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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. Kirk

    This is the best sermon I ever read. The professor should be taken out of class and dismissed, he is a fool and has no business teaching about the divine character. His beginning students may be forgiven, as they are misled, but he should know better, and has no excuse.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:29 am |
    • Tance

      Those in positions of power/authority in academia and elsewhere often fall victim to the very human characteristic of thinking too highly of themselves. This is why Christ so often reminded us (admonished us?) to cling to humility. What this professor also failed to understand is that acorns grow up to be oak trees, and that they may be held accountable for their behavior toward those whom they considered less important then themselves. This bright young woman has obviously grown into a very strong oak.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:45 am |
  2. Paula

    If I were dying, this Harvard Divinity School former student is exactly who I would want to see.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:29 am |
  3. Matt

    This was a very moving and poignant article. Like the old adage that the simplest solutions are the best ones, this piece proves that love and the meaning of life are not necessarily found in formal theology, but in the simple experiences that we undergo with family, friends and those we've interacted with.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:28 am |
    • Brahim

      The United Way may have a local charity they suprpot that offers alcoholism counseling. You might also try the YMCA or a local Mental Health Association. Also, the Salvation Army may have counseling. You can also check with local churches who have outreach programs. Or local hospitals that have mental health and alcoholism programs. Many are free (suprpoted by our tax dollars) to those in need.

      June 29, 2012 at 5:58 am |
  4. Simon

    Fantastic article. Amen to the following "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."

    January 29, 2012 at 9:28 am |
  5. Mike in Indy

    I really enjoyed this article. As a 32 year old man, I have watched all of the elders in my family pass away. While I didn't get to speak to my Dad before he died of a stroke in 2006, I was able to talk with my Mom before she passed away from an aggressive Cancer in 2008. She spoke of how much she missed Dad, her parents and asked if she was a good parent. My parents were wonderful but I knew my Mom had a tough childhood and that question spoke volumes. As her time came, she too called out for her Mama who passed away 11 years before. As an atheist, I do not agree with the conclusion Kerry Egan asserts that "people talk about their families because that is how we talk about God". Even so, this article and the work she performs everyday is wonderful.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:27 am |
    • Breanna

      / Awww! We've been in TX and away from the computer! When we came home last night, I knew I had to check to see if your liltte girl had arrived yet and she's here!!! Congratulations to all of you. She is beautiful and I'm glad that everyone is doing well. Maren is a beautiful baby and a beautiful name. Love to you all!

      April 1, 2012 at 11:53 pm |
    • Bruna

      Vivian Dishman / I have heard about the new grandchild from her gadhrfatner Bob, my family and I have been friends with Bob and Sharon for many years. He is absoutely elated and I am sure Sharon is too. Congratualtions and hope to see more pictures soon, I am sure we will when they get back from seeing her

      April 3, 2012 at 9:58 pm |
  6. Billy

    Thank you, Kerry, for your heartfelt words about God and Love... Which, to me, are indivisible.
    May we all touch Love before we die...

    January 29, 2012 at 9:27 am |
  7. Arie

    I just wanted to tell you that your 'professor', needed to go back to grad school and take a good look at himself. He was way off track, and uncalled for. You were right all along. Your story nearly brought me to tears – I had to read fast to keep it from happening. I don't ever post comments on CNN, but I felt compelled to do so with yours. Keep doing what you do – if I tell my Mom to read this, I know she'll say what I am thinking, That people like you are angels. Be proud of yourself – the world needs more caring people like you. :)

    January 29, 2012 at 9:26 am |
  8. Mark

    Wonderful article Kerry so thank you

    January 29, 2012 at 9:26 am |
  9. k5150

    My grandmother recently passed and she spoke constantly of Jesus in her last days. I've never known a person more commited to telling others about Jesus as my grandmother was. She lived her life for Jesus so it wasn't surprising that she wanted her last days to be all for Jesus too. Afterall, she was going to be seeing him face to face very soon. That was my grandmother though. She wanted everyone to know the peace that she had. My grandfather's last words were Ma and Pa. I truly believe that when we die in Christ our families that have gone before meet us when we pass over so I think Grandpa was really see his parents. My grandmother told me that when her dad died his last words were, "Oh, can you hear the angels?" That is so awesome!

    January 29, 2012 at 9:24 am |
    • Ted Ryder

      Probably a lie. He probably said, "Ahhhh my anus is on fire...jesus christ!" as he died from colon cancer. She likely didn't want to tell you the truth. I'm agnostic. I had a dream the other day about death and it was scary. I had a very scary feeling in my stomach and woke up that way thinking about family–how I trespassed against others. I though about how I probably passed my fears and paranoia on to my daughter–maybe some of my unhappiness too.

      It works for people. It works to become a Jesus freak and be selfish and think you're going to a magical place. You can convince yourself of this and only conclude that it's true. The truth is, other than pain (morphine drip anyone), I think it's probably a lot like anesthesia. I've been under a couple times and you never knew it happened. Time passes instantly.

