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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. Lorraine

    Paul, you really need to get out of that NT, for where does it say anything in the book of remembrance, named for us all in Malachi 3v16, the so called OT, of a trinity, that is man-made. And, now you are dispelling what the Creator YHWH says, in Isaiah 45v7, of what He creates? YHWH creates evil. Gee, the NT, really makes one haughty, enough to think they can tell YHWH what will be, unbelievable! You people want to be gods. In Job, it was evident that the satan (metaphor), was within Job of his own pride, this is why he apologizes, or (repenting), to YHWH for it in Job 42v1-6. Read the truth in Genesis – Malachi, not those man-made myths of the NT(not true).

    March 31, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
  2. Carolyn

    Kerry is the kind of chaplain I'll probably want to see when I'm dying, but as responses to her blog make clear, not everyone needs the same thing. If you want someone to talk to you about Jesus or listen to your confession or assure you that you're going to Heaven, I believe you should have that. Why else would hospitals have so many kinds of chaplains?

    What I don't want is someone visiting me with dogma that I do not accept. Having to listen is like hell on earth.

    March 31, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
  3. John the 2nd

    Just one quick question. What about Jesus chaplain? Or have they quit talking about Jesus and redemption in divinity school? If I am dying I want to talk about Jesus and I want my family to talk to me, with me and around me with Jesus and His redemptive peace.

    March 30, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
  4. Nance

    Thank you so much for taking the time to write this beautiful and sacred piece.

    March 27, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
  5. John

    God is love and hate. God is Purgatory. We are experiencing our lives through the eyes of God and his conscious. He is the force pulling you closer to death, but giving life to the consciousness of living beings. He is the contraction and expansion of forces emitting light to the unconscious in the universe. God is knowledge of the human brain, which function as emotions between the unconscious, through the subconscious, and to the physical conscious.

    No Religion is greater than another, since we all put our perspectives into the freedom of relative religion. Buddhism, Hinduism, Zen, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc.; are all the same concept of understanding the Nature of the universe and consciousness, giving Death to life and Life to Death.

    March 26, 2012 at 8:54 pm |
    • airforce1990

      What have you been smoking?

      March 27, 2012 at 9:37 am |
    • AGuest9

      I think you give this imaginary "force" way too much credit.

      March 27, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • Lorraine

      John, All religions are idolatry, they divide us, and control the masses; and are not of the Creator YHWH, and not of His spirituality, of righteousness, and peace, and is why we are all in mayhem of in difference, greed, poverty, hate..etc. in this world, straying away from YHWH, and His law or righteousness, the commandments, the sabbath, His day of rest, and the passover in Exodus 12, that begins in April. This is all He ask of us, and yet we do idols, and put them over Him instead, and that angers Him, and keeps us under His wrath. He says in Isaiah 40v18, not to put anyone in comparison to Him. YHWH is the only Savior, and Redeemer in Isaiah 49v26, and Isaiah 60v16, and no man can ever be delivered from out of His hands in Isaiah 43v13. Just to let many know, the only Son, and firstborn that YHWH has told us He has is "Israel" His chosen people, to bring the light unto the rest of the nations, but even they have gone astray and are now under His wrath as well. Until all has returned to YHWH we are all under it as said in Jeremiah 25, preferably, vs.30,31.

      March 27, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
  6. T's Grl

    I appreciated reading this piece because I witnessed so many of things while being with my young husband who suffered from severe pain while dying of melanoma and bone cancer. Towards the end, all he cared about was his family being near and trying to remain focused on my eyes until he couldnt keep his own open any longer. Although this all sounds horrible, his courage and final peaceful acceptance of his earthly life ending and his belief that he would soon be with God kept all of US from despair. I am so glad there is a Father who can make this all possible as we come to our final days on earth.

    March 26, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
    • Carol from New Orleans

      Thank you for sharing. I lost my father from the same disease. Having faith, knowing suffering is often a teacher and a part of our earthly transition makes it bearable and redemptive.

