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?”


“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. Michael

    Kerry Egan elegantly and simply points out that in those waning moments of one's life, listening is all that is required. However, I totally reject the statement that "people talk about their families because that is how we talk about God". The bond between the listener and the dying person is one of two human beings communicating on a common level.....human to human. How would this article read if it were written by a non-religious person? Hopefully, there would be the same empathy, but without the mention of the Deity, and that is OK.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:52 am |
  2. Name*winnie

    U r Absolutly correct, God is love & He is also a spirit. We can't c Him, however we do c each other.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:51 am |
    • Dennis

      Neptune is sweet like that

      January 29, 2012 at 9:52 am |
    • Notch

      And you know this how? Wishful thinking is a powerful poison for the mind...

      January 29, 2012 at 10:51 am |
  3. slowmovement

    Reblogged this on Jumping Puddles and commented:
    Kerry Egan's outlook on the circle coming to a close at death hit my core. I am not hyper-religious...not that you need to be to "get" this, but since I am at a point in my life when these ideas are popping up more frequently and I am looking back at my "had-nots," well...I think the blog speaks for itself.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:51 am |
  4. Lily

    Wow. Kerry, this story took my breath away. What an extraordinary woman you must be to not let the supercilious professor affect the course of your life; shame on him. A professor of theology to not only dismiss your thoughts, but to use them in a class lecture to support his own beliefs - while you were in attendance. Remarkable that you stood by your initial convictions and continued your path to support families in need. I am moved and touched; thank you.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:50 am |
  5. BlogHaha

    Another thing FAMOUS Thing that people say before they die , ( MAKE SURE THAT MY INVESTMENTS GAIN CAPITALS )

    January 29, 2012 at 9:50 am |
  6. JoAnn

    Thank you for writing this article. I hope you sent a copy to that arrogant professor. Really beautiful article, I am sharing with everyone I know, including our hospital chaplain (i am a nurse). Thank you.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:50 am |
  7. Anne

    This article brought me back to the hospital room where my mother lay dying. It brought me back to her after 32 years. She was calling out to her mother: "Mama, Mama" – and I pretended to be her mother to give her comfort. She had forgotten about me and was lost in her youth, calling out to the person who comforted her most in her life. It contrasted with her stories of a strict mother who was ever the disciplinarian. It was my mother's vision of what a mother was – comfort and love – that she longed for in her final days and hours. Thank you for your article, for your great insight, and to CNN for publishing.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:49 am |
  8. Dianne

    This is a marvelous article! Thank you so much! This really needed to be said.
    I have often felt that God is love and the most important religion we can practice is kindness.
    The people you serve are very lucky to have you.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:49 am |
  9. Former Chaplaincy Intern

    This article brought back strong memories from my Chaplaincy intern days...and convinced me that 1) the author is a darn good Chaplain and 2) I dont ever want to go to Harvard Divinity School

    January 29, 2012 at 9:49 am |
    • JohnR


      January 29, 2012 at 9:54 am |
  10. Doug

    Great column. Your professor was a fool, you understand your job perfectly.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:48 am |
  11. Notch

    One of those annoying, self-righteous articles that underhandedly peddle 'God' when talking about peoples' deaths and suffering. Why can we talk about what we all know exists, namely love, without trying to venture into the realm of wishful thinking and unsubstantiated fantasies? As if connecting the absurd religious ideas with human suffering will somehow make it more truthful and convincing!