      If there is one redeeming thought whether you're an atheist, agnostic, god-fearing person, it's that nothing is ever destroyed–it just changes form and becomes part of everything else.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:43 am |
    • David

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      April 1, 2012 at 12:07 am |
  10. kumaran

    It is a honorable job for job, being near a death bead itself is a great thing giving them a sense of belonging during that deadly time. In this fast paced world close family and friends are not able to be near them due to their own busy life. The person about to die also did the same and he was not there with the people who are about to die as he/she was busy with their own life. You must be giving a relief to them as they vent out all their life's joy, agony, love they have experienced. Religion is there to for any person to enjoy his life to fullest not otherwise. What you are doing is like giving a glass of water to a person who is stranded in a desert for 3 days without water. Carry out your good work and spread it to others to do the same thing.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:24 am |
  11. why god???

    Great article, but the lasting impression for me is, "what sense is it bringing god (or gods) into the life story anyway, either on the deathbed or even in the beginning or middle of your life?" Love and family will exist, perhaps even thrive without the fiction of religion. Keep it simpler, and leave the myths to the ages.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:22 am |
    • Matt

      Any who are you to say that God is a myth? Who are you to suggest that someone should not have access to their God of they so seek it?

      January 29, 2012 at 9:37 am |
    • Tony

      Answer: BECAUSE THIS IS HER STORY. Your religion of atheism is so strong that you suggest revising her story to fit your beliefs? THAT would be the fiction you speak of.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:39 am |
  12. J3sus Sandals

    That was a truly beautiful article that I could more than relate to. I knew what I wanted to do professionally as an adult at six years old. In my final year of undegraduate college studies, one of my professors pulled me into his office and suggested that I consider another profession because "I was a follower and not a leader." I was devastated because this was my calling and all I ever wanted to do. What allowed me to persevere was something told by another professor – that the things people tell us, particularly about ourselves, are merely another's opinion. And these opinions have the ability to drive or destroy us, to make us wise or meek, strong or victims. That belief and reinforcement from the second professor helped me through grduate studies and shaped the person I am today – a successful mentor and member of the Board of Directors for the company that employs me. I am living my dream. Thank you Chaplain Egan for persevering and not letting someone else's opinion drive you from your calling, being that rolemodel for others, and sharing your story and experience of love and god. Even as an agnostic, it made sense.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:22 am |
  13. David

    While I have my doubts that a God exists, and having one of my best friend's Mother pass just 2 days ago this article was a big help. I struggle with the fact that what is supposed to be a compassionate higher power allows good people to have such violent deaths or suffer (sometimes for years) the way they do. But whether God is part of a person's life or not, Kerry brings up a good point. First and foremost love and forgiveness are what should remain priorities in our lives. Thank you Kerry for reminding me of that.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:22 am |
  14. Tom

    Excellent

    January 29, 2012 at 9:21 am |
  15. zzubzzub

    Please, Kerry, do not believe the delusion that you are learning more than your older colleagues. You are only learning what they have learned, but also have learned to keep private moments private. Stop moving unique people into one pigeon hole. Your hyperbole about your professor is insulting. Grow up. Show more dignity, especially as a religious figure.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:21 am |
    • Tance

      Wow. You Sir/Madam (zzubzzub) are the one who is insulting and lacking in dignity. How very cruel of you to say something like this to this young woman. Such meanness has no place here when we are discussing an important topic.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:31 am |
    • Lean6

      zzubzzub, right...we should never be able to reflect on these things of unique perspective until we're heading into the light ourselves, and when we can do nothing about our regrets, and when we're not able to make changes that could make us better people in the living. (sarc)

      January 29, 2012 at 9:37 am |
    • Noonie

      You must be the professor. Her article was excellent and the story about the rude professor made a point. that he should not pigeonhole people and assume that everyone who would talk with a chaplain needs to be led down some religious road. Kerry Egan seems to be a fine person and has discovered her passion in life, her fire within and has the grace and dignity to allow others to unburdon their souls to her instead of burdoning them with guilt and regret.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:38 am |
    • dude

      god is man made.dont be a fool

      January 29, 2012 at 9:40 am |
    • Matt

      My oh my!!! How utterly condescending to think that you feel this young lady hasn't learned more than her professor simply because she isn't as old. Are you saying that old people are the only ones that know what life is about? Get over yourself!! Your meanness and condescension are a very good display that older people are not necessarily smarter, and certainly in your case none the wiser!

      January 29, 2012 at 9:40 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      Actually, I think that Zzubzzub has a point. What the dying want to talk about is not God or religion or church or the afterlife (woo-woo things), but family and friends (real-world things, specifically people). While Chaplain Kerry's BEHAVIOR respects that fact, she's still deluding herself that what they really want to talk about is God, this is just the way they choose to do it. In this regard, she's no better than her asshat professor, she's just politer about it.
       