      March 27, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
  7. Paul

    Jehovah did not create evil. How can a God of love do such a thing? However he does punish those who disobey him. Such as Israel deserved Isaiah 45:7. See also Isaiah 10:6 where Jehovah sent the Assyrian to destroy them for turning apostate. See also Amos 3:1, 6.
    Israel is Jehovah’s first born son in that it was the first nation he had chosen, due to his promise to Abraham. The nation did not deserve this as was proved by their constant disobedience to Jehovah so in the end he destroyed them by the Romans in 70CE. From this time on he chose a spiritual nation, initially made up of Jews then by people of all the nations as he promised Abraham Gen 22:18.

    March 25, 2012 at 11:57 pm |
    • AGuest9

      So much for the claim that "he created everything", then.

      March 27, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
    • Lorraine

      Paul, YHWHs people were not Jews, they were Hebrew Israelites, and they Hebrews the real chosen people of YHWH were not talked anymore about after 161BCE, and then there were jews, after the jewish roman revolt in 135BCE, and the rewriting of the Hebrewic Words of YHWH by the hellenistic jewish alexandrian writers began in 200BCE. Also, of the legalizing (forcing) of Christianity by Constantine in 311BC, propheside by Daniel 11v39, and of Islam in vs.43, thus changing the Words of YHWH, and His law, judgments, statues, and ordinances, as why He is angered as told by Isaiah 24v5, of them being broken. And all religions are idolatry. For YHWH never changed His law of righteousness, and peace, He changes not in Malachi 3v6.

      March 27, 2012 at 7:01 pm |
    • Lorraine

      Oh as He the Creator YHWH says that He creates it All, as taught to us in Isaiah 45v7.

      March 27, 2012 at 7:04 pm |
    • Paul

      No he did not create evil. He created an angel that became evil. Just as humans have a choice to act well or wickedly. So too the angels in heaven have choice. This one called Satan, which Job spoke about chose to become evil.

      March 28, 2012 at 6:13 am |
    • Paul

      The Constatine Christians were apostates from true Christianity. They formed a trinity of the true God. True Christians believe in mono theism as the Hebrews did. All Christians who believe and follow the trinity are apostates. The Bible including the Greek Scriptures do not teach a trinity of Gods. But rather that Jesus is God's Son. Jesus is not God (YHWH) as christians apostates teach.

      March 28, 2012 at 6:21 am |
    • Paul

      AGuest9
      You need to get out more!

      March 28, 2012 at 6:24 am |
    • Lorraine

      Paul, YHWH does all things, He knows all remember? Go to read the book of remembrance, Genesis – Malachi, to learn how YHWH truly works, His ways, to know Him, as in Zechariah,14v9, He is One, there is no one else with Him, as He says in Isaiah 44v24, He does all things alone, Isaiah 40vs.18,25,28. You have been mislead, and many have, but there are many who are awakening, from the spirit of YHWH, for the time of His day is nearing us all.

      March 31, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
  8. Betty

    God didn't create evil. Where do you get that from? Everything God made is good but it is sin that has tainted that. Lucifer was an angel but fell when he wanted to be god. We all have sinned and fallen short of God. He does give us free will and our own choices often bring about negative results.

    March 24, 2012 at 9:01 pm |
    • Lorraine

      Betty, Sorry, but there was no satan falling from the sky, just listen to that a minute, dosen't it sound every bit of a fairy tale, you have to admit. Lets stick with reality, and face the fact, that any wickedness comes straight from our own hearts, and as YHWH taught us in Jeremiah 17v8,9,10. Our own desires, and choices. You know what is satan, to drop an atomic bomb on innocent people, such as in Hiroshima, and according to the conspiracy of Pearl Harbor that lead to this bombing. Now this is pure satan, also is pullling an innocent man by his feet behind a truck until his head rolled offf, and his arm, Mr. James Byrd. And YHWH the Creator did create evil, for He says He does in Isaiah 45v7, read it. And He says that He is our only savior, and redeemer, in Isaiah 49v26, and Isaiah 60v16. No man can be delivered from out of His hands, Isaiah 43v13. One can learn the truth in Genesis – Malachi. YHWH ld us told us that His only son and firstbon is Israel the chosen people in Exodus 4v22,23.

