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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. Isabel

    Thank you for this writing. It fills my heart with warmth, and quite frankly...LOVE. I feel love for Kerry, for being such an amazing caregiver (which many times is synonymous with 'listener' ), and i feel love for my family, my friends, my nation, my universe, my cosmos. Everything around me, feels like love. Thank you Kerry. I hope this will be read at MY funeral someday.

    March 21, 2012 at 11:29 am |
  2. Voice of Reason

    Let's take a hold of ourselves! God and religion is the product of early man not understanding and fearing the unknown natural phenomenon. We're talking about a long time before Christianity was even a thought. Thunder, lightning, wind, sun, moon, planets, stars, rain, floods, snow, hurricanes, tornadoes, all were feared. They created gods to make sense of the unknown and did really crazy things to appease them, like human and animal sacrifice. Long story short, God and religion is something created out of fear of the unknown.
    I plead with all of you to read and educate yourselves and get your head out of that book of nonsense. I had a conversation with a fundamentalist yesterday and he asked me to have an open mind and just read the bible. But when I asked him to have an open mind the door shut on anything I suggested, like evolution or that the earth is older than 6000 years old. I mean, come on. He believes there was an Adam and Eve, Noah's Ark and all that other crazy BS. And by the way, you don't need a god to have love, it's a chemical reaction!

    March 20, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • Peter

      Jesus saves us from our death by his own death. You're put out that some believe him? Next you'll be telling us that you're death is a myth, therefore you don't need to be rescued from it. Someone's deluded. We have nothing to lose, and everything to gain. You have nothing to gain, and everything to loose. What if a man gains everything he wants, then dies? Do you think your head will help you in the grave? No, sir, I tell you, reconsider while there is still time. Jesus will save you from your disasterous end if you believe him and repent from your rebellion. He doesn't care a wit about our religions. Being laid out in a casket in some funeral home is not religion. Consider your end, not what people believe. God help you.

      March 20, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • Chris

      I remember going to a Unitarian Universalist church here in San Diego and hearing a very simliar message. I love the position you wrote this article from. I sense a lot of compassion and understanding through this article. What I find contradictory through this article, though, is her understanding of theology. Sounds like she views "theology" in its own separate idea and that her views have no theology in it. However, the simple explanation of how "God is love" is part of theology. So all that she is sharing is pretty much her understanding of the theology she believes in. They sound warming to the heart but very misleading. I'm definitely not a Calvinist but I do hold a much more conservative view that believing that all perceptions of good comes from the same "spirit of God." I had lost my father to cancer and I can really sympathize with the author. I just wish she was a bit more clear about what "god" she was referring to because I believe he has a name.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:18 am |
    • Chris

      Totally did not mean to reply to you. I don't even know why it got posted under your message. Oh well.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:19 am |
  3. Paul

    @Kerry Egan
    God intended love to be an expectation of every child born. The family unit was made to be a foundation of love and respect. Sadly that is not true of today. The Apostle Paul knew this be the case in the ‘Last Days’. 1 Tim 3:1-7. He was inspired to say, “men will be lovers of themselves, unthankful, disloyal, having no natural affection, without love of goodness, having a form of godly devotion but proving false to it’s power;”
    So you see Kerry, this has been the result of people NOT following the Bible. If we read and apply God’s Word we will benefit ourselves and those around us. Getting to know God is the start of wisdom and understanding what love really means.

    March 20, 2012 at 12:56 am |
  4. Nikki

    Kerry, this is an absolutely beautiful article!!! It makes me want to kick your professor in the nuts but also reafirms the way I believe in faith. Good for you!! So inspiring.

    March 19, 2012 at 9:08 pm |
  5. jOHN

    John Locke once said, "the man who does not act based upon his own experience is the man to be feared." I have been with numerous people before they die and sometimes they experience some extra ordinary things.If I were not to be believe after seeing what I have ...then I would be a very foolish indeed.
    It is all good and God is at the end....only if you want.No one will force you to believe anything you have rejected your entire life.

    March 19, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
  6. Voice of Reason

    I applaud this young woman for not offering some supernatural BS to the dying. I would welcome her to chat at the death bed. We could talk about how incredible the earth is and how unfortunate some people waste it believing some nonsensical life after death theory. I mean, come on! If you would educate yourself and understand how all of this came about you would realize that it doesn't take a God to have what we have. Why do you have to have God? Give me one good reason.
    And by the way, you go professor! Let's keep shoving ignorance down the throats of the young, you moron!