      Listen more closely, chaplain. What they want to talk about is what they're ACTUALLY talking about, which is NOT GOD.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:41 am |
    • mickey

      Really? I thought that professor should have had the respect for the student. He or she should have grown up.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:45 am |
    • AmyTN

      Are you serious? That professor behaved disgracefully, especially for an instructor in Divinity School! Instead of guiding his student with questions and advice, he judgmentally shamed her in class. He's the type of person who gives religion a bad name and drives good people away. Kerry, I'm glad you stayed on. You have the compassion and understanding of love that your professor lacked.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • Beau Pamer

      Wel, I really like story and her opinion. You are such ignorance!

      January 29, 2012 at 10:18 am |
    • zzubzzub

      The point I'm trying to make is that she hasn't learned anything new, i.e, there is nothing new under the sun. She might one day be a professor and a student might speak of her like she speaks of her professor. She is off on a tangent. Read more closely. Her article should be a diary entry. Oh, wait, it is; it's a blog.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
  16. Susan

    As a former nurse assistant and someone who has lost three immediate family members to cancer, I've spent much time listening to words of the dying. My sister, Bobbie, talked about the fact that she would miss those of us she had grown up with, but most of all she would miss her husband, Bob. She had already made Daddy promise that he wouldn't die before she did (which was a promise Daddy had a hard time making). Her leukemia had left her blind a few days before her death, but she recognised every member of our family by our footsteps. Before Daddy died, he spoke of Harriette and I as his "baby girls," even though we were both in our late 40s. He talked about what he and Mama would do when she joined him on the other side. Harriette, the ever-older-sister (by 10 months), died 11 months after Daddy. She spent the last morning of her life instructing me on the things that I had to do–put hearts and flowers on her headstone and write a book about us. As she drew her last breath she looked at the foot of the bed and said one name–"Daddy." There is no doubt in my mind that she indeed saw our father. I didn't see fear in any of their faces. I saw peace. It doesn't matter whether I'm alone or surrounded by the living when I die. Thanks to Harriette, Bobbie, and Daddy, I know in my soul that I will not be alone when my time comes.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:21 am |
    • Ted Ryder

      That's sweet. You are lucky.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:07 am |
    • Amy

      Thank you for posting this. My older sister died in August of 2011 all alone in her apartment. Our father had passed away in April of 2011. My incredible sadness was that she was alone and I wasn't able to help her or to at least hold her hand and tell her how much I loved her. I know that if our father could, he would have been there with her to take her home.

      February 7, 2013 at 9:18 pm |
  17. Tance

    This is one of the most beautiful and thoughtful essays I have ever read in my life. I do hope that it is widely distributed in divinity schools, including Harvard. This young woman's eloquence spoke straight to my heart. It's all so very true.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:20 am |
  18. Phil

    I can relate to this study. It's ironic, my family and I just traveled from northwest Ohio to Massachusetts to see my wife's grandmother that has terminal cancer and and this is where you are reporting this study from Kerry, is Massachusetts. Nevertheless my wife's grandmother has been given less than a month to live and most of my wife's family has traveled from all over the United States (Florida, Nevada, Ohio) to be with the grandmother in a time of uncertainty and high emotions. I myself also believe that being with family brings one closer to god through love, and forgiveness for family members that might not have seen the best of times together brings closure and relief to some people. I woke up this morning in the hotel, was prepairing my morning coffee, and am getting ready to go see the grandmother and seen this article front and center on CNN.. The lord works in mysterious ways and I believe this article was meant to be seen by my family and myself. Thank you Kerry for this great article and your imput on your experiences as a chaplain. This was very enlightening.

    P.S. Please say a prayer for Joan Heatherman of Webster, MA in her time of need

    Phil

    January 29, 2012 at 9:20 am |
    • zzubzzub

      It's NOT a study; it's personal opinion.

      January 29, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
  19. Mike Rotchitches

    The professor was an A-1 jerk. I'm not religious, but using people's belief systems to mock them is a sign of arrogance and disrespect. I'm an agnostic atheist, and I don't have enough information to decide for others what is right for them. But there is never a good reason t belittle others. And whatever comforts people in their most vulnerable moments is their business; not a pontificating bIow hard.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:19 am |
    • Ted Ryder

      It's impossible to be an agnostic atheist. The definition of agnostic is you don't know. An atheist is certain there is no god. You can be agnostic and lean towards atheism. I am agnostic but lean towards there being a god or gods.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:09 am |
    • Kirk

      Ted Ryder, he is failing to use the technical tem '"soft Athiesm" or "Soft Athiest", as opposed to "Hard Athiesm". You can look them up in Wikipedia or your funk & Wagnell. The term Agnostic Athiest equates to "soft Antiesm" almost perfectly, and is a fairly good synonym for it.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:46 am |
    • Ted Ryder

      Sounds more like an atheist before and after viagra.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:51 am |
  20. sybaris

    The big difference is that families are real, god(s) are not. So perhaps talking about families instead of being with whatever god people are admitting in their final days that it's all nonsense.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:18 am |
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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.