    January 29, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • Mario

      Amen!!! I was thinking the same thing. If you replace the word "God" in this entire article with the word "life," it would make a lot more sense.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:02 am |
    • Jim

      I believe the author related love with God because that concept is a major part of her background. Her focus here was to give a clearer understanding to others of a concept that is important to them, and that they can relate to (at least in name) – God. She is relating her considered understanding, developed from years of experience, that most of the rest of us only experience a few times in our lives, like when our parents die. I am confident that if the author were speaking to an agnostic or aethiest audiene (readership), she would have no problem leaving the word 'God' out of her message, and focus only on 'Love.' Stated another way, I think the audience she wrote this for was a God-believing audience.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:27 am |
  12. J


    PS! I'm not Christian so shut up

    January 29, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • sybaris

      Just a troll

      January 29, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • Charles

      Take a long walk on a short pier.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:03 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      A fine example of where the "Report Abuse" button may be used for its intended purpose.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:29 am |
  13. Robert Alexander

    I'm an atheist considering becoming a Muslim. This article has helped me a little with that decision. Religion can be very comforting and allow one to see a bigger picture.

    Any thoughts from anyone on whether they think it would be better to remain an atheist than a Muslim?... considering that all Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) are the monotheistic faiths, handed down from Abraham. And while like Jews, Muslims believe in the one God, unlike Jews, Muslims see Jesus Christ as a prophet. (Jews see Christ as a false prophet.)

    Just curious.

    Good article.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:47 am |
    • Matt

      Convert to Christianity, only way to heaven and nicest freedom religion. Islam is full of cr*p, stinky, terror and ugly clothes and lifestyle.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:49 am |
    • Jasmine (Ex. Muslim)

      Go with Christianity... no dietary law, no clothing law.... Just trust in Jesus Christ & That's it. It's also the world's largest religion and growing.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:50 am |
    • .

      Of course Jews see Jesus as false prophet.... that's why they killed him. They were misguided and are no longer God's chosen people for not believe in Christ.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:51 am |
    • Grandma

      Please don't convert to Islam.... we don't need another terrorist here. Stay Atheist or convert to Christian it's much better

      January 29, 2012 at 9:52 am |
    • Joshua

      Go with Judaism. We don't go nuts if you don't go to Synagogue. We have our own country. We're smart. And there are more job opportunities for you if you do. Muslim, yes the believe in God, but it's because they're what happened when God passed gas. And you don't have to bother with Christ... who was a Jew anyway.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:54 am |
    • Mark

      Are you looking for a religion or picking out wallpaper? Muslims believe that Jesus was just another prophet and that the bible, although being inspired by god, was just paving the way for Mohammed and the Koran. The bible however, which Muslims believe is inspired by God, says that Jesus was Gods son and that there would be no others to follow him although many false prophets would claim to.
      If Islam makes sense to you knowing that then by all means join up!

      January 29, 2012 at 9:56 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      Investigate the alternatives (including atheism) as carefully as you would look at lots of homes before buying one.

      January 29, 2012 at 9:57 am |
    • Jon

      Why are you an atheist if you are thinking about converting to Islam?

      January 29, 2012 at 9:58 am |
    • Slop Eater

      Christians make such great hypocrites.

      Is there any wonder why non-believers hate them so much?

      January 29, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • tc

      I am a Catholic–but was taught that it doesn't matter which faith you choose to follow (or not follow) as long as you are kind, helpful, and respectful to one another. God (no matter how you see God) is all about LOVE. As long as you live that...you will find peace.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:01 am |
    • Grandma

      Joshua@ You're truly a zionist. Go tell your orthodox Jewish community and see their reaction towards being secular and not attending synagogues. They attack secular people, ban vehicles on sabbath, curse and being worse than fundamentalist Muslims. Yes, Jews have Israel, but Christians have most countries in the world with 2.2 billion, vs. 14 million Jews LOOOL.

      Better opportunity being Jew? First of all that's being zionist. Second Jews are racist and it's hard to convert unless you're white and rich.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:01 am |
    • Robert Alexander

      So I was raised an Evangelical Christian. I was molested by my minister when I was 9 years old. So I've rejected Christianity.

      I have the sense that I want God back in my life.

      But what I'm getting is that most of you think I should remain an atheist... rather than turn to God through Islam, right?