      March 25, 2012 at 2:47 am |
    • Taylor

      Betty, thank you for your positive comment. I appreciate how you focused on the positive aspects of the article, without degrading the negative aspects. Our world could use more people with conviction (like you) and less degradation (like the majority of other people here).

      March 25, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
    • Paul

      Well said Betty. Satan is clearly in opposition to God, right from the time of Adam and Eve and his seed continues even to our day. Jesus said that we show if we are his seed or Satan by what we do. The Jews refused to accept the Messiah God's Son and killed him proving to be Satan seed. So Jehovah chose a spiritual nation made up of people who wanted to serve God and follow his Son. So Jehovah's promise to Abraham was fullfilled in that all nations will be bless thenselves.

      March 26, 2012 at 12:04 am |
    • AGuest9

      Then, obviously, this god is neither omnipotent, nor omniscient.

      March 27, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
  9. Betty

    Thanks Michael1 I don't believe we truly love unconditionally until we surrender to God. Our family's love is important but it can't save us. "It is by grace you have been saved and not of yourselves, it is a "gift" of God so that no one can boast"

    March 24, 2012 at 8:40 pm |
    • debra gallehawk

      Amen Betty !
      We need to be the light that shines for those in darkenss
      there is a life after death
      either eternal with Christ
      or eternal in hell
      it is written in the WORD
      but people tend to think its just something man created
      the WORD is the VERY breath of God written by those disciples HE inspired to write it
      and every prophecy ever written up untill now has been 100% accurate and true
      GOD does not lie

      God also gave man a choice a will to serve HIM or not
      and its thought Jesus his son we are saved

      many are being led into thinking there is no GOD
      how sad to think that they would choose this and find out too late

      GOD bless u Betty ( another little light for Jesus )

      March 25, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
  10. Tammy

    Loved this! This is our lifes quest...to love and be loved...we don't do it right all the time...we make mistakes as does everyone...but we can keep trying ...just keep trying to love and accept each other...Thank you for sharing your story. It sounds like the student knew more than the professor in this particular instance :)

    March 24, 2012 at 7:27 pm |
  11. Plug1

    They say....I wish they where a Muslim.

    March 24, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
  12. Liz

    That instructor who made fun of you is the epitome of what is wrong with religion in ths country. And clear proof that we are not as near to god as we think we are.

    March 24, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
  13. Ann

    A good friend of mine died this week. I will send this to his family. Thank you – I know it will bring them solace.

    March 24, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  14. Lorraine

    chaz, I am very sorry that you have been mislead by religion, and the NT(not true), these and all religions, but both are pagan idolatry rewritten by the alexandrian, hellenistic jews, and legalized by Constantine in 311bc. This was warned by Moses to us in Deut.32v17, of the future generations who will 'believe' in 'strange gods', devils, which are against YHWH, and His law for it the 'law' the 10 commandments, the sabbath, the passover in Exodus 12, is our 'life' as said in Deut.32v45-47, told to us by YHWHs prophet Moses. Also, we were told, and warned by Daniel 11v36-45, of the 'strange gods' that the forefathers knew not, again that will rule over many, vs.39 is christianity, and vs.43 is islam. To let you know, YHWH does nothing without His prophets, in Amos 3v7. Once YHWH prophesied in Deut. 18 that He would give us these prophets to teach us of His word, none of this ever changed, for YHWH changes not in Malachi 3v6, and in Judges 2v1-3. These scriptures that you have provided are all about David, and David's future (seed), who will be on the 'throne to reign'(metaphor), as told to us in Jeremiah 33v14-26, and in Jeremiah 23v1-8, (this has come to pass) this movement YHWH Our Righteousness, is in progress at 1-773-874-0325, His arm, and of the new covenant in Jeremiah 31v31-40, about the law being put in our inward parts, and in our hearts are all future prophesies that are to come, and have already come to past. All of these scriptures are of David, and his future seeds, David the child was born in Bethlehem, and chosen by YHWH as a boy in I Samuel 16, and 17. David is His chosen, from the root of Jesse, and his seed is the servant, the elect, that will be of the Branch of YHWH. No one can die for anyone's sins, taught to us in Ezekiel 14v14, and Jeremiah 31v30, and remember YHWH never changes, not His law, nor His Word. Its time for many to awake to the truth as told to us in Isaiah 59, so read Genesis – Malachi, study, pray, and do the law, to know. YHWH is our only Savior, in Isaiah 49v26, and Isaiah 60v16. The servant is his worker, whom YHWH taught in Isaiah 40. And yes there is not a just man on this earth, as said in Micah 7, but as prophesied in Isaiah 59v16, he's here chaz, working as the intercessor for YHWH, pouring out his soul as an offering for sins, Isaiah 53v10, already in progress.

