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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. jon

    The coomon thread is that athiests all find religion on their death beds

    March 23, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
  2. Ken Lanouette

    My wife is dying of Alzheimers. Your article got me crying again...in a niced way. I don't know what God is all about, but itis nice to know that I'm carrying out God's will just by whispering "I love you".

    March 23, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
  3. airforce1990

    It's too bad you don't talk to them about eternal life and how they can recieve forgiveness of sin from Jesus Christ.

    March 23, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      I would use the last of my strength to kick out a person who was trying to preach to me on my deathbed. If that is their belief then fine, but it is not something for everyone. Some of my family is religious, and if they tried to preach to me on my deathbed I'd kick their ass out to.

      March 23, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
    • airforce1990

      @hawaiiguest.....good for you.

      March 23, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
    • ZECA

      really airforce

      March 23, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
    • airforce1990

      Yep, really.

      March 23, 2012 at 7:35 pm |
    • Paul

      Yeah bad timing to talk about repentance. Should have considered that well before. Humans are funny creatures when everything is going well we don't need God. But when our nuber is up, it's often the first thing we think about.
      Which of course goes to prove all humans have a spirituality, some just choose to ignore it at their peril sadly.

      March 23, 2012 at 9:22 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      @Paul

      It's thinly veiled insinuations and condescension like yours that push people away from you. Insinuating your beliefs upon others, and making veiled comments about hell and torture is a self-serving thing. An "all loving" god wouldn't give two shi.ts about worship. I'm a parent, and I could care less if my daughter respects me or even likes me, I could never consign her to eternal suffering for it. I couldn't even do that if she were a less than savory person. What does that say about my capacity for love and understanding?

      March 28, 2012 at 8:12 pm |
  4. NYbywayofTexas

    Wow. The shame and dismay you felt from an ignorant professor gave birth to a loving, compassionate, God filled human being. Love is the cornerstone. There is ritual that gives way to religion that hopefully givesway to relationship. A poignant, knowledgeable, wisdom-filled article indeed. We can always talk about what we believe, but a sermon lived is always better than one preached any day. Love is expressed in action, not in speeches. Thank you, you have taught me mightily today. God indeed bless you!!!

    March 23, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
  5. Julie

    A beautiful article – and in my experience so true. As my 14 year old son began to fail, he spoke of his love for his family – me and his sister, as well as aunts/uncles etc. and included his friends, too. He added, " Don't be sad Mom – I have had good life". After saying the Lord's Prayer together, his last words to me were, I love you Mom." He passed a few hours later. Chaplain Egan, I applaud your insight and caring. The comfort and support you offer not only benefits the patient, but his/her family, too. May God Bless you and your efforts.

    March 23, 2012 at 11:36 am |
    • JP

      Julie – thank you for sharing such a difficult experience. It very much touched me.

      Kerry – though my beliefs are not the same as yours, you have found a deeper truth and I enjoyed your article.

      March 23, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
  6. Mindy Andersen

    What a poignant article! It should be the gold-standard of how to treat the dying. Each individual is just that, "unique" not a passage in theology.

    March 22, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
  7. Ranger14

    I lost my wife to cancer two years ago. As painful as it was to watch her health deteriorate I was grateful for the opportunity to demonstrate the depth of my love for her.
    Your article was touching and quite beautiful in its sentiment. Thank you and thanks to also the dedicated people in your field. You are truly doing God's work on earth.

    March 22, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
  8. W. Andrew

    An inspiring article. The reality of the worth of family cannot be overstated. As a believer in God I find that once the spirit within is settled the next most important thing is the family that we have been blessed with. An excellent read.

    March 22, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • Bobby Price

      Unfortunately I was not around when my mother passed from this life and I so pray that she died peaceful and as happy as possible. I know there is a living God, I've experienced him in so many way's. With that being said I must now say how inspiring this artical was to read, I've thought about this and she answered so many of my question with this artical. I now say thank you..

      March 22, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
  9. Carol Palmeri

    I had the privilege of being there and holding my mother's hand in her final days-hours-minutes. We talked about family, Dad, my siblings. All the time assuring her that she was loved by all of us. I stayed with her until they came to take her away. She was 97. This year I watch a dear friend step out into the hall when they pulled the plug on her husband. She could not bare to see him pass. How terrible not to be there until the end with someone you loved for 51 years. It doesn't matter if you talk – they talk – or what you talk about. It does matter to both people that you are there when it happens.

    March 22, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
  10. LULA M WALKER

    WHO IS THE PERSON LAYING THE GARNEY? I FEEL I DO KNOW HIM.

    March 22, 2012 at 11:53 am |
  11. Larry

    Thank you..I'm in the process of dying and am glad to know I don't have tot talk about god and any belief I might have, I have a large family (six kids)all grown, I may not have expressed my love as well as I would've liked but I do know I will be truly missed,nthat comforts and hurts me.

    March 22, 2012 at 11:03 am |
  12. Joanna

    What a touching article Kerry. Honest and beautifully written.

    I absolutely believe in everything you wrote in this article, and feel so very blessed to have my loving family.
    Thank you.

    March 22, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  13. Alma

    Comforting. Reassuring. I lost my mom two years ago, though she was unable to say very much, she called out my name three times. This article confirms what I suspected, that even in her last hours, she was thinking of me, unable to perhaps say thank you or I love you, but thinking of me till the end. I honor her and think of her all the time. Can't wait for our reunion in heaven. First I will see the face of Jesus in all its splendor, and then stepping aside, he will show me to my Mom. This helps many through my mourning process. Thanks!

    March 22, 2012 at 10:14 am |
  14. 1st

    Bless the heart of Kerry Egan and evryone on this blog. GOD love you and I do too. I pray everyone's prayers are answered, in the Lords name. Amen

    March 21, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
  15. Michelle

    What a beautiful article. You are a wise and gifted woman and I greatly admire you for your chosen path in life. The world needs more compassionate and unbiased people such as yourself. Those that recieve your support in death are very fortuate to be sent off with such a beautiful person beside them!

    March 21, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
  16. Dee

    And so God directed your path...not the professor...Praise God! I have been on the other side of the sofa from you. I lost my baby brother to brain cancer at the age of 47. (the day before his 48th birthday actually.) I didn't like you at first...you forced me to acknowledge we would lose the battle. I would not want (or be able to do) your job for a minute let alone a lifetime. Thank God that there are people like you...caring and honest and sincere in their love of people and fairness and dignity...to care for those who are in need as well as their families. God Bless You in your ministries.

    March 21, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
  17. Sue

    Kerry,

    I cannot believe the coldness of that professor. He had something to learn from you and he shut his eye to it...and tried to shame you. How horrible people are.

    You are a blessing to go to people and listen to them when most, this "learned man" included, are too afraid to approach something so frightening. You have touched many lives. Please continue to do your courageous work.

    G-d bless you!

    March 21, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
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  18. Nicolaas Smith

    A very good article.

    March 21, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
  19. Ray

    WOW! So well said! So glad you ignored the other path. Bless you work!

    March 21, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
  20. Chris Judd

    Beautifully expressed! Regardless of the differences in each of us, we all have the same unifying Spirit which God gives us – the desire to love and be loved. Faith is built off of that foundation. This is true for any belief system one holds. Thanks for this awesome article!

    March 21, 2012 at 12:50 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.