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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. Asherah Kuanyin Ganesha Adonai Zeus

    Family is an important thing, true.

    February 24, 2012 at 3:53 am |
  2. patoguru

    But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. For some men, straying from these things, have turned aside to fruitless discussion 1 timothy 1:5 thank you for not turning aside to fruitless discussion. We should teach the world how to love just like our Father 1st loved us and demonstrated it by sending his son..his love was an action not fruitless discussion

    February 24, 2012 at 2:05 am |
  3. kate

    This was a very wonderful read, even though Im an atheist and had to skip all the religious things. I particularly love this phrase: "This is where we create our lives, this is where we find meaning, this is where our purpose becomes clear." To me the most important thing in life is our relationships, with our families, our friends, and the natural world. Beautiful essay indeed.

    February 23, 2012 at 9:08 pm |
    • Hossam

      Whoa this was WAY hard! I am a fan so I'm gonna vote for two. Dad and Son #9 and Rainbow #16. Both just take my breath away. Of csorue, all of them do but since I have to choose!

      April 3, 2012 at 10:27 pm |
  4. Chris

    This was an amazing write up. I was deeply moved and could "feel" everything that was being said throughout the whole article. Family is definitely a huge part of my life, so I can feel and relate to this in certain ways. Family over everything is my quote for almost anything, and a lot of people these days don't understand family values.

    February 23, 2012 at 7:53 pm |
  5. Summer

    Thanks for sharing. Of course, there are things we need to learn about family and God that does come from the scriptures and church and prayer and revelation. But it'd be nothing if we didn't then go apply it into our homes and watch the change that can take place for the best.
    It's very interesting though, how central a role family plays in everyones life...I truly would have expected like that professor that more people would be asking questions about the after life or wondering how they can be forgiven...that really says something about the role of family, that that was what was on their minds in their dying moments.

    February 23, 2012 at 7:37 pm |
    • Aroldo

      that there should be no human faces on bofecoak, but all profile pictures must be cartoon characters. (To remember your childhood).Some people say that it is pointless, as it cannot actually do anything,but in my opinion it does do something; it shows moral and emotional support for those supporting the fight against child abuse. It shows that we as a society believe that child abuse is wrong, and it reminds us of our own childhoods. Whether these were bad or good childhoods, it can help us see that child abuse is wrong. (Those with bad childhoods may want to make sure that history is not repeated for other people, and those with good chidhoods will want to make sure that other children have the same kind of childhood). So please change your profile picture to show your support and beliefs!References : (( ME ))

      April 3, 2012 at 10:46 pm |
  6. Kara

    Thank you +

    February 23, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
  7. joanne

    I was very moved by your article and have experienced this in my own life. My father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, went into a unconscious state and passed away all within five days. I laid with him in his hospital bed when he was still conscious and began reading scripture to him from a little book he had received 80 years earlier as a child in England. I continued to read to him during the days of unconsciousness and had just finished a verse about going from darkness into the light when he died in my arms and joined God. Family, love and the spirit of God are all that matters. I got that message loud and clear.

    February 23, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
  8. beautyforashes89

    My family never once showed me God's love (abusive), my church "fellowship" deserted me, and my now godly husband isn't always perfectly loving. In my opinion, respectfully, you don't learn about God's love through your family. Sure, some people do, and that's great, but a lot aren't given that blessing. The only way I learned about God is through the Bible...those scriptures are the only TRULY holy thing on this earth. Now, I would have absolutely no idea how to be a hospital chaplain and talk to people before they die, but perhaps speaking scriptural truths over them would be good in addition to listening to them talk about their families? Everything you spoke of about forgiveness, needing to be loved and how only God can fill it, etc...that is all in the Bible. Sometimes, you will be the only Bible anyone ever reads, so live that out unapolagetically and don't be afraid to preach! Hell is real, and when they die, well, you get the picture.

    February 23, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
    • JK

      beautyforrahses89
      You sound like a very hard and unforgiving person. You have been hurt and bear great anger, not forgiveness. To expereince love, you do not read a book. You live life. You really missed the point of the article!

      February 23, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
    • JK

      beautyforrahses89
      You sound like a very hard and unforgiving person. You have must been hurt to bear such great anger. To expereince love, you do not read a book. You live life. You really missed the point of the article!

