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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. Doreen

    There is an old saying that "Those who can, do. Those who cant, teach"... It sounds like this is absolutely true in this devoted person's life path. She ignored the criticism and followed her heart and instincts. Listening is absolutely what I have experienced as I have watched people prepare for their final hours. They dont need to be preached to. They dont need to be hounded that they "accepted God" or accepted the "right God". By this point they have made their choices. They need to be reassured that their lives had meaning, that loved ones will continue on and be cared for as they grieve. My mother was in her final hours and non communicative, except when I arrived she looked at me and said "hey kiddo" which was her normal greeting. The days before when she was fully alert though, she just wanted to know she had been a good wife, mother, and to let us know she had done what she felt was right and helped as many people as she could lead a better life.

    March 10, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
  2. southside nike

    "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."

    maybe that's what religion should be....love

    March 10, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
  3. vickie lou brady

    I am crying because this is so very beautiful. What an example of giving and love.

    March 10, 2012 at 6:49 am |
  4. The Truth I Would Want To Know Before The End of My Life

    If I were at the end of my life here on Earth, I would want someone to tell me about Jesus. He died on the cross paying the penalty for my sins. Romans 5: 7-8 “Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners.”

    March 10, 2012 at 4:33 am |
    • tallulah13

      Most people in this culture have already heard that story and by the time they are dying have either accepted or rejected it. If you want to hear it again, then I hope you find a chaplain that will come to your bedside and tell you this story that gives you such comfort.

      Personally, if someone came to my deathbed to tell me this nonsense, I would do my best to have them removed from my presence and not allowed to return.

      March 11, 2012 at 3:06 am |
  5. Boobie

    seems like an opportunity for all criticisms on religion, an individuals comfortable opinion everyone self-servingly will accept

    March 10, 2012 at 4:25 am |
    • boobie

      and by that i mean the clergymen, not the author of the article, i believe in the good faith you good people have with the loss of your loved ones...god bless

      March 10, 2012 at 4:30 am |
  6. reason

    The gods of all organized religions, if true, would all be horribly unjust and evil deities to send billions of people to eternal suffering for choosing the wrong one or being born in the wrong place. Looking at organized religion objectively, they are myths from stone age societies that were trying to explain the world, and there is virtually no chance any one is truth.

    Rationally speaking if there is a just god and an afterlife, you will be judged on how you lived your life. Rejecting reason and deluding yourself in blind faith does not help your case.

    March 9, 2012 at 8:49 pm |
  7. Eddie Shelton

    Once as I lay on the very threshold of eternity,I thought about two main things.Who would take care of my family and what would it be like to be in the presence of my Lord and Master,Yeshua(Jesus).I had two emotions. A Peace which passes all understanding and an overwhelming sense of excitement ,Yes excitement ! After a while ,One word stuck to my mind....".Maranatha" being translated....Come Lord Jesus!

    March 9, 2012 at 8:39 pm |
  8. Russ

    A chaplain knows there are more important things in life than just family.
    It's literally in the job description.

    Refusing to talk about what matters most is refusing to be a chaplain.
    And more importantly, it's refusing to love just because doing so makes you uncomfortable.

    March 9, 2012 at 8:30 pm |
    • tallulah13

      To some people, what matters most IS family. A person who can't respect the needs and desires of others is far to selfish to do any good, and has no business among the dying.

      March 11, 2012 at 3:15 am |
    • Russ

      @ talullah: it sounds like your objection is to the very existence of chaplains,
      and not simply the way in which a chaplain performs his/her job.
      can you recognize that most hospitals believe chaplains are a necessary part of serving their patients?

      March 13, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
  9. Lori Desmond

    At least at the end of life some people have Kerry Egan to LISTEN to them. Far too often people never ask a single question, thinking they know everything, and rather, give unasked for advice and commentary on personal, albeit incorrect, assumptions. Thank you for sharing, Ms. Egan. Many lessons in your post.

