home
RSS
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.

CNN's Belief Blog – all the faith angles to the day's top stories

“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. deal or no deal blog

    Hello there, I discovered your site by means of Google at the same time as searching for a similar topic, your website came up, it looks great. I've added to favourites|added to my bookmarks.

    April 23, 2012 at 9:13 pm |
  2. Home Brew Radio

    You really make it seem so easy along with your presentation but I to find this matter to be actually something that I think I might by no means understand. It sort of feels too complex and extremely large for me. I am having a look forward on your subsequent post, I'll try to get the dangle of it!

    April 23, 2012 at 8:43 pm |
  3. Laptop Repair

    Thank you, I have just been looking for information about this topic for ages and yours is the best I have discovered till now. However, what about the bottom line? Are you certain in regards to the supply?|What i do not realize is in truth how you are not actually much more smartly-preferred than you may be right now. You're so intelligent.

    April 23, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
  4. Airport

    We're a group of volunteers and starting a new scheme in our community. Your web site provided us with helpful information to paintings on. You have performed an impressive task and our entire community might be thankful to you.

    April 23, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
  5. dond

    I've been exploring for a bit for any high quality articles or weblog posts on this sort of area . Exploring in Yahoo I ultimately stumbled upon this web site. Studying this information So i am happy to exhibit that I have an incredibly excellent uncanny feeling I discovered just what I needed. I most indubitably will make sure to don?t omit this website and provides it a glance regularly.

    April 23, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
  6. Broadcast News Online

    Hi there, just become aware of your blog via Google, and found that it is truly informative. I'm going to be careful for brussels. I'll appreciate in case you proceed this in future. Numerous folks shall be benefited out of your writing. Cheers!

    April 23, 2012 at 11:25 am |
  7. Woord met Q

    Hello there, You have done an excellent job. I'll definitely digg it and in my view suggest to my friends. I am sure they'll be benefited from this web site.

    April 23, 2012 at 3:02 am |
  8. Ohio Hip Hop

    My brother recommended I would possibly like this blog. He used to be totally right. This publish actually made my day. You can not imagine simply how so much time I had spent for this information! Thanks!

    April 23, 2012 at 2:32 am |
  9. click here for quick cash

    This is very fascinating, You are a very skilled blogger. I've joined your feed and sit up for seeking more of your excellent post. Also, I've shared your site in my social networks

    April 19, 2012 at 11:35 pm |
    • tray

      I WOULD TALK ABOUT MY FIRST HUNK OF A MAN

      April 20, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
  10. Harvey Hyman

    Kerry: Your perspective on how to deal with the dying was expressed in an artful and very touching way. I think you have deeply grasped what people really need at this crucial time.

    April 16, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
  11. theresa

    I have been with two people while they were dieing, my father and my grandmother. It's definitely a myth that any grand, last moment conversation exudes from mouth of a dieing person. In both cases my dad and grandma were in a lot of pain and holding their hand while they passed and being there in silence for them was what they needed. Too often the living make a last grasp effort in collecting meaning when we are there for their needs.

    April 13, 2012 at 8:03 pm |
  12. Lorraine

    Yeah, thats how its done just talk about text messages, cell phones, and writing checks, these are the things that can help one to get through death just fine, unbelievable!!!

    April 12, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
  13. unlimited talk and text

    I used to be suggested this web site by my cousin. I am not certain whether or not this post is written by way of him as no one else recognize such exact about my trouble. You're incredible! Thank you!

    April 9, 2012 at 11:22 pm |
  14. Diogo

    Yes you can use them to write checks get cash etc. BUT it is a huge takmise!Rip the checks up ASAP they give you 6 months with 0% interest but charge you a fee to cash the check and they know you can't pay it all off in 6 months. They will get thier money from you don't fall into this credit trap!Live debt free! It is a wonderful feeling.

    April 4, 2012 at 12:35 am |
  15. Asdad

    Robert Merkel wrote:You see, it started to rain just as I raeehcd the top of Vesper’s Hill, near Mount Baw Baw. Let me tell you, it’s the only time I’ve ever wished to be going uphill instead of downhill on a bicycleWe should probably ask the school chaplains to pray for more effective road bike brakes. As per Mercurius above, we can make it one of the KPI's (that's Key Performance Indicator for those not familiar with big corp. garbage).I'm like Mindy though my kids go to the public school scripture classes (although for some reason, they wouldn't allow us to rotate them through the anglo/RC/Evangelical ones). Apparently, you have to actually believe in the narrow sectarian version of whatever. What boils my beans is that the kids who don't go aren't allowed to learn anything else while the scripture classes are on. And they rejected by suggestion of running a humanist/agnostic scripture class. Apparently, there's no way of qualifying whether you are able to teach atheism, but showing up at a church is enough to run a scripture class.Not that it has anything to do with the chaplain stuff, but it's very irritating.