    March 19, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
    • The Obama Christian Church Worldwide

      When president Obama becomes of divine order on October 21st of this year, things will be put in perspective. We need to read the good gospels of Obama because he is a good christian family man and will be God on October 21st of this year.

      March 19, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
    • Joseph

      So much bitterness comes through in what you wrote. Maybe a well meaning person tried to teach you about God and you now reject it. God chooses us, we do not choose him. Maybe you're feeling left out. I hope you find him in this life. I pray that you find love in this life. I pray you recognize the good in yourself and in others around you. I pray that you finnd something rewarding that you do that makes you feel good. God is love.

      March 19, 2012 at 8:29 pm |
  7. Elijah34

    The best way for anyone to learn about God, is by reading the Word of God. Never go by what you think. The bible tells us in the book of Isaiah the11chp, when the Lord comes He will not judge according to His sight or by the Hearing of His ears, but with righteousness. The only thing that will matter in the end is if someone knew Jesus Christ as their personal saviour. All other things do not matter. Eternity in heaven or hell is on the line. Jesus said the Son of man has come to save that which is lost. Go out and preach the gospel as the Lord commanded the twelve in Mathew10. Go forth and preach the gospel! Do you know Jesus as your personal saviour?

    March 18, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • Peter

      "Eternity in heaven or hell is on the line. "

      You have no proof of that.

      March 18, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • Paul

      You are quite right Peter. The Bible does not teach a fire of hell, this is contrary to a loving God. Rather death is the opposite of life.
      No matter how bad my son or daughter I could not consider burning them forever!

      March 19, 2012 at 5:08 am |
    • Paul

      Jehovah's Witnesses are doing a very good job of that, preaching the "good news of God's kingdom". There is more to it than personal salvation my friend.
      What about "let your Name be sanctified", that is God's name Jehovah. That comes way before any personal salvation in Jesus view, try reading the Lords prayer again!

      March 19, 2012 at 5:12 am |
    • Voice of Reason

      Educate yourself or seek mental health.

      March 19, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      "The only thing that will matter in the end is if someone knew Jesus Christ as their personal saviour. All other things do not matter."

      This essintially gives you leave to do anything that you want as long as you believe in jesus. You could be the worst person in the world, do many horrible things to other people, and it wouldn't matter one bit according to your logic.

      March 19, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
    • Paul

      @HawaiiGuest
      Yes that is the trouble with most Christian religions. They don’t actually let the Bible principles guide their life or impact on them. They feel believing is all that is necessary. In fact Christian Religion has done some terrible things in the name of Jesus. Just think of the crusades, World War I and II.
      No wonder the Bible has prophesied to do away with religion by means of the UN. God is sick of them. I thought you might be pleased to hear that!

      March 20, 2012 at 12:23 am |
  8. carlos

    When our last minutes come, we then open our true soul to those who listen. Hope they can learn, life is midless without family and spiritual love.

    March 18, 2012 at 3:46 am |
  9. Akta

    Good word. I love this writer. Everything with God, starts with love, relationship, family.

    March 17, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
  10. sdabby

    i lost my best friend of 37 years recently to brain cancer. His wife asked me to speak at a service celbrating his life. i used some of the passages from Kerry Egan's article. The one that was paticualrly touching was
    "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."
    - It was difficult to speak to a gorup of aobut 100 people. I was chocking on my words. .

    March 17, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
  11. arlington04

    When my father was in his death bed we certainly have our religious belief of sending to soul to heaven and say our last prayers with our dying love ones. We prayed almost everyday knowing there is no more physical cure of his illness but rather the cure of his spiritual being. My father prayed too he sees things that we cannot see, he started to believe that there is really Satan and God. He always say to us to be good and pray, he say that certainly there is evil in this world and God & satan fighting for his soul. The day he died we all unexpectedly gather around his death bed without any plan to meet at the hospital at the same time. Our family priest offered a mass for him and he told us before he left for the mass that my father will die that night...while the mass was still said my father slowly fading to the next world. But I really think having his kids around him and saying our last piece that "IT IS OKAY FOR HIM TO LEAVE AND WE WILL BE OKAY", then he made peace with God and went.
    Long term illness may have time to think about spiritual life but the bottom line to give them peace that the family they will leave behind will be okay. We have different experiences about our spirituality and our belief in God.
    I am a nurse and I see people die in a long term setting same thing...dying people needs assurance that it is okay to die and sometimes we don't need to mention about God and his/her spirituality. One last thing to do is make their going assuring and is fine.

