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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. john

    June 16, 2003 I lay in intensive care just come out of a coma 6 minutes before being declared dead and taken off life support. The story of how I got that way? I had been poisoned by my spouse and dumped in the desert to die. I was saved by someone that accidentally hit me with a car. As I lay there and learned of how I ended up in this wretched condition, the last thing I wanted was prayers and scriptures. What I wanted to know was after all the blood and sweat and 80 hour weeks working a dangerous job until I was no longer physically able to work was I tossed like garbage to die? I ws never loved. I was lied to and used until there was nothing to use anymore. That revalation marked me. I refuse to get married ever again, or go to church. God gets a share of my wrath as well. As I lay in intensive care crying tears of blood...literally, my heart broken and remaining broken to this day as I slowly die with kidneys failing. God was silent offering no explaination, no comfort, nothing. I then realized that God hasn't uttered a single peep to anyone in living memory. Recently I began collecting ancient roman coins. Some are from Jesus' time. This was well over 2000 years ago. It led me to realize Jesus is not likely to return to earth anytime soon if at all.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
    • David L

      @John, God does speak to us, every day, through others in our lives. God spoke to me through your posting, spoke of how you were saved from certain death, by strangers who cared enough to help you and to help you heal. God also spoke as I hear your story about giving up your faith and hope...because even in these words, there is still belief, it is difficult to be wrathful towards something that does not exist. I believe that it is never God's Will that we suffer, or know pain, but that God weeps with us. I also believe that God is strong enough to endure our anger at the injustices that life throws at us; and for me, even being angry with God for what has happened in my life has brought me some comfort. I wish you all the best, and that you find comfort in those who are close to you.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
  2. Jacob

    This is a touchy and beautiful article. We all need to be loved so should we be ready to love and forgive. Secondly, I would like to clarify something here. God is not intrinsically LOVE but he approves of love, virtue, goodness, kindness, unconditional affection to humanity and the list goes on and on. God is our creator and when the time arrives we'll return back to his kingdom. No one can or is able to forgive us for our sins or award us an eternal life other than God himself. I am sick of hearing bible-spouting zealots as Nicholas would say, asking Jesus for eternal live and forgiveness. Jesus is son of man.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
  3. lv

    The most straight-to-the-point, concise article concerning life, the culmination of life and the reason for our existence that I have ever read.
    Thank you so much Kerry Egan, for so eloquently putting to the written word the very essence of why we are here.

    February 20, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • georgia

      such a beautiful summary of faith and belief. Thank you! It is sad but not surprising-that a Harvard Professor could be so clueless about divinity. He obviously had spent more time in the classroom than in the world simply paying attention. I

      February 20, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
  4. MJSouth

    Very nice job!! It is all so simple when you cut through all the clutter people surround themselves with.

    February 20, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
  5. Marina

    Hello. We would like to republish the following article from your website (http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2012/01/28/my-faith-what-people-talk-about-before-they-die/)
    in Russian magazine «Neskuchny garden», and here is our website http://www.nsad.ru.
    We will make a link to your site. We ask your permission to do so. We will be very grateful to you for your help. Thank you very much.

    Marina Nefedova,
    the editor of the magazine
    «Neskuchniy garden»

    February 20, 2012 at 8:25 am |
    • David B

      Would you also like to republish "the professor" and "classroom scenario" parts without any verification that it actually happened? Not fair to your readers. Or do you even care about that?

      February 20, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
  6. Kristine Christlieb Canavan

    Well done, young lady. Good Christ-like thinking. "The only thing that matters is faith expressing itself in love." Somewhere in the Pauline epistles–not sure where.

    February 20, 2012 at 7:31 am |
  7. Shaunta Spates

    WOW! Powerful & true..... this article spoke to my heart. GOD is love & when we're dying the expression of GOD in our lives is what most effects us. Beautifully written!

    February 19, 2012 at 8:36 pm |
  8. SHOUT

    HUN JESUS LOVES YOU BUT IN ORDER TO HAVE LOVE YOU MUST UNDERSTAND CHRISTIAN GISPOEL MESSAGE. SIN AND PUNISHMENT OF SIN ON THE CROSS. SIN IS BREAKING OF GODS COMMANDMENTS. PUNISHMENBT FOR SIN IS HELL. GOD IS LOVE BUT ALSO HOLY. JESUS CHRIST DIED ON CROSS TO PAY FOR OUR SINS. RECEIVE HOLY SPIRIT.
    God Loves You!

    The Bible says, "God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life"

    The problem is that . . .

    2 All of us have done, said or thought things that are wrong. This is called sin, and our sins have separated us from God.

    The Bible says “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” God is perfect and holy, and our sins separate us from God forever. The Bible says “The wages of sin is death.”

    The good news is that, about 2,000 years ago,

    3 God sent His only Son Jesus Christ to die for our sins.

    Jesus is the Son of God. He lived a sinless life and then died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins. “God demonstrates His own love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.”

    Jesus rose from the dead and now He lives in heaven with God His Father. He offers us the gift of eternal life - of living forever with Him in heaven if we accept Him as our Lord and Savior. Jesus said "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except by Me."