    March 9, 2012 at 6:14 pm |
  10. A. Velasco

    Great Story! My grandmother passed with all her kids around her, and she left with a smile.

    March 9, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
  11. rob earl

    I would consider myself fortunate if Kerry Egan visited me during my final hours. Thank you for telling us what many of us instinctively believed. Our families are the reason we were put here. They are more important than anything else in our lives.

    March 9, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
  12. Stacy

    This article was beautifully written and so very true. As an experienced palliative care nurse (who works in a faith-based hospital), I completely agree with you. You are a gem, Kerry. Please continue to do what you do and spread the word so that others may learn to truly care for people's souls and help people in their final hour reconcile their lives on earth instead of worrying about a self-serving agenda. God loves all and forgives all. It is absolutely ridiculous to think that God would reject anyone at the gates of heaven for reflecting on love being the culmination of their life's work. God bless you, Kerry!

    March 9, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
  13. Monique

    omg this article literally touched my soul.

    March 9, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
  14. jen

    "The spiritual work of being human is learning how to love and how to forgive." Amen.

    March 9, 2012 at 9:16 am |
  15. David B

    “And prayer? Do you lead them in prayer? Or ritual?”

    “Well,” I hesitated. “Sometimes. But not usually, not really.”

    Can you imagine Ms. Egan leading anyone in prayer? OMG!

    March 9, 2012 at 7:41 am |
  16. Steven A.

    "This is where we create our lives, this is where we find meaning, this is where our purpose becomes clear."

    Yes, in this life. I feel you were right. 'Glad you came around to seeing it too.

    March 9, 2012 at 12:06 am |
  17. Marie Gardener

    Thank you, Kerry, for listening to your patients talk about what is important to them.

    Yann, I don't believe that God loves men more than women. If I did, I wouldn't be a Christian. If Christ didn't die for my sins as well as men's, why should I follow him?

    March 8, 2012 at 10:42 pm |
  18. Archangel Michael

    All men are part of the same family – Heavenly Father's children. Some are good, some not so good. Some see clearly the path they must take and tread it strongly, others struggle merely to take a step without falling. While there is a true faith here upon the earth, the most important thing is that for those who have a belief, to have lived it with all of their heart. All men will be judged in the end by their actions in this life and by the content of their heart. Even having faith is an action, and living that faith for the benefit of one's earthly brothers and sisters is the greatest way to do God's word.

    March 8, 2012 at 9:16 pm |
  19. august

    my name is august
    i have been around lots of people dieing aunts and uncle mom .my father drownded in the mississppi river along with my 12 year old brother.we never real know what to ask or say to a dying person.i know that if there not a christain then after listin to them about how they feel or about where they think there going if they die .you should ask if your not ashamed of what they may think .do you know GOD as your saveior repent and ask god to help you in to heaven of your sins. you see i have been dead 3 times the last time i died i was on my way to heaven and when i got there I HEARD A VOICE I AM NOT YET READY FOR YOU YET .i came back in my bodie and i am still waiting for a nother chance to enter in to heaven.you know what i am not ready to inter in to heaven i am a sinner and GODS waiting for me to repint of my sins.dont be afraid of dieing be afraid of where you might go if your not saved.if you are saved you have no worys for give me for miss spelled words i never went to school

    March 8, 2012 at 7:22 pm |
  20. Jorge

    There once was a 130 year-old man that lay on his deathbed, surrounded by friends, family and associates that were lamenting the wealth of knowledge and camraderie that this well-travelled, highly educated sage who had lived in many cultures and found enlightenment in many faiths would no longer bestow upon them, no longer would they partake of his great wisdom after he passed on. As a preacher walked into the hospital room to perform the last rites the old man suddenly mustered out of his rattling and gestured to the preacher, attempting to speak aloud but not being able to. The preacher bent his ear to the old man's mouth, in order to hear what he wanted to say.-"Get the hell out of the way,"-whispered the old man-"...you're blocking my nice window view..."

    March 8, 2012 at 3:59 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.