    March 17, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
  12. elaine

    Thank you for articulating what I have always known in my heart

    March 16, 2012 at 8:00 pm |
  13. CarolO

    Afraid if I was dying the last person I would want in my room is a total stranger, as well. My religion is my business and always has been and I doubt with 20 minutes left to live, it would change any. I want those 20 minutes to tell my children how much I love them.

    March 16, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
  14. phnxrth

    I would respectfully submit that maybe the dying talk about family more as a symbol of how to communicate with God, and that they often talk about love at such a time for the same reason. Most of us spend our whole lives without ever really kowing how to talk to God, I believe, but then at the end that changes.

    I believe that's sad, that it shouldn't be like that. Maybe at some point for future generations it won't be such a struggle.

    March 16, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
    • CarolO

      Afraid not. I talk to family to communicate with family, not to communicate with God.

      March 16, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
    • Nyteshayde

      Right, Carol, it's subjective. You do your thing and phnxrth will do theirs. Get off your high horse.

      March 17, 2012 at 12:06 am |
  15. TexDoc

    In the ER, I've been the last person to talk to many people. Very very few talk of god. My experience matches the author. They talk of family and loved ones. I did have one say "I should have worked more", only kidding, no one ever said that.

    March 16, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
    • A Wexler MD

      As some one who has cared for the dying including my own father and step mother I appreciated your article and agree with you. It was beautifuly written. I do not know how much God figures in the process ,I do know love does figure in the process and that is often the ultimate expression of the dying. When my father died at home surrounded by family he expressed his love of life ,his love of family and lastly "thank you " . Love and appreciation for what one is given makes for that happy life .

      March 16, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
  16. Lorraine

    Satanluv, Well, If maybe the hellenistic alexandrian jewish writers beginning in 200bce, had not gotten with Constantine, to CHANGE the Word of YHWH in the book of remembrance, the so called OT, then there would not be all of these contradictions, for YHWH said to us that He changes NOT, in Malachi 3v6. Not His word, not His law, the 10 commandments, the sabbath, day of rest, nor the passover of Exodus 12. None of this was supposed to be changed. But, in Isaiah 24v5, here it says it all was. Therefore, there is confusion, and contradictions all over in the NT. The NT should fulfill the OT, as the story of jesus it is not even in the OT, nowhere has it been prophesied, as the 'son' coming to die for our sins, where is that said in the OT? I read that YHWH is the only Savior, and Redeemer, in Isaiah 49v26, and Isaiah 60v16, and all through the OT, as also told to us that He has forgotten our sins, in Isaiah 44v22, and only ask that we return to His law. YHWH is His Hebrew name for the God of Israel, He does not change this law. Also, is why YHWH tells us that in Malachi 2, Ezekiel 20, and Jeremiah 23v1-5, of how He is angry with popes,priests,etc.. who are misleading people (His flocks). And note, YHWH does nothing without His prophets, taught to us in Amos 3v7. This is why we are under mayhem in our world there is no harmony with the Creator YHWH, none. People are doing, and eating, what they want just like those jewish writers did, and YHWH will pull the heart strings to one's desire, Jeremiah 17v8-10, unless people are wholeheartedly wanting to be about YHWH, and His law that is our life, this is of our own fault of desire, and choices, and we are paying dearly. For everyone is responsible for their own righteousness, Ezekiel 14v14.

    March 16, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
    • chaz

      Lorraine,
      Isaiah 53:5-12 is the prophecy of Christ dieing for our sins. The gospel in general is Isaiah 52:13-53:12. I challenge you to read in any of the NT gospels (Mathew, Mark, Luke, John) concerning the birth, etc of Jesus, and compare those specific details to the following Old Testament scriptures... from the book of Isaiah: 7:14, 49:6, 9:6-7 from the book of Psalms: 16:10-11, 22:16-18, Micah 5:2, and Zechariah 9:9 and 11:12-13 Psalms 22 prophesies of Christ's crucifixion.
      Isaiah 64:6 says that our righteousness is like filthy rags. Ecclesiastes 7:20 says there is not a single righteous man on earth...so good luck trying to earn your own righteousness. Who is David talking about in Psalm 110:1? In Genesis 1:26 it says "Let US create man in OUR image" This clearly is referring to the trinity. Jesus said to his fellow Jews in John 5:39-40 "You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life."

      March 18, 2012 at 1:26 am |
  17. Bob

    "God IS love, and that only when we love one another can we experience God." That phrase and the lyric from Les Miserables, "To love another is to see the face of God"... These mean a great deal to me. Now... if God is Love, I know what is to to feel "God like". At age 73. To love, to trust and to suddenly have a family.

