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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. Tom

    There is no doubt that is one of the most beautiful things I have ever read.

    March 6, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
  2. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer really changes things

    March 6, 2012 at 6:55 am |
  3. Carlos

    "The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kerry Egan. The Editors – CNN Belief Blog"
    CNN has lost its touch and soul because CNN is running by lawyers.

    March 6, 2012 at 12:54 am |
  4. Mike

    I liked this article. There was one previously about the things that people regret on their deathbeds that was also good.

    March 5, 2012 at 8:44 pm |
  5. Carol

    Kerry did what she was supposed to: LISTEN! A dying person has the right to talk about what they want. A sermon at
    the last minute is unlikely to change anyone who is ready to cross over. The time for that was prior to the last minutes of
    of life. Jesus and that person will have their talk in due time. Grace was my saving moment but it took a lot of work to
    attain it. It didn't have to! Belief or unbelief, Kerry is doing a good work. God will deal with her in His own way in His
    own time.

    March 5, 2012 at 7:42 pm |
  6. lome

    when someone is near death,time is of essence. they are going to step into eternity with out any remorse or any hint about their eternal destiny.what you do is just "to make them feel good about themselves therapy" . Do you know what you are missing here ?; A chance to make them repent of their transgression against God. A change to make their peace with God.
    You took a very big responsibility just to ignore their spiritual survival in the next life.maybe ,you don't believe in the afterlife.
    You can at least call a legally ordained priest to those who would be willing to confess of their transgressions against God.
    Please help them make peace with their maker. If you don't believe in repentance , let other who believe on this take that shot.What kind of a chaplain are you ? How could you miss that once in their lifetime opportunity?
    maybe next time, Just smile on them on their way out.

    March 5, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
  7. Peg - Az

    Wow – powerful stuff – well said Kerry Egan.

    March 5, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
  8. M&M

    Oh sad! The fact that you don't believe in God doesn't mean He doesn't exist. He is ALL Love, but He is also a Just God. So, you put yourself in heaven or hell. Therefore, you must do 4 things NOW: repent of your sins, be baptized in Jesus' Name, receive the Holy Ghost, and live a HOLY life (Acts 2:38 in your Bible). If not, YOU will put yourself in a horrible hell. So in Jesus' name, obey and you shall be saved!

    March 5, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      Go preach somehwere else. Condemning others must make you feel all nice and fuzzy inside.

      March 5, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
    • BOB

      HAWAIIGUEST, this section is for BELIEF debates and what believe believe. If you do not want to be preached to, go to another site.
      M&M ... Good word, although I do not believe that Baptism is required for salvation. It is a commandment for us to follow after we accept Christ as a profession of faith, but not required in salvation. A person must admit they are a sinner and repent and accept Jesus into their lives. Also, living a holy life is impossible. We should live to the best of our abilities to follow Jesus and His example. If we have to live a holy life to remain Christians, we are all in trouble. Jesus did enough on the cross when He died for us and rose again. We must believe on Jesus...the Holy SPirit will guide us

      March 6, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
  9. Former Marine

    When the threat of death is all around, religion, is a larger than normal part of our thoughts. We want to be home. We pray that a supreme being will protect us for eternity. Athiest's question their non-believing position just in case they are wrong.
    It is fairly well known that "Mom" goes to battle right alongside her son. We love them just like Jesus loved his mother.
    Kerry, don't let the "nay-sayers" distract you from your purpose. They know not.

    March 5, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
  10. Mike

    Thank you.

    March 5, 2012 at 7:53 am |
  11. Brenda

    All the comment's about love, forgiviness and family are true, but people don't realize that as I write this comment thousands if not millions on people are falling into hell lost for all enternity. There is God's wrath abiding on the person as he/she lay there dying, unless it has been taken away by belief in His Son Jesus Christ. Pray that God will have mercy on us and give is ear's to hear and eye's to see His salvation in His Son.

    March 4, 2012 at 11:48 pm |
    • Dr. D.

      Brenda, you are speaking nonsense. There is no god that will bring anything upon anyone. Religions are referred to as faiths because there is no evidence of any god. Just because we do not know everything does not mean there will be a revelation. When I was in Iraq and a group of evil doers crashed into a church and massacred everyone in the church including gutting a 3 year old girl do you think there was a caring god there to protect everyone especially the innocent girl? No it happened because there is no caring god or any god. If there were a god he/she would show up and make presence not be a mystery like a fairy or elf. It is totally illogical. YOur comments and your faith will not get you to an imaginary heaven.

      March 5, 2012 at 4:18 am |
    • Kurt

      Brenda,
      You can't prove that there is a god. I cannot prove that he does not exist.

      Today I read that a family of five died in a tornado. They were all on their knees praying to their god when the tornado hit. All of them were killed; the toddler lived for several days with horrific injuries. If there is a god,he wasn't around to help them last week!

      I believe that you're a Christian because of where you happened to be born. If you were born in India, you'd likely be Hindu or Moslem. Shoving your religious opinions down other people's throats never works.