    April 3, 2012 at 11:31 pm |
  16. cell phone lookup by number

    You know thus significantly in the case of this matter, made me in my opinion consider it from numerous various angles. Its like women and men aren't fascinated until it is something to accomplish with Girl gaga! Your personal stuffs excellent. All the time handle it up!

    April 3, 2012 at 7:39 pm |
  17. cancer

    Terrific paintings! This is the type of information that are supposed to be shared across the net. Disgrace on Google for no longer positioning this post upper! Come on over and discuss with my site . Thanks =)

    April 1, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
  18. Masha

    Dear Chuck,I love your web site. I note that there is a list of all itcarles up to 2007 then itcarles month by month after that. Do you have a ocmplete list of 2007-2009?Blessings in Christ,Rowland

    April 1, 2012 at 10:28 am |
  19. Maite

    Hi Mantic, thought you might like to see our teiaclrs we've just published a review of NYCs best barbershops and have a similar feature on the classic barbers of London town too. Check out our NYC story here:

    March 31, 2012 at 11:11 pm |
  20. Simone

    I did a quick word search and it aeppars you are right It's not until Ananias comes later that Paul gains a full revelation of what happened I am hesitant though to say that Luke's usage of the word is primarily meaning God in every case when it was a common word in his time to refer to both lord / master / God. Perhaps having no idea is too, concrete an ideal. In the context of the story I think Paul is certainly overwhelmed and surprised and has no time to immediately understand what was happening. It would seem that most encounters throughout scripture that were similar were from Angels of the Lord and because it hadn't identified its self Paul asks Which brings us back to right where we started Paul perhaps did think initially his experience was an Angel yet later on he does say elsewhere that he met Jesus in person on that road.

    March 31, 2012 at 9:48 pm |
    • Lorraine

      Simone, the name of the Creator YHWH was as written in the book of remembrance, the so called OT, as being profaned by the enemies of YHWH the Almighty in Ezekiel 36v22,23. The priest, pastors, elders, popes, have all profane His true name, misleading the people with idolatry religions not of YHWH. But, as the scripture says from YHWH that soon in His day He will sanctify His name. This is from the only savior, and redeemer YHWH in Isaiah 49v26, and Isaiah 60v16, and YHWH teaches us that no man can be delivered from His hands, in Isaiah 43v13. In Deut. 4, He teaches not to put nothing before Him, and in Isaiah 40v18,21,22,23,25. The pastors, rulers, and popes have all strayed from this truth, and is why we have mayhem on this earth today, and will until they tell the truth to the masses, and stop these lies, as in Exodus 4v22,23, the son, and 'FIRSTBORN' of YHWH is the chosen people 'ISRAEL' and they changed this truth in the NT(not true), and YHWH teaches us that He changes not, in Malachi 3v6, that means not His law, righteousness, nor peace of His spirituality of His ordinances of the10 commandments, these are perpetual to all nations, and these lying popes, and priest know this truth, but are misleading the masses for gain, as prophesied in Daniel 11v39, of christanity, and Dan.11v43, of islam, ruling over many for profit, greed. Just as the book of Daniel has prophesied of these religons, strange gods, and all of the 10 horn governmental leaders. Read the OT, the book of remembrance, in Gen. – Malachi, for more of the real truth, named for us in Malachi 3v16, through the prophet of YHWH.

      April 12, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
    • Lorraine

      To add,...YHWH taught that He does nothing without His true prophets in Amos 3v7. Anything else is not from YHWH its idolatry religon, and YHWH does not condone religions, not any, for His is spiritual for all 'LIFE' LIVING AS ONE IN RIGTEOUSNESS.

      April 12, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64 65 66 67 68 69 70 71 72 73 74 75 76 77 78 79 80 81 82 83 84 85 86 87 88 89 90 91 92 93 94

Post a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Advertisement
About this blog

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.