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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. Just me

    That is just so moving. Thank you for sharing. I hope your old professor reads this.

    March 8, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
  2. Lulu Fierst

    I was holding my Dad's hand on the night he died....He was sitting in his chair...he was alert to the very end...I was talking to him, and he squeezed my hand and leaned forward said" I can do that Dad, I can do that" and slipped off to what I believe is heaven.
    The aura I felt at that time was the same aura I had felt when I helped deliver my first grandchild. I again experience the same feeling when I was washing my mother's face and she was taking little gasps..I said to her "Mom you can go if you need to" and she just slipped away...she had Alzeheimer but the last two weeks of her life she was very lucid and talked of my father (they had been married 59 years but she had spoken of him in the last four years after his death...family, bio, adopted, inherited...no matter what we all strive to get to them when we leave this earth.

    March 8, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • mary

      My mother died Fall of 2010 from Alzheimer's. As she was slowly slipping away, my sisters and I cried and told her, "it's okay, you can go, we can take care of each other". then we started saying a rosary and she died quietly to the sound of your voices in prayer.

      March 9, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
  3. Barbara

    This was one of the most beautifullly written articles I've ever read...and I'm old as dirt.

    March 8, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
  4. HannaH

    amazing article. My grandmother, who happens to be a pastor, has had some very bad cancers, and through all of it, trusted God to either keep her living or call her home. And all she ever talks about is love, and, to her, that is the meaning of family<3
    Talk about God, talk about love, talk about family. Whatever you choose, God decides on where we spend our eternal lives:)

    March 7, 2012 at 9:49 pm |
  5. Kathleen

    True form of Faith & love. Thank you.

    March 7, 2012 at 7:53 pm |
  6. Kevin

    Very poignant and perfectly written.

    March 7, 2012 at 6:37 pm |
  7. Skate

    That was beautiful, Kerry.

    March 7, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
  8. Jean Hunter

    Based on some recent experience with a close family member dying, I find the part about talking about family is true. What this really adds for me is making the connection to God. Very interesting and although I am not religious, I would be glad of someone like Kerry Egan if I were dying.

    March 7, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
  9. Randy

    A few years back I almost died. There was a sort of near death experience but what surprised me the most is how I felt inside. First, I had an experience where I felt such a strong love. It was stronger than any I have ever felt in this life!. I felt it for months but it eventually went away. I wish I could feel that always. I think it changed the way I view the people around me. Without realizing it, I found myself grabbing peoples ands and trying to show them i cared. I found myself thinking about something i liked about a total stranger and then I would tell them. Sometimes they looked at me funny, but almost always they would smile. I found myself caring so much more about people I didn't even know and all I wanted to do was go see all my loved ones so I could tell them how much I care. I didn't want to miss anyone. It isn't som easy to do that all the time, but I know that the most powerful tool on Earth is something that everyone can possess. That is love

    March 7, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • RobbD

      Randy...Thank You for sharing your experiences

      March 8, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
  10. dcb

    Fairly certain that no one who has commented so far on this article has died and gone to heaven to speak to God. So why anyone would purport that someone who is dying and is going to face judgement either way should have someone (chaplain, pastor, nun) lead them in prayer or spiritual conversations obviously has lost touch with the fact that God already knows what's in our heart. If speaking about how much I love my family is considered bad at any time in my life, then I guess I will have a big surprise waiting for me when I die.

    March 7, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
  11. atypical

    "faith tarnishes our intuition."
    don't do . . . religion.

    March 7, 2012 at 11:43 am |
    • Brad

      Human intuition...yes, that is certainly something we all should all strive to believe in, considering the peace and perfection that humans have brought to our planet.

      March 7, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
    • HG

      Atypical – please Kerry's book Fumbling.

      March 7, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
  12. roosevelt keyes jr

    i was raised as a PK(preachers kid) yet i was the prodigal son for sure. When i returned home there was a ring waiting and celebration just like the parable. As a combat medic in the army for over 30 years i zipped up a lot of bodybags.If i had no chance to tell them who Jesus is before they pass away i hoped that they saw Jesus in my walk. Jesus is the truth and the life. Family is secondary when people understand the grace of God and his bestowed mercies then they will have the power to forgive and the power to perfect "agape love. Once the power of the love of our father is known through John 3:16 "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life." Then they will understand that physical death is the beginning of eternal life in paradise.

    March 7, 2012 at 11:28 am |
    • Randy

      Family or others are not secondary. What did Jesus do while on this Earth. He showed us how to love each other. By loving others, we serve our Savior. When we do not learn love for others, we are , in a way, putting our savior in second, third, or fourth place. There are so many people who preach Jesus and condemn those around them and also those who think that as long as they look like and act christian, then that is all they need. But we can not say we truly follow the Savior without doing our best to love others. So, I respectfully say that when we do love those around us, we are putting our Savior first. It all means nothing without love

      March 7, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
    • B52 (Heavy)

      Thank you for your service to this country, and for your devotion on the battlefield. I appreciate your testimony! Hopefully, some unbeliever will read your response and come to an understanding about your Christian walk. Wish you could give your testimony at my church!

