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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. A Muslim

    How much less pain and destruction and death will there be if we all think like this. Surely the essence of Islam is precisely this and not what is being interpreted in our times.

    February 22, 2012 at 7:49 am |
  2. monique

    I think they should talk to them about salvation. To have faith and believe in jesus.

    February 22, 2012 at 6:00 am |
  3. monique

    I think people should think about heaven and hell. Make sure you are right with God. Make sure of your salvation before you die ortherwise you will go to hell.

    February 22, 2012 at 5:54 am |
  4. James B. Neylon

    AND WHAT WOULD YOU EXPECT FROM A HARVARD PROF? REMEMBER THEY ARE THE BERKLEY OF THE EAST–THEIR CLASS REUNION FOR THE BUSINESS SCHOOL IS HELD AT SING-SING

    February 21, 2012 at 9:09 pm |
  5. BADGUY

    "Opus Dei" ALREADY has two Supreme Court Justices and many members of Congress. Santorum will give them a shot at control of ALL THREE branches of government.

    February 21, 2012 at 8:21 pm |
    • Al K

      You probably believe th Da Vinci code is non-fiction. How naive

      February 22, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
  6. BADGUY

    It's the "Opus Dei" in him that's speaking. The guy's like a programmed "rule book" for that organization. NOTHING he's said in the last 2 weeks differs from that "rule book"....Crazy...huh?....you'd thing he'd have sense enough to hide his agenda until he becomes President?....Well, I guess he's not ONLY a diatribe...He's a DUMB diatribe!

    February 21, 2012 at 8:07 pm |
  7. cesar redota

    spiritual questions?,the bible will answer: TheOldPath.tv

    February 21, 2012 at 7:54 pm |
    • HillClimber

      Please don't reference the Bible as a source of information – I have no idea what you expect to find there except the story line that man has written. God tolerates religion – but doesn't promote it. Religion has claimed God, but God has not claimed religion. If you speak of spirituality, speak of the spirit. The spirit is the soul, the eternal spark that God created, the spark that reincarnates lifetime after lifetime to advance more quickly. Speak of the interaction of souls in the fashion we know of as karma. Speak of issues resolved and not to be repeated, or the issues unresolved that get more difficult each lifetime you fail to succeed. Know that the worst part of life is death, but that death is the best part of life. Just know, and cut this religious crap.

      February 22, 2012 at 1:27 am |
  8. Peacemaker

    Ms. Egan, what a wonderful article. As someone who is training to be a chaplain, I can only hope that I have your wisdom and love for the patients and the families I will meet.

    "Love one another as I have loved you...... " is the message Christians should live.

    February 21, 2012 at 7:32 pm |
  9. ondeck

    I would be honored to have this chaplain with me or any of my loved ones at the end of our lives – this woman understands people – compassion and the true message of God. Bless you dear.

    February 21, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
  10. Don Skiles

    it is obvious that this so called Chapliain does not know God. It is true that God is love, it is also true that no human knows true lover without knowing God. The only way to know God is by trusting Jesus Christ as one's Savior. When a person is dying, they are on the threshold of eternity, if they don't have Jesus, their eternity will be in hell. She should be talking to them about their salvation, once they have that, they can talk about anything they wish, of course it will most likely be about God and Heaven. Family love does not even come close to Godly love. This is a very sad situation that someone is serving as a chaplain, how many souls will spend eternity in hell because of her??????????????????

    February 21, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • gina

      None, Mr. Skiles, none. Judge not lest ye be judged.

      Beautifully written article, Ms Egan. If I were dying, I would wish for someone like you to be near me.

      February 21, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
    • tom

      ...and your words, Don Skiles, are the reason why there is so much ignorance, fear, hatred, and killing in the world.
      You don't know what happens after death than anybody else, yet you are willing to judge others and be sickeningly self-righteous.

      See Buill Maher's movie Religulous.

      ...on second thought, forget it. You won't see the humor in it all.

      February 21, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
    • travis

      Mr. Skiles

      Chaplain Eagan is beyond a doubt in touch with God and Love. You cannot have one without the other agreed. She even delivers that in this story. Look beyond the blinders you clearly have infront of you and read the article again. She clearly links God and Love in many points of her story. It is by far one of the best if not the best artical I've read in a long long time.

      February 21, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • Jack

      Don Skiles is actually just pulling a con. He's not a Christian, he worships the king of deceit and masquerades as a Christian in order to build contempt for Christianity. Guys like that are easy to spot because the Spirit within us finds words like his ugly and revolting – such is the power of the Spirit.

      February 21, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • sarah

      I'm curious Mr Sikes what your experience was last time you lay on your deathbed? In the end, despite your conjecture, what did you want to talk about? why would you doubt the word or someone who sits with dying people every day? why would YOU talk and not listen? I also thought it was a excellent article but then I am an athiest so what do i know...

      February 21, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
    • sarah

      I'm curious Mr Skiles what your experience was last time you lay on your deathbed? In the end, despite your conjecture, what did you want to talk about? why would you doubt the word or someone who sits with dying people every day? why would YOU talk and not listen? I also thought it was a excellent article but then I am an athiest so what do i know...

      February 21, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
    • SafeNHisGrace

      I totally agree with your comment~~~except the last line. It is NOT because of her that they will spend their eternity in hell...it is more that she might not be saved either & therefore, doesn't know the importance of salvation being the only way into heaven. This makes me wonder about the school she attended to obtain her Chaplain status...every graduate there must not be learning about salvation & how it is the ONLY WAY to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven (James 3:3-6) If I were in her shoes, I would definately be leading each & every soul to the Lord, and prompting them to make their heart right with God. Sounds like maybe this is a calling I should more actively purse to make up for those who don't know the truth!!! I cant bear the fact that people areon their death beds, looking at eternity & Chaplains aren't making sure they're saved!!!!!!