    March 16, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
  18. forwardmarch

    Who cares what people want to talk about before they die? If I'm in their will, I'll sit and listen to whatever they say. If I'm not in their will, then they can shut the F up!

    March 16, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • drew

      Ur an ass...dying soon?

      March 16, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • HorizonLLM

      Greedy, just like the majority of the human race.
      Either you're bitter about some loss or you're just sick of the whole emotional thing surrounding topics of life. Point is, your comment is not needed.
      Forward march to where? Hell?

      You'd be surprised at the things you get to see when you are near that point (there is something universally higher than you), you won't know what you are going through or where to turn/look. But I bet you 100% you won't be looking for someone who mentioned you in their will. Be careful of what you say, think and do in this World. There are some experiences that you will never understand or refuse to believe, but others have (even those of the most logical minds) and know how to forward march
      'correctly'.

      March 16, 2012 at 3:13 pm |
    • Beth

      @ FreeLunch: Oh my ! I can see that somehow you didn't get or at least feel the love that you needed. Perhaps it was withheld, maybe you need more than most, maybe you have rejected it, but I strongly urge you to examine your feeling behind the comment and see what it says about how lonely, sad and angry you really are.

      Anger is a disease that will eventually destroy you and all you hold dear. This is not said in judgment of you, but in recognition of, and personal experience with it. One of the hardest things we might ever do is forgive ourselves and those who we believe have harmed us. It’s a process that may take a lifetime, but one that is necessary if we are to grow and eventually know love as it should be, especially for our children and spouse.

      This article brought me to tears, as I sat with both parents before and during their deaths. We had always supported our local church, my parents were elders and deacons, but they never made a big deal of religion, it was just how we lived.

      As my father neared death after months of fighting pancreatic cancer, we didn’t speak of big ideas, but of the small. Memories of better days, amusing anecdotes, his childhood and parents. We had talked of the big ideas long before, and felt no need to revisit those again. In the very early morning of my father’s last day, he sat up in bed and began talking with several people at the end of the bed - that only he could see. They had a warm, lively conversation that lasted about 8 minutes. My father then turned to my mother, patted her hand and firmly asked her to go home, saying he was fine. He had to ask her 3 more times, before she reluctantly agreed.

      I had wanted to stay and ask about that conversation, as he had been speaking in tongues with them, but instead, said my final goodbyes. As we walked in our house 4 minutes later, the phone was ringing. We knew he had asked us to leave because he had to leave, and couldn’t while we were there.

      About 5 years later, my first child was born via c-section. For various medical reasons, I needed to deliver before any labor could begin, so I imagine this was a big surprise to him. After the initial checkups, he was returned to me all bathed and wrapped. This newborn was wide awake, and for several hours, looked intensely at me and the others in the room, all the while telling us a story that eventually filled the room with strangers - as he too was speaking in tongues. He finally tired and napped. When he awoke, he was a different baby — like any other newborn. But for just a few hours though, he enraptured me and many others with his amazing behavior.

      I can’t tell you what this means, if anything. However, I do know that love is all we have, and our faith can be expressed in how we love ourselves and others. For we cannot truly love someone else before we have accepted and love our own humanity. Thank you for this affirmation of what I suspected for more than 60 years of living.

      March 16, 2012 at 8:23 pm |
    • Beth

      Just want to clarify a bit: First, My parents were Presbyterians - not a group who routinely speaks of, or in tongues! Second, one can be spiritual without buying into the idea of an old man who is mean and vengeful, capricious, and demanding as portrayed in the OT. I think those writers also used a "god" to explain things they didn't understand, which is why there is a sequel, called the NT.

      March 16, 2012 at 9:00 pm |
    • JoJo

      Wow, you are such a source of inspiration!

      March 16, 2012 at 9:22 pm |
    • Nyteshayde

      You all are awfully verbose for responding to what is obviously a troll.

      March 17, 2012 at 12:08 am |
    • pritka

      You are in Beth's will so shut the F up and listen.

      March 18, 2012 at 2:42 am |
    • HaveANiceDay

      I pray that everyone who has you in their will outlives you by a long, long time.

      March 18, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  19. Love

    Beautiful article, Kerry Egan. It's refreshing when someone clearly articulates that God IS love, and that only when we love one another can we experience God.

    March 15, 2012 at 9:00 pm |
  20. Satanluv

    that posted before I proofread my last line..argument...i always reverse my e and n...maybe its god's wrath

    March 15, 2012 at 8:38 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.