      Again, thank you for your service to this country!

      From an ex USAF SSgt, Strategic Air Command, 1968-1972

      March 7, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
    • once was lost but now am found

      what you stated is so true and led top my recalling all the LORD has done for myself and family. no trur words were spoken. hopefully others who read this also recall the blessings of the LORD.

      March 24, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
  13. Annemarie

    Thank you Kerry for a touching piece that has given us a lot of food for thought. God bless you for the work that you do.

    March 7, 2012 at 8:52 am |
  14. Yann

    If you actually read the Bible, you would know women shouldn't be priests or pastors.

    March 7, 2012 at 3:57 am |
    • Martha

      If you read this article with an open, loving heart you would know why people who interpret scripture to forbid women serving in pastoral roles are so very wrong.

      March 7, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • Paul

      You are quite right!
      The question is was the Apostle Paul inspired to write books of the Bible or not? When writing to Timothy he said "all scripture is inspired of God". As a christians I believe that is true. So as a christian I accept what God inspired for my benefit today, without question. I mean why question my creator??
      So when Paul (inspired to say) said "I do not permit a woman to teach, or exercise authority over a man" I accept that. It does not mean though that women have no place or some how a second class citizen. By no means. But just as order requires someone to be the head of any successful organisation so to in the family and congregation. It just happens that God delegates this headship to the man.

      March 8, 2012 at 4:28 am |
  15. DebbieLiu

    God is love, hope and history, culture..... In Roman empire, a person could be killed for being Christian in 200AD, while a person could be killed for not being Christian in 400 AD.

    March 7, 2012 at 12:20 am |
    • Paul

      I had to have a laugh at that. You are right of course. It's ironical that it's the same organisation that did the killing. From Roman Empire to Holy Roman Church.

      Not real Christians of course, hardly followed the lead of Jesus Christ who recommended turning your cheek and loving your brothers.

      March 8, 2012 at 4:33 am |
  16. Manny

    I would have expected the experience with your professor would have light a fire within your spirit to ensure Jesus is in the equation of your conversation. What better time to speak about the loving power of Jesus, the forgiveness through Jesus who shed his blood on the cross, and the opportunity to spend eternity with Jesus forever. You have a perfect opportunity to share your faith (if you believe in Jesus) and to minister the gospel of truth where you are.

    Don't be timid, let them make their own choice, but at least they know why they are where they are after death because you told the truth and countered the lie they were told denying the existence of God and teaching that nonsense fable called evolution. Perfect opportunities for you to share your faith and to spread the truth of the good news of Jesus Christ to a dead and dying generation of people.

    March 6, 2012 at 10:16 pm |
    • Peggy

      Matthew 7:1-5

      March 7, 2012 at 11:43 am |
  17. Geri

    WONDERFUL ARTICLE – WELL WRITTEN .. SHE HAS A TREMENDOUS SOUL – PROFESSOR .. YOU NEED TO GET OUT THERE AND EXPERIENCE LIFE..

    March 6, 2012 at 9:27 pm |
  18. TexDoc

    As an ER doctor, I am often the last person people talk to also. People's last words are almost always about family and love, and very very rarely god or prayer. Loved ones I've been bedside at their death have always asked that we continue to take care of each other as a family.

    March 6, 2012 at 8:53 pm |
  19. Lyla Cavanaugh

    My mom wanted to know, and asked a visiting doctor (she was bedbound five yr. with osteoporosis) What happens when I die and where do I go? The doctor told her she could not answer and it depended on a person's faith. My mom died without any faith. She always felt she could do everything herself and never needed any help. She also said it had been a mistake to get married and have a child. She wished she had not done any ot it.

    March 6, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
    • KJ

      I think the doctor was right: I don't think any of us knows where we're going to end up! I lost a daughter late in my pregnancy, though, and I'm sure that she was taken to a good place. Your mother is at peace now, of that I'm sure, and you weren't a mistake. =)

      March 7, 2012 at 10:02 am |
    • Paul

      I’m sure we all have regrets at death. It’s a time when everyone reflects on their life. It’s a shame people don’t do that earlier, then it would add meaning to their life and give them a sense of purpose. I read the Bible everyday and I find it very helpful and refreshing knowing what God’s purpose is and why mankind is in the mess we are in. If you have the answers it makes life so much more valuable and meaningful. I recommend you do the same. There are people who call on you at your home that offer very helpful discussions on the Bible, why not talk to them.
      And yes I agree with the other person. Sometimes we say things we don’t mean and I think the comment your mum made about you was one of them. You have a bright future ahead if you look for it.

      March 8, 2012 at 4:46 am |
    • no name

      My father died wen i was really young and i know your pain when someone tells you something like that. But look at it this way, she would have never been able to enjoy you and all the love you gave her to the end. What matters is what you think and you believe because in the end no matter what you believe that person lives on through you,in your memories and your love.

      March 9, 2012 at 12:44 am |
  20. kat

    A truly GLORIOUS article! People do not want to talk about "where I'll end up", pray, for what? You are dying you know it and you want to share with someone.......your family. Thank you for this most inspirational piece!

    March 6, 2012 at 5:52 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.