others on a massive scale, not to mention the ultimate sin of evangelicals the basis " Let no man into our ranks who is not a christian" all that.

      February 12, 2012 at 1:32 am |
    • bobcat

      Basis (Nazis) sig. Autocomplete is a pain

      February 12, 2012 at 1:48 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.