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My Faith: What people talk about before they die
January 28th, 2012
11:00 PM ET

My Faith: What people talk about before they die

Editor's Note: Kerry Egan is a hospice chaplain in Massachusetts and the author of "Fumbling: A Pilgrimage Tale of Love, Grief, and Spiritual Renewal on the Camino de Santiago."

By Kerry Egan, Special to CNN

As a divinity school student, I had just started working as a student chaplain at a cancer hospital when my professor asked me about my work.  I was 26 years old and still learning what a chaplain did.

"I talk to the patients," I told him.

"You talk to patients?  And tell me, what do people who are sick and dying talk to the student chaplain about?" he asked.

I had never considered the question before.  “Well,” I responded slowly, “Mostly we talk about their families.”

“Do you talk about God?

“Umm, not usually.”

“Or their religion?”

“Not so much.”

“The meaning of their lives?”

“Sometimes.”

“And prayer?  Do you lead them in prayer?  Or ritual?”

“Well,” I hesitated.  “Sometimes.  But not usually, not really.”

I felt derision creeping into the professor's voice.  “So you just visit people and talk about their families?”

“Well, they talk.  I mostly listen.”

“Huh.”  He leaned back in his chair.

A week later, in the middle of a lecture in this professor's packed class, he started to tell a story about a student he once met who was a chaplain intern at a hospital.

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“And I asked her, 'What exactly do you do as a chaplain?'  And she replied, 'Well, I talk to people about their families.'” He paused for effect. “And that was this student's understanding of  faith!  That was as deep as this person's spiritual life went!  Talking about other people's families!”

The students laughed at the shallowness of the silly student.  The professor was on a roll.

“And I thought to myself,” he continued, “that if I was ever sick in the hospital, if I was ever dying, that the last person I would ever want to see is some Harvard Divinity School student chaplain wanting to talk to me about my family.”

My body went numb with shame.  At the time I thought that maybe, if I was a better chaplain, I would know how to talk to people about big spiritual questions.  Maybe if dying people met with a good, experienced chaplain they would talk about God, I thought.

Today, 13 years later, I am a hospice chaplain.  I visit people who are dying in their homes, in hospitals, in nursing homes.   And if you were to ask me the same question - What do people who are sick and dying talk about with the chaplain?  – I, without hesitation or uncertainty, would give you the same answer. Mostly, they talk about their families: about their mothers and fathers, their sons and daughters.

They talk about the love they felt, and the love they gave.  Often they talk about love they did not receive, or the love they did not know how to offer, the love they withheld, or maybe never felt for the ones they should have loved unconditionally.

They talk about how they learned what love is, and what it is not.    And sometimes, when they are actively dying, fluid gurgling in their throats, they reach their hands out to things I cannot see and they call out to their parents:  Mama, Daddy, Mother.

What I did not understand when I was a student then, and what I would explain to that professor now, is that people talk to the chaplain about their families because that is how we talk about God.  That is how we talk about the meaning of our lives.  That is how we talk about the big spiritual questions of human existence.

We don't live our lives in our heads, in theology and theories.  We live our lives in our families:  the families we are born into, the families we create, the families we make through the people we choose as friends.

This is where we create our lives, this is where we find meaning, this is where our purpose becomes clear.

Family is where we first experience love and where we first give it.  It's probably the first place we've been hurt by someone we love, and hopefully the place we learn that love can overcome even the most painful rejection.

This crucible of love is where we start to ask those big spiritual questions, and ultimately where they end.

I have seen such expressions of love:  A husband gently washing his wife's face with a cool washcloth, cupping the back of her bald head in his hand to get to the nape of her neck, because she is too weak to lift it from the pillow. A daughter spooning pudding into the mouth of her mother, a woman who has not recognized her for years.

A wife arranging the pillow under the head of her husband's no-longer-breathing body as she helps the undertaker lift him onto the waiting stretcher.

We don't learn the meaning of our lives by discussing it.  It's not to be found in books or lecture halls or even churches or synagogues or mosques.  It's discovered through these actions of love.

If God is love, and we believe that to be true, then we learn about God when we learn about love. The first, and usually the last, classroom of love is the family.

Sometimes that love is not only imperfect, it seems to be missing entirely.  Monstrous things can happen in families.  Too often, more often than I want to believe possible, patients tell me what it feels like when the person you love beats you or rapes you.  They tell me what it feels like to know that you are utterly unwanted by your parents.  They tell me what it feels like to be the target of someone's rage.   They tell me what it feels like to know that you abandoned your children, or that your drinking destroyed your family, or that you failed to care for those who needed you.

Even in these cases, I am amazed at the strength of the human soul.  People who did not know love in their families know that they should have been loved.  They somehow know what was missing, and what they deserved as children and adults.

When the love is imperfect, or a family is destructive, something else can be learned:  forgiveness.  The spiritual work of being human is learning how to love and how to forgive.