    March 24, 2012 at 4:37 am |
  15. Guy Viti

    "No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again" Jesus. John 3:3.

    "That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Faith comes by hearing and hearing the word of God!" Romans 10:9,17.

    March 24, 2012 at 2:49 am |
    • Lorraine

      Guy Viti, Show me where YHWH says any of this, or prophesied any of what you are saying in the so called OT, from YHWH through His prophets, for YHWH does nothing without His prophets as in Amos 3v7, and if He did not say this then the NT(not true), is not fulfilling the OT, truly named, and called by YHWH the book of remembrance in Malachi 3v16. The NT should not change anything of the Almighty YHWH as He says He changes not, in Malachi 3v6, that means nothing has changed about His law, His word. The story of jesus does not exist in the so called OT, and is a red flag to why it isn't true. Everyone else name, and prophecies are there, so what happen to jc? Also, the son, and firstborn is in Exodus 4v22,23, of YHWH is Israel the chosen people. There can't be two firstborn sons, can there? YHWH is our only Savior, and Redeemer in Isaiah 49v26, and Isaiah 60v16, He made all life, and all things by Himself in Isaiah 44v24,25, and our sins have been forgiven in Isaiah 44v22, all He ask is for us to return to Him, and His law of righteousness, and peace.

      March 24, 2012 at 7:40 pm |
  16. clnee55

    When I die, I would probably say: " Thanks God, I don't have to worry about mortgage payment anymore"

    March 24, 2012 at 2:14 am |
  17. Michael1

    Seek the LORD while He may be found! Call upon Him while He is near! We cannot know God savingly except as the living Word speaks to us and we hear His voice.

    March 24, 2012 at 12:43 am |
  18. Harold

    Amen!

    March 24, 2012 at 12:03 am |
    • Jorgina

      Arachveulebrivi ganxilvaa, mec gmnaxseaa 2001 Space Odyssey ragac momentebshi, ulamazesi filmi iyo... magram mayurebeli iyo ragac saswauli, cxovelebi sufta, mteli filmis ganmavlobashi 2 rigi kvdeboda sicilit da komentars uketebda yvelafers, dzaan gagizianebuli wamovedi...

      April 3, 2012 at 10:39 pm |
  19. dinaknibbs

    In defense of theology. when you say God is love, that is theology. the way we understand God and how he relates to us in love is explained to us in the Bible. how we understand that makes us who we are and gives meaning to our lives. In life and at the moment of my death i only want one thing: to see my beautiful savior more clearly. that is theology.

    March 23, 2012 at 11:53 pm |
    • tallulah13

      When I die, I want to be cremated. It takes all kinds, I suppose.

      March 24, 2012 at 7:42 pm |
    • Betty

      Very well put. Nothing can compare!

      March 24, 2012 at 8:43 pm |
    • Veronica

      BVV PrasadAfsargaru, Jeevana Nibaddhata Deniki Anukoolamoo kaadu, Vyatirekamoo kaadu. It is the constant ernlniag and awareness towards all aspects of life, beyond any conceptual seeing. When our eyes are so clear, we can understand the problems of mankind so deeply, and we'll find the very natural solutions. Let us talk again.

      April 3, 2012 at 10:08 pm |
  20. Mike

    "...the best way to teach our children about God is by loving each other wholly and forgiving each other fully." That is completely true, for it is utterly impossible to love another person wholly, unless we first forgive all people fully. Easier said than done and can in fact only be accomplished, through the power of Christ.

    March 23, 2012 at 9:41 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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.