    God reaches out in love to you and wants you to be His child. "As many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe on His name." You can choose to ask Jesus Christ to forgive your sins and come in to your life as your Lord and Savior.

    4 If you want to accept Christ as your Savior and turn from your sins, you can ask Him to be your Savior and Lord by praying a prayer like this:

    "Lord Jesus, I believe you are the Son of God. Thank you for dying on the cross for my sins. Please forgive my sins and give me the gift of eternal life. I ask you in to my life and heart to be my Lord and Savior. I want to serve you always."

    Did you pray this prayer?
    YESNO

    February 19, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
    • Nicholas Robinson

      Unfortunately, it's bible-spouting zealots like you who drive away the millions who might even entertain the concept of God )hey, shall we concentrate on ONE god for now and not bring mini-gods like Jesus into this? Or Not-Virgin Marys?

      If I were dying and you were next to my bed babbling your nonsense I'd look up and see a hideous gnome cackling on a toadstool and I'd scream for help, ANYBODY to take you away from anywhere near me. You belong in a psychiatric ward, dear, nowhere near the folks to whom this essay is being addressed.

      February 20, 2012 at 11:30 am |
  9. Dora Stewart

    I strongly agree with this article!
    We need to let go of the wrongs!

    February 19, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
    • Nickison

      Does your website have a cocnatt page? I'm having a tough time locating it but, I'd like to send you an email. I've got some suggestions for your blog you might be interested in hearing. Either way, great website and I look forward to seeing it develop over time.

      June 26, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
  10. charles berendt

    Seriously, you might want to think about your life plan soon, and it's not about money or estate planning !

    February 19, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
  11. Barbara

    This piece of writing was so beautiful, tearful, sad, poignant and yet happy in some very unusual way because it made the dying happy to remember the love they had for others, mostly family. All this is quite true, as I am a caregiver, and usually stay until the end and when we talk, family is the one topic they always talk about – some bad but mostly the good – the love they have for their children and the love of a wonderful spouse, whom they hate to leave. I wish Kerry would write a short book to be given to all who are about to lose a loved one, maybe , for those who never showed love or understanding, it just might change them, hopefully, and make them a different person with much more understanding. People who can't show true love are not really happy people, they only pretend to be in the presence of others.

    February 19, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
  12. uponthisrock

    This article is certainly an eye opener. I do think that genuine love(giving without expecting anything in return) is the True
    Love and is only received through believing in God. God is Love and we are commanded first and foremost to "Love God
    with all your Heart and Soul, and mind....this is the first and greatest commandment of all....and the second is to love your neighbor as thyself." Matthew 22:38,39.

    February 19, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
  13. Patricia

    Thank you for writing this. Thank you for helping me see that it is not too late to forgive and not to late to love unconditionally.

    February 19, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
  14. Laura Ulrich

    Beautiful article worth reading. I believe on the same things about the meaning of life and I am very thankful to my parents who taught me to love and forgive. They have been married for 50 years and they have been together for more than 60 years. They are my inspiration and I love them so much.

    February 19, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
  15. Bill

    I wonder if that professor speaks to other grown men the way he speaks to young women.

    February 19, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
    • David B

      What's your problem? Why wonder about a probable fictional character and scenario?

      February 20, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
  16. urownexperience

    This article is all about human emotion. Learn how to meditate, then instead of thinking while you are dying, you can get ready for the next adventure unobstructed.

    February 19, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
  17. Pre

    this is a very touching and beautiful article. Everyone wants and needs love.

    February 19, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
  18. Sharon

    Beautiful article.

    February 19, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
  19. Nurse Kathi

    A beautiful article! People who are terminal have often made their peace with God before the very end. The human-ness of all of us calls us to look back to see how our lives were – can I leave this earth with a sense of integrity or am I filled with despair? If I'm filled with dispair I hope I have someone there to listen to me so I can heal to at least some degree before dying. I think God would look at this and say "amen". He knows what is in the hearts of all of us. Thank-you Kerry.

    February 19, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
  20. Natasha

    I was reading your words and tears came to my eyes. I was abused by my parents and now by my husband, it seemed to me that it was a circle I cannot get out of and I became suicidal. The only reason I did not kill myself yet was thinking about my paralyzed brother and who will take care of him. Your words revealed to me that I God loves me and when other people hurting me they are hurting him too. I will try to be strong and not thinking about suicide anymore. I will try to forgive my abusers.

    February 19, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • Lemarch

      You are a brave and beautiful soul, Natasha, and a true inspiration. You're right – God does love you and you are doing His work by taking care of your brother. God bless you.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
    • drsonnyskies

      Dear Natasha...As you forgive those who have mistreated you, then, you are allowing yourself to be free and as you help your brother in need instead of leaving the pains of this life you are sharing in the sufferings of Jesus. You are truly alive! Jesus will never leave you nor forsake you. You have a mission to fill. When that mission in this life is completed then you will be taken by the angels of God to your resting place if you stay to complete your mission on Earth first. Be blessed. Keep studying the Word and Spirit of God. Peace.

      February 19, 2012 at 6:19 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.