      February 23, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
    • Trey

      I read what you wrote twice. Upon the second reading it was apparent to me that you are neither hard nor unforgiving (at least this isn't at all apparent from what you wrote). You were simply making a point that sharing Christian verses would also be helpful..... you also said that in your experience you didn't learn love from your family. That is a totally fair thing to say and you respectfully disagreed. I guess "JK" wanted to judge you just for the heck of it...which is ok with me to, but it would be neato if JK assessed the situation a little better first. ;-)

      February 23, 2012 at 11:47 pm |
    • Trey

      to = too ....my bad

      February 23, 2012 at 11:53 pm |
  9. Lisa

    My father tried participating in organized religion and even though he contributed his time and many talents (construction) to his church, he was still ostracized when my parents divorced. He was somewhat bitter about that, but it helped him recognize that you don't find God in a designated building or in some divinity lecture hall. You find God, just as the author says, in your family and in the things in that give you purpose and meaning. My dad always used to say that when he was out hunting and fishing, that was when he felt closest to God, out in nature among the trees and birds and the rest of His creation. When he was dying (over the course of many months), he was surrounded by those who loved him, and I know he FELT loved, though God was never once mentioned.

    February 23, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
    • JK

      Lisa – You sound like a very hard and unforgiving person. You have been hurt and bear great anger, not forgiveness. To expereince love, you do not read a book. You live life. You really missed the point of the article!

      February 23, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
    • JK

      Sorry Lisa – my comment was meant for beautyof rashes. I Apologize!

      February 23, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
    • Asherah Kuanyin Ganesha Adonai Zeus

      Clockwork religion isn't for everyone. To some folks, all this sitting, standing, kneeling, and gesturing is just fake, while nature and being natural are real.

      February 24, 2012 at 3:57 am |
  10. Ryan

    You would think that Harvad Professors would be experience in the trade which they are teaching! WOW, thank the Lord that I'm not apply to Harvard Div for seminary!

    February 23, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
  11. Chelseaj

    Utterly Amazing & Accurate.
    Couldn't have said it better myself. Not only did i hear you, i felt you. :)
    GOD IS LOVE

    February 23, 2012 at 10:26 am |
  12. clarkepeters

    Your article was spot on!
    Thanks.

    February 23, 2012 at 8:04 am |
    • sharon

      To the author: I lost my mother a few weeks ago and had to make that dreaded decision, along with my father and my sister, to shut down the life-saving apparatus one by one. In the end, I watched as nurses pulled the long tentacle-like tubes that had kept her breathing for nearly 10 days. Not a pretty sight, but the act of being born and the act of dying can be messy affairs. She gave me my life in the myriad ways that phrase implies. All I could do was stand by her and simply be with her as she died, stroking the hair from her face, singing to her softly, gently but firmly encouraging her to let go. I think God, whoever she / he is, cannot be stuffed into some neat little package that we can place on a shelf and then carry with us on special occasions. Like birth, death, or Love, God, too, seems to be a messy affair - part gunk, part glory, but always raw and real - spilling onto the floor at the most inopportune and most perfect of moments. Like love that cannot be contained or explained. Thank you for your article!

      February 23, 2012 at 10:16 am |
  13. Islam is the only True Guidance

    Every soul will taste death, and you will only be given your [full] compensation on the Day of Resurrection. So he who is drawn away from the Fire and admitted to Paradise has attained [his desire]. And what is the life of this world except the enjoyment of delusion

    February 22, 2012 at 11:05 pm |
    • Chop

      Islam is a prescription for hate and intolerance.

      February 23, 2012 at 10:29 am |
    • chief

      thank you for a nothing comment.... as if what the lady said in the article wasnt good enough for you or are you just better?

      February 23, 2012 at 11:40 am |
    • islam.puriest.religion

      Alhumdulilah this life is just a test first person you should love is Allah swa then Muhammad (peace be up on him) Muhammad loves you 10 times more then your mom Allah loves you 100 times more then your mom. That's why one of Allah's name is al Rahim because he's the most merciful and forgiving. Humans make tons of mistake in there life but Allah is so merciful if you rrpend sincerely he forgives all but shirk or murder.

      February 23, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
    • Asherah Kuanyin Ganesha Adonai Zeus

      **Yawn** religious hucksterism. You can shill for Allah all you want, but people of other religions will still generally stick with them. The same goes for Jesus, Adonai, YHWH, Kuan Yin, Buddha, Rama Rama Krishna Ding Dong, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster

      February 24, 2012 at 4:00 am |
  14. Sondra LeVin

    I've prayed and prayed and prayed through the years, and I can honestly say, not ONE of my prayers was ever answered with a positive response. Does anyone have any idea why that would be?

    February 22, 2012 at 10:41 pm |
    • Filomena

      Maybe you don't think that you have been answered, but I think you have been in ways that you don't fully understand, Faith is a gift from God but not all of us will be given that gift, pray for the gift of true faith and let's see what happens.

      February 23, 2012 at 7:04 am |
    • JMakoul

      The key question is...what have you been praying for? We don't see the big picture but God does. What we may be praying for might not be good for us or others in the long run. This can come down to a trust issue- do we trust God's will for us, that He knows what is better? Also, keeping sight of the Kingdom of Heaven helps us keep everything that happens here, in this world, in perspective. Our time here is short and temporary, anything we go through here is temporary, God knows this and that in the end, if we tend to what we need to tend to, our struggles will be over and there will be eternity in the next world where "all sorrow, struggling, sighing has fled away".