We don’t have to use words of theology to talk about God; people who are close to death almost never do. We should learn from those who are dying that the best way to teach our children about God is by loving each other wholly and forgiving each other fully - just as each of us longs to be loved and forgiven by our mothers and fathers, sons and daughters.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kerry Egan.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Death • My Faith

soundoff (4,493 Responses)
  1. faye

    I'm not judging this young lady but you should read the Bible to determine what's required to be saved. The Bible does say that "There's a way that seems right to a man, but leads to destruction." I definitely would be asking these dying people about the forgiveness of their sins. As a chaplain, minister, etc., I would not want their blood on my hands. People who operate in a ministry or pastoral role are held on a higher standard; it's in the Bible.

    February 18, 2012 at 7:27 pm |
    • Kathie Benson

      Oh, Faye, how sad. "Being with" someone in the way that they need, is one of the most difficult and generous gifts to give. This young chaplin got it right the first time. May she always be there as people need her to be.

      February 19, 2012 at 9:42 am |
    • gaby

      I know people who read the Bible daily, but they don't have love in their hearts. The Bible is not the key, LOVE is.

      February 19, 2012 at 11:17 am |
    • Brian Richards

      You are mean, Faye.

      I have cancer and you hurt me. This article by the Chaplain is very touching to me, and very true.

      The Bible tells me, "Whosoever believes in me will have everlasting life." I believe and that is the end of that subject on this earth. I will have plenty of time with God, but my moments with my family in this life are limited.

      You are just one of the many people who call themselves a Christian that serve to hurt people. I'm sure God has a plan for that.

      February 19, 2012 at 11:22 am |
    • ergin

      LOVE IS THE ANSWER

      February 19, 2012 at 11:37 am |
    • gaby

      Just a question faye. Are the child abuser priests on the "higher standard" too? NO! No human is on higher standard! We are all equal, and God is in US, You just need LOVE to find it!

      February 19, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • Jessy the Gnostic

      Faye,

      I understand where you come from and I understand your convictions. But please understand when I say that there is no written instruction manual (the bible hardly counts as such) on how we must prepare ourselves for death. Death makes no appointments. Death doesn't leave a message to let you know that it's coming to claim your dying body. I comes unannounced. It doesn't even bother to say "hi". When my times comes and when your times comes, which will both be unannounced anyways, how we are saved is not as simple as an arbitrary or superficial rule written on a book in an imperfect world. It is far more complicated than that. So complicated that words fail to convey the meaning. You will know when the times comes.

      February 19, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
    • Jessy the Gnostic

      Stupid typos.

      In the bit of my last post, I meant to say "IT comes unannounced..." when I accidentally typed "I comes unannounced". CNN, please add an EDIT option. This is getting annoying.

      February 19, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
  2. SG

    As someone who just walked this journey with my beloved mother, I can attest to Ms. Egan's words. The truth is that the process of death is not the same for each person, the same way that grief is an individual experience. I am grateful to have been by my mother's side to listen, to love and to hold her as she journeyed to her next adventure. The conversations we had during this last year and especially the last two weeks of her life, will remain in my heart forever and for that, I am eternally grateful. What if there was no separation between the two...what if one lived within the other.

    I am happy that Ms. Egan didn't give up her gift after being so shamed by her professor. We need more like her in this field. People who can go where the PATIENT goes...NOT where WE think they should go. If you are looking for someone who can expand your thoughts on this topic I highly recommend Stephen Jenkinson's work at http://www.orphanwisdom.com. Death is not something we are

    February 18, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
  3. David B

    Does anyone know whom Ms. Egan's Harvard "professor" was? I would like to hear his side of this heart-wrenching story. Or did he ever even exist? All good fiction needs an "antagonist". I think we learned that in grade school. Anyway, it shouldn't be difficult to find out...he supposedly worked or works at Harvard. Or was the entire story just "made up" to further Ms. Egan's political ideology? Surely we need to know to determine whether or not her story is credible. And did she tell of her "embarrassing experience" to anyone at the time? And what about her classmates? Where are they? Surely they remember. I think since Ms. Egan has touched so many hearts with her "beautiful story", it's time for some verification. Fair enough, Ms. Egan? Are you listening? You owe it to us.

    February 18, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
    • DocCutty

      Sounds like it could be you...

      February 19, 2012 at 11:37 am |
    • Chris

      Really?? You want verification of the article? I see that you just read the article for the words. I bet you just printed this and put red marks at places you thought was wrong. Maybe even want to say she plagiarized the whole thing. Get a clue...

      For me, this story is touching and at a point in my life where I am very confused about a lot of things with the Bible, religion, Christians, and pastors. I believe God exists, but I am starting not to buy what is taught from the churches. Ms. Egan's article helped me to see a little more about who God really is and what God is. I know how it is to feel unloved and how it feel to not love the ones you need to love. Now after reading this, I am starting to see it ain't about how many verses of the Bible you can quote or how to relate stories of the Bible to everyday questions, it's about the Love of God.

      Thanks, Ms. Egan for the story and forget about David B's and faye's comments....

      February 19, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
  4. NMTuck

    Dear Kerry,
    As I read what the professor did to you, I thought, "he has missed the meaning of life, the importance of love, the grace of forgiveness, and the mercy that can be extended to those who have hurt, rejected, betrayed, or done other things that make us the frail humans that we are."