      February 22, 2012 at 9:26 am |
  11. Daniel

    A few years ago I came real close to dying. The thing that pre-occupied me most was my wife and children, so I believe that most people on their death beds would like to talk about their families to assurance that they will be o. But I also believe that somewhere in the process we must ask the question "Are you afraid?" ,and then deal with that issue accordingly.

    February 21, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
  12. Me

    What do people talk about before they die? The same stuff they talk about every day. We are all dying. Life is a death sentence for everyone who receives it. You don't know exactly when it's going to happen. Sometimes near the end we grow less oblivious to this obvious fact, that's all.

    February 21, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
  13. PFT

    As a health care provider for dying patients, I have been privileged to be present and sit with people in their last days. I believe the key text in her article is
    “Well, they talk. I mostly listen.”
    It is an important lesson for all communication with others. We are, many times, focused on imposing our own agenda on others and in so doing forget the Golden Rule.

    February 21, 2012 at 11:27 am |
  14. David B

    MS. Egan, you refer to "WE" about 25 times in your "oh-so-heart-wrenching" article. Exactly who are "we", may I ask? Certainly not myself, or the millions of Christians who watched and attended Whitney Houston's funeral over the weekend to say good-bye. Who are you to speak for the overwhelming majority of us whose lives are guided by the Bible? How arrogant and elitist of you to dismiss God's Word as merely "theory" in our "heads". And then to wrap it up in a "beautiful, emotion-filled" package exploiting the "love of family". What deceit to attract the gullible. And all to advance your loony liberal political agenda. I don't know you personally, but based on your article, you're pathetic.

    February 21, 2012 at 10:32 am |
    • Ricky Ferdon

      Greetings, Mr. David B. A friendly suggestion: get a red letter edition of the Bible, you know, the one where the words of Jesus are highlighted in red, tear out all such pages, study them and throw the rest of the Bible away. Peace & Love!

      February 21, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
    • Andy

      David,

      Do you at all notice how her article is written with compassion, understanding and in a soft/nurturing tone and your response is written with anger, malice, forcefulness and everything negative? Do yourself a favor, throw away your bible because it's clear that it hasn't helped you this far in life.

      Sincerely,
      Another loony liberal with a political agenda

      February 21, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • Gretchen C

      David, I wonder if you missed the entire point of this essay. Egan does not say that religion is all in our heads, or that theory and philosophy are meaningless, empty, or pointless. She is simply arguing that religion is MORE than that. Our spirituality is more than just an abstract belief; it affects how we live our lives and interact with others. Clearly, the Bible is important to you, and that's absolutely fine. But consider this: do you simply read a chapter and verse and leave those lessons behind as you set your Bible down? Or do you take those words, that message with you as you live your life? That is what Egan discusses here. She is not saying that these patients have no religion, or that their families are a religion themselves. Instead, she argues that a person's views on religion often color one's behaviors and relationships with others.

      As for her use of "we," rest assured that she does not mean every single person or every single Christian. It is simply a common way to represent the concept of "me and others like me."

      Your response was full of anger and hostility. To what end? Perhaps you failed to learn the basic Christian lesson of "love they neighbor"?

      February 21, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • tom

      When are we going to start loving each other without judgment and self-righteousness?
      I think this is what Jesus preached about.
      It's very simple.

      What is pathetic are people like you, David B.

      February 21, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
    • Peacemaker

      May GOD have mercy on your soul. You poor man!

      February 21, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
    • pbrunda

      Next time you read your Bible, perhaps you could try to get the overall meaning of it. You obviously have not gotten it up to this point. Your post is full of a sense of superiority. Sorry to break it to you but, you don't have any claiming rights to God or God's love.

      February 22, 2012 at 8:30 am |
    • David B

      Got her point, Gretchen; you don't have to explain it. And my response is self-explanatory as well. The difference is I don't have to bash other beliefs or create fictional characters and scenarios to get my point across. She's a liberal with an agenda and should stop hiding behind it.

      February 22, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
  15. CWB

    Wisdom way beyound her years, the professor should spend a few days where she has been, then maybe, just maybe he would start to understand what her experience has taught her. But somehow I doubt it!

    February 21, 2012 at 8:26 am |
  16. Really Jersey

    Amen. The gift of a compassionate man.

    February 21, 2012 at 1:52 am |
  17. Drea

    Reblogged this on Pagan Perspectives.

    February 20, 2012 at 8:36 pm |
  18. TJ

    That was a very touching commentary on what it means to be a chaplain. You sound like you knew more all the years ago, than that professor will ever know. Shame on him for mocking the help and healing you were giving those patients. God bless you for the listening ear that you give to those who are transitioning. I can't imagine wanting to be "talked at" in my last hours on earth. God is love and you are full of it. God bless you.

    February 20, 2012 at 8:28 pm |
  19. kmm

    Beautiful article.
    I am a chaplain and I have had the experience of the patient wanting to share their life experience with me. Not everyone wants prayer; at least not at the time when they are assessing their lives. To give them holy silence and a listening ear is a loving gift to them and a way for them to transition. After they have exhausted their memories, prayer is a possibility but only if welcomed. Love them as you would want to be loved at the moment of death. Allow God to do the rest.

    February 20, 2012 at 7:02 pm |
  20. nikki nordstrom

    Kerry Egan-exquisitely delivered article!

    February 20, 2012 at 7:01 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.