      March 5, 2012 at 11:40 am |
    • V

      Brenda, I am a firm Theist, and believe in God whole-heartedly. I don't believe, however, that we get any points for scaring people into believing one way or another. We are to preach of God's loving and forgiving nature and let Him handle the rest. The view you're taking on faith is conciously leading you into segregationalism. People reconsider faith when they're faced with severe hardships or when a phenomenon occurs in their life that they feel very personal about. I'm not saying you're giving us a bad name, by any means, but what your saying is void of God's bottom line...Love.

      March 5, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
    • BOB

      V – as a Bible believing Christian and a pastor, I have to disagree with you. God is absolutely perfect. God is LOVE and the perfect example of FORGIVENESS and our example for a RIGHTEOUS LIFE. You must not forget that He is also a jealous and JUST God. Romans says "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of GOD is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." Jesus died for all. He came and gave His life and paid our penalty. As the verse says ... you must receive the gift. Many people do not choose to accept the gift. Therefore, according to the Bible, their penalty is a spiritual death..... Unfortunately for them that means Hell. God cannot lie. He must be just and righteous.

      March 6, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  12. Biff

    Your God is a myth. You are born, you live, and then die. It's all meaningless.

    March 4, 2012 at 11:32 pm |
    • almxx

      So, in your case, all your suffering was not in payment of a debt?

      March 5, 2012 at 4:15 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      @almxx: What debt would you think a person owes in this case?

      March 5, 2012 at 7:10 am |
    • Keith

      Rom 6:23 For the wages of sin [is] death;

      March 5, 2012 at 7:38 am |
    • TallAll

      Psalms 14:1 that's all i have 2 say

      March 5, 2012 at 11:26 am |
    • denis

      So – my only question to you Biff – is why are you reading and commenting on a religious article on the Belief blog – if you are an atheist and nihilist? Just curious what you are looking for here.

      March 5, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
    • V

      Biff, it appears to me that the length of your statement equates the amount of thought you put into the meaning of life.

      March 5, 2012 at 6:28 pm |
  13. stuart

    Wow. God, love, truth, light, forgiveness, grace and mercy are not just for family. True, family is where we first practice our inate goodness and it may well be that those closest to us are who we think of when we are dying...but, in between.....

    Jesus also said.....Mt 5:44 But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
    45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

    March 4, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
  14. amco

    How clearly this confirms that there is really no such thing as God, but yes, there is a universal human spirit that manifests itself as love. The belief in a personal god is no more and no less than human egoism, fuelled by a fear od death !

    March 4, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
    • kayonne

      I didn't become a Christian because I was afraid of death. And over these 10 years if there's one thing I've learned it's that if that is your motivating factor you'll shrivel up and die spiritually. Fear can never sustain you. I became a Christian because I was searching for truth. I started from the blank slate of 'is there a God, and if there is is this God interested in any kind of relationship with us, with me? Assuming the existence of God, does S/he subscribe or is described by any religion, and if so which one?". I searched it out, and it became clear to me that God is real and that He is accurately described by the Judeo-Christian writings, and therefore said scriptures also teach one how to appropriately interact with Him. Life is complex, people are complex with each one differing from the other. Your assessment of the reason for persons pursuing a life of faith fails to take that into account.

      March 4, 2012 at 8:03 pm |
  15. Rainy

    Sometimes harsh words take us aback and we feel attacked, embarrassed, or humbled. We wonder why someone would be so rude, insensitive, arrogant. But those harsh words often lead us to a deeper understanding of the subject at hand and of ourselves. It forces us to look at ourselves and difficult topics directly and honestly. That professor so many years ago may have been the catalyst that Kerry needed to become the obviously sensitive, loving and now mature individual she has grown into. Thank you Kerry for doing your work with a population so often forgotten.

    March 4, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
  16. grahamgirl

    I will give the benefit of the doubt to some "well meaning" Christians who clearly come across the wrong way. Jesus Christ's message was one of love, forgiveness, and exceptance. Anything less than this is not true christianity.

    March 4, 2012 at 11:19 am |
    • ggm

      And I am certain that God invested in you (and only you) the authority to judge others.

      March 4, 2012 at 11:24 pm |
    • Keith

      People may misunderstand when you say "acceptance". Repentance is key, here. Jesus never did, does not and never will "accept" our sinful lifestyles. He hates sin. Just so we're clear on that. Jesus first word of his ministry was "Repent" if I'm not mistaken:
      Mat 4:17 From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

      March 5, 2012 at 7:32 am |
  17. grahamgirl

    Wow! This one brought tears to my eyes.

    March 4, 2012 at 10:55 am |
  18. Science

    The practice of religion is more in the realm of spirit, the sense of right and wrong grounded in love.  The God that I grew up to know is mostly defined in the realm of spirit, "God is love, God is truth, God is light.  There are other attributes God as defined in the bible and these definitions clarify to us humans why we cannot be God.  

    March 4, 2012 at 10:37 am |
  19. lindsay

    amazing piece! so glad kerry pointed out the professors inability to recognize what was going on in her conversations. the conversations were not hers to create or influence, just witness. to be able to connect with people like that is a gift.

    March 4, 2012 at 9:59 am |
  20. Arif

    There is no such thing as perpetual oitmonNo there isn't. Which is why as it loses energy due to tidal friction. The fact is, the Earth's magnetic field has reversed thousands of times over the Earth's lifetime, with no apparent effect on it's rotation.

    March 4, 2012 at 5:33 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.