    Often our spirits are crushed by people who humiliate, but in your case, God showed you that in fact those who are close to God as they are entering the gates of heaven, wish to remember the gifts that they have been given to them by their Creator. I have been at the passing of both my parents. In both case it was a holy experience. In both cases they were no longer to talk, but as I stroked my parents hands, I could sense the presence of the angels and saints taking their souls home with them.
    If caring for your family and friends are truly your vocation on earth, then connecting their prayers and lifting us even higher to the Father is a very Spirit filled experience.

    Thank you, Kerry for not allowing us to miss the significance of love.
    Be blessed. When you are working with the ill, you are standing on very holy ground!

    February 18, 2012 at 3:20 am |
  5. Joe Fattal

    I probably would say, I'll be right back.

    February 18, 2012 at 12:42 am |
  6. Keith Gatling

    Excellent article, Ms Egan. And I hope you sent a copy of it to your idiot professor.

    February 17, 2012 at 10:56 pm |
  7. sonotso

    Many yell out "Blessed be the profit"; especially if their stock has gone up that day.

    February 17, 2012 at 9:03 pm |
  8. VBinNC

    My father passed last week. He was 92 yrs old and originally from New Orleans. What he talked about was his mother's red beans & rice and how his brother (long deceased) was his best friend. He said God showed him a movie of everything he ever did in life and told him whether he was guilty or innocent. He told my sister and I that we each had a part in the movie.

    February 17, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
  9. Bruce Hammond

    It is a good thing that you do, providing support to families as they say goodbye to a loved one. I believe that love is eternal as it comes from our Father in Heaven who loves and knows all of us. I believe we are also eternal beings as we were spiritually created by our Father in Heaven who is also eternal. Once we leave this mortal existence, I believe we will be reunited with our loved ones who have passed to the other side and we can enjoy the same socialty we experienced with them in this life. Some have experienced rejection and heartache in this life because of their family, but on the other side, our tears will be wiped away and our broken hearts mended. There will be a time of peace and love because our Father in Heaven is just and loves all of His children. That is my faith and hope.

    February 17, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
  10. alex

    I never got a chance with my parents as they passed but i know will meet again. We pass from one life to another. I have seen and experienced things that initially scared me but now i find that it does not end just a different form at least initially.
    We come back hahaha

    February 17, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
  11. JAS

    With your thoughts, insight and wisdom I would like someone like you to speak to when my time comes.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
  12. SophieCat

    When my father was dying the worst mistake I ever made was letting my father's "pastor" into the room. The pastor felt it was his duty to bring my father to Christ, come hell or high water that is what he was going to do. I thought my poor step-mother would have a nervous breakdown before I got this shallow, stupid, INCREDIBLY INSENSITIVE, self-important "Man of God".

    I know now, why God and Jesus stay invisible; with this kind of emissary running around acting like a pompous uncaring FOOL "In "His" Name", would YOU appear to mankind?!? I sure as hell wouldn't.

    February 16, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
    • Joanna

      Yesterday, my daughter & son lost their father. He and I were married for 9 years. I don't know if they called for the hospital chaplin. However, this article was so wonderful, I sent it to both of my children begging them to read it as their father was in a coma and I believe if he could have talked, he would have talked about the family.

      Thank you for your sharing your experience.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
  13. derp

    "Hey, hold my beer while I....."

    February 16, 2012 at 11:34 am |
    • tim-tam

      "I saw this on a cartoon once, I think I can do it..."

      February 16, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
  14. janine

    I don't know that God exists. But I do know that family does and the love that comes from family is more important than anything in our lives. It's what we live for.

    February 16, 2012 at 8:16 am |
  15. Sheep

    Truly, you will find the true answers through reading bible with all your heart.

    February 16, 2012 at 7:58 am |
    • tim-tam

      reading it with your heart? doesn't work if you use your brain?

      February 16, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  16. LPC

    One of the most beautiful things I have ever read. I just recently loss both parents in less than 14 months. This article says it all.

    February 16, 2012 at 7:42 am |
  17. Laizoval

    Wow! I was enlightened by this article, Ms. Egan. It is very true that we talk about God by talking about our lives in the family and in the community. I will never forget John Calvin remarkable words saying that errors on the earth is because of errors in heaven. I like this para the most: "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."

    February 16, 2012 at 12:19 am |
  18. Hinxy

    Lovely!!!

    February 15, 2012 at 11:16 pm |
  19. Recently bereaved

    My father-in-law died only last month of liver cancer. I'll never forget that the last words that he and I shared were words of love. Although we are/were both people of faith, our words to each other were as good as any prayer.

    February 15, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
  20. DSMcPherson

    Absolutely beautiful, Ms. Egan.

    Your professor was a pompous windbag. I'm sorry you had to endure that. Yet, it appears you had the strength of spirit to draw wisdom from it.

    May your valuable work continue, and, as you help other find solace in their final moments, may you find deep peace as well.

    February 14, 2012 at 11:49 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.