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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. dee

    I wonder what they talkabout if they are the ones who never offered love? My sister is currently in stage 4 ovarian cancer, with almost no time left. She hasn't spoke to me in months. I have sent email after email after email, and tried calling, but doesn't want anything to do with me. I have always admired her ability to be a businesswoman. I have always thought she was incredibly smart. I have told her this, and how much I love her. But family has never been anything to her. She has always put business first, even the past few years, as she totally blew all of us off. I wish, really wish, she knew how much I loved her. I hope she realiizes it before it's too late.....

    January 29, 2012 at 9:18 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      I don't know anything about your sister or your family, but if she's shut you out, then I'm betting there's more to the story than you've told here. At some point, did your family have a disagreement with something your sister did or with the way she chose to live her life?

      January 29, 2012 at 9:22 am |
    • Yuri Pelham

      sit by her bedside, put your hand on her arm and say nothing. loving kindness is being there.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:24 am |
    • heresy

      this is no place to seek therapy. just saying. good luck

      January 29, 2012 at 9:40 am |
    • Steven Capsuto

      I believe strongly in respecting the wishes of dying people. They can't control what's happening to them, but they should be allowed to control the environment in which they die as much as possible. If someone has repeatedly and firmly made it clear they don't want you around, I say respect that. Don't fill their last days with bitterness by forcing yourself on her.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:35 am |
  2. T Mac

    As an atheist, I have no need for the concept of god, but I still found this article to be very enjoyable. I've recently had a fight with cancer, and, for right now, I think I'm winning. Thoughts of death were (are) common for me right now and I have three girls in my life (1 wife, 2 young daughters). I KNOW what I'll be thinking about on my deathbed (particularly if it comes sooner rather than later), and this author hit the nail on the head. Nice job!

    With regards to all the negative comments from my fellow atheists....lighten up. Take what you can from this article and, after that, shut up....you're embarrassing the rest of us that want to be thought of as humanists, critical thinkers, etc.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:17 am |
    • Brad

      I wish you all the best, T Mac.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:26 am |
    • BP

      I don't believe in religion but I believe in love as well. I think we all need to love a little more and stop hating over religion, politics, race, and money. Life is short, love and a little compassion goes a longway and can make a big difference in ones life.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:36 am |
    • heresy

      well said T Mac

      January 29, 2012 at 9:38 am |
  3. The Atheist's Companion

    Once again you are drawn to the wellspring of God's grace and love. Welcome.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:17 am |
  4. TheBossSaid

    I don't know what the dying say before they die but I sure do know what their alienated family, relatives and friends say: "Hi Grandma. Sorry that I haven't visited you much in the last 20 years. Heard how you won the $10 million lottery last week. Lucky you!. Just want you to know that you were always my favorite Grandma"

    January 29, 2012 at 9:16 am |
  5. heresy

    wow. that was a very good article. i actually have nothing negative to say. it going to be a great day. :)

    January 29, 2012 at 9:15 am |
  6. Judy

    This article is like one of those reminders you only get and understand when someone close to you falls ill or even dies. It is a wake up call to live life fully and love passionately! I think Kerry Egan says it well....allow yourself to love and to be loved and forgiveness will open up a whole new world for that!

    January 29, 2012 at 9:14 am |
  7. Mary Ellen Hood

    As a PK (preacher's kid) I heard these stories. One man asked my Dad to tell him one last joke. They had laughed over one liners for years. It was really hard, but he somehow came up with another one liner before the man died. I will always remember this one.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:12 am |
  8. Macheal Summers

    I love this article. This spoke to me and solidified my belief that family is the most important thing in life, and that a family is what you make it and who you accept into it. Beautifully written.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:12 am |
  9. Ljill

    A truly wonderful article. Last May my sister and I sat with my mother the last night of her life and when she did speak ( not often ) she did call out to her mother and smile at us when we spoke to her. After her death, I found it easier to accept her loss my being there with her at the end as she was there for me at the beginning of my life. My mother was a women of faith so I know she is in a good place and at peace.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:09 am |
    • BlogHaha

      Another popular thing that a Dying Person might REQUEST before they die is the FAMOUS

      ( KEEP an eye on my 4 Daughters for me ) make should boys stay away and at bay.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:14 am |
  10. Jim

    A great article.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:08 am |
  11. dave

    Loved the article Kerry! Thank you for sharing your observations and experiences. Your work is very meaningful to many people. Thank you for being a caring person.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:06 am |
  12. Oldeye

    Chaplain Kerry has seen and understood the most basic but difficult realities of defining who we are.
    We are, by the majority, what our families are. Our life's experience mostly relate to our interaction with
    family members and friends. I understand exactly what she expresses here. The basic tenets of any religion
    is based on love for one another. Some even go beyond that and propose love for every living thing on earth.
    Love as defined by Chaplain Kerry is the universal end game. It defines us. Thanks for the nice article.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:06 am |
  13. donwahn

    Kerry, the comments made aren't soley yours anymore, they're mine now as well, and as I read some of the comments, I'm not alone. God bless

    January 29, 2012 at 9:06 am |
  14. Willard Spener

    I have found that many people have their faith questions settled when they are dying. It is a special joy to listen to a person reflect on their life, dying or not. I had to unlearn big theological questions or, rather, apply them in terms of real life all around me. It is something we all need to do. Blessings on you, Chaplain, for your excellent ministry.
    50 year preacher

    January 29, 2012 at 9:05 am |
  15. Tori

    It's sorta sweet to know that humans still believe in love after going through so much

    January 29, 2012 at 9:05 am |
  16. Ryno

    What a great story put my day in perspective

    January 29, 2012 at 9:04 am |
  17. Mary

    Kerry, you are so correct in this. From what I have seen of death creeping, what holds us to the end is not our faith in the afterlife... but the life we lived. We want to make sure our family will not be in pain, we see our loved ones that left before us waiting to take us onto the next step of our journey, and we suddenly become children again, full of wonder.

    Thank you for making this experience for our loved ones in Mass. one of dignity, not forced ritual of death... thank you for taking the time to listen to their stories of their lives and not just blindly leading them onto the next chapter.

    What you do is something amazing that not many have the heart/self sacrifice to do... because it is a form of sacrifice... taking on the responsibility of the last person of Faith these people see and leading them lovingly onto that next journey.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:04 am |
  18. bill.x

    Patrish

    I so don't want a religious person at my death bed! I'll go where I'm suppose to go, GOD or no GOD. Kinda of a waste reading this article...

    January 29, 2012 at 8:44 am | Report abuse | Reply

    bill.x

    your sentiment sounds very sad, but also sounds like hope is holding it up. you should reread this peace, and concentrate on what she covered little, forgiveness. but especially forgive yourself first, and know you are loved and that you, your soul, is connected directly to love that is pure and incapable of being destroyed or changed. everything else that happenned or you know ocurred in your mind and will die there – but you are eternal and pure love – god bless you

    January 29, 2012 at 9:04 am |
    • bud

      You do not have to believe in a god in order to love. Think about those you loved, wished to love, could have loved.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:22 am |
  19. Mike

    I've experienced this from a near-death in 1996 (I was only 16) and I've never forgotten. Thank you for this article, it explains what I could not in great detail. I'm not a religious man, but I do know the importance of loving ones family and friends while they are still around.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:03 am |
  20. Kate

    I think the woman who wrote this article is very wise. When I'm on my death bed, I want my last thoughts to be about those people I've loved and who've loved me. My last thoughts should be about what touched me most in this life.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:03 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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.