      February 23, 2012 at 8:27 am |
    • Sybil Reisch

      Have you tried getting to know the Person you're praying to? God shows who He/She is in the Bible. Jesus came to earth to let us know what God is like. God loves you, and so do I, just because God created you.

      February 23, 2012 at 9:50 am |
    • chief

      what are you asking for? try following the example that was given..... honor the Father and everything He is, pray for Gods will, offer thanks for the things you have like air, food, etc.... forgive those who treat you badly or do you wrong as Jesus did his persecutors, ask for strength in temptation and protection from evil....... Matthew 6:9–13

      im not seeing a whole lot of asking for items.... be thankful, be aware of what God does for you

      February 23, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • kenny

      Hi Sondra LeVin
      What has your God done for you that you couldn`t have done for yourself? The key to praying is talking to yourself and pretending someone intelligent is listening. The invisible and the non-existent look very much alike . Praying is like a rocking chair – it`ll give you something to do, but won`t get you anywhere. While on the verge of death, pray to god. If life prevails, it is a miracle. If death prevails, it is god`s plan. Praying is for feeble minds. It would be amazing if there was an invisible friend who magically solved all my problems by just asking him. Unfortunately that isn`t true, and I`m not gonna lie to myself into thinking so just because it makes me feel better. Faith is belief without and against evidence and reason; coincidentally that`s also the definition of delusion.

      February 23, 2012 at 9:10 pm |
    • Asherah Kuanyin Ganesha Adonai Zeus

      Maybe there's no God? Just thinking

      or maybe your God is busy right now and has no time for you

      Or maybe you're praying to the wrong God

      February 24, 2012 at 4:02 am |
  15. David

    This was a very touching piece, and I was choked up with emotion in reading it. Thank you for sharing your story and experience. As for your professor, I hope one day he is enlightened to understand God also exists outside of theology and scripture.

    February 22, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
  16. sage.

    I have been a philosophy professor for many years and have not been as touched by what it means to be human as I have been today after reading your essay. Thank you.

    February 22, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
  17. Mark

    all of this is non sense. humans are NO different than any other mamal or organism that lives on this planet. Humans die just like Fish, monkeys, dogs, and rabbits. there's no God. there's no Heaven. just stop it already with that nonsense

    February 22, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
    • fred

      Mark o yee of little faith!

      February 22, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
    • Ninerec

      I am not a religious person. I have no idea what will happen after I die and I don't there is much point in worrying about it. But I think in the context of this piece about love and how connections shape lives, the tone of your response devalues humans AND animals. Of course we are animals but that does not mean that we are not a unique among animals just as a fish a dog a monkey and a rabbit are all unique and different from each other. Not better but different. Having worked professionally with hundreds of different kinds of animals over the years it is extremely obvious that many of them form strong bonds with people, with their mates and their offspring, or even with other random members of a social group that sas

      February 23, 2012 at 10:54 am |
  18. Glades2

    That's the deepest of subjects – even law enforcement has the old rule that a dying person's word is considered truth (a person who is minutes from death), because their words are from the soul rather than the mind, and the soul is incapable of lying, but those who have a bit of time (days or longer) usually will be enough of a mind to think about many things – though my sincere guess is that many are too frightened to think of anything.

    As a Chrisitan, I'd try my best to focus on the good ahead and not be frightened, but having already been seriously ill the sad truth is that my fear was still the heavier burden. Truly, it's a saintly person who can live to the last moment with only peace in their soul and a longing to see God, and as a Catholic we are encouraged to regularly pray for a peaceful death, since many are not ready for that moment...

    February 22, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
  19. Shirlron

    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–By Kerry Egan. Of all my years of having a personal relationship with GOD (His Son, my LORD and Savior JESUS Christ) this is an amazing lesson I've learned about love and family through you today, Kerry. I know GOD loves family, however, I've never grasped it in this simple form. Thanks for not giving up after being humiliated from the comments of a professor that probably never held a chaplain position.

    February 22, 2012 at 10:25 am |
  20. Ronniec

    How about we just skip over the nonsense of there being a god and be kind to one another?

    February 22, 2012 at 10:00 am |
    • Response

      And are you being kind to others by saying their belief in God is nonsense?

      February 22, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • David

      I see where you are coming from, and I have also questioned the existence of a God in my life. What I have learned can be echoed in what you recommended. Let people have their personal beliefs, whether that includes a Creator or not. The most important thing is respecting everyone's individuality.

      February 22, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • Sybil Reisch

      That's in the Bible! You're quoting Ephesians 4:32: Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.

      February 23, 2012 at 10:02 am |
    • Joel

      @Ronniec – Do you mind if we do both? Thanks!

      February 23, 2012 at 4:44 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.