      Thank you all for your input.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:03 am |
    • Anonnomous

      I think you should convert to Muslim. I don't believe that there is one religion that will take you to afterlife. Christianity, Muslim and Judaism all have the ability to bring out the worst in people if used to extreme. But with that being said they can also do a lot of wonderful things for people when used in moderation. People shouldn't fight over religion the way they do rather than let everyone choose the religion that they are gravitated to most and will inspire them to be a better person. I believe that all the different religions in our world were created for a reason.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:04 am |
    • Mark

      I think you should go molest yourself troll.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:06 am |
    • Robert Alexander

      I think I found Christianity again – the only way to heaven. I love Jesus Christ!

      January 29, 2012 at 10:08 am |
    • Jazzy

      TROLL lol and people go crazy about it

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

      Matt's reply to your post demonstrates why you should remain an atheist. His rigid ideaology is the reason why you are an atheist. His religion and others force you to believe what they believe, not what you have experienced. Atheists think that your experiences in life should determine your path in life. Religious people believe that their path in life is predetermined and that those experiences were provided by God. Let me give you an example. I believe I have what I have in my life because I have worked for it. Others thank God for what they have. Since I never pray and have acheieved much of what I want in life, I don't believe in God. Others who pray think their faith is responsible for their successes. This is where the confusion comes in. Kurt Warner, the retired quarterback from the Rams, gives God all the credit for his success and publicly thanks Him for his winning the Super Bowl. Meanwhile, the people of Indonesia are praying that a tsunami doesn't kill them. It appears that the prayers of 250,000 people fell on deaf ears. For they perished and Warner won the Super Bowl. If you were a compassionate and loving God, like the one Christians, Catholics, Muslims, etc believe in, wouldlisten to the prayers of one to win a Super Bowl, or would you listen to the prayers of the people to stay alive. By the way, everyone is an atheist. If you believe in one God, then you do not believe in the thousands of gods who have been mentioned throughout history. In the end Robert the decision is yours and you should pick whatever makes you happy. Just remember to question everything. Not only in religion, but life as well.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:09 am |
    • Janeen Cheney

      Mark – Looks like someone twisted your panties.

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

      I'm molest kittens.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:15 am |
    • Mark

      No, it sounds like someone's sitting around at home twisting his own. Or perhaps two people.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:15 am |
    • Mark

      No. What I mean is that when I'm not twisting my own, I molest kittens.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:18 am |
    • Slop Eater

      Religious god myths are toxic jokes.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:20 am |
    • Kirk

      Try Deism- go ahead, research it, You'll like it.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:36 am |
    • Eve

      You will find peace when you become a muslim. Disregard all the bad info abt islam, either it is coming from the news or muslims themselves. Nowadays there are a lot muslims justify their bad actions hiding behind the religion .Just read the translation about quran online and you will find true words of God. No one can imitate quran and God has vowed that the quran will be protected until end of time. Islam is a not a new religion, It is the same teaching from Abraham down to Jesus and down to Muhammad. God said to the last prophet,(Muhammad) in quran, "Today I have perfected your religion, that is Islam".

      January 29, 2012 at 11:31 am |
  14. Casey

    Just more proof that God doesn't exist. Think about it with an open mind. Why would God have this professor embarras this woman to the point that she was numb and filled with shame? I think we can all agree, whether you believe or not, that this woman was performing a noble task, helping people deal with the endness that lies ahead. So why would God put a person in her life that discouraged her efforts rather than encourage them and why didn't God just have the professor talk to her privately? I know, I know...God doesn't control everything. If that is what you believe, read what Epicurus wrote about God being all powerful. Remember, if God is all powerful, then he is responsible for the good and bad that happens in the world.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:47 am |
  15. Northerner

    Thanks for sharing Kerry...

    January 29, 2012 at 9:46 am |
  16. El Tel

    Having just lost someone in the last few months, I was reminded that in talking to them in their last few months, they would often drift, with no prompting, into the topic of what it takes to be a good person on this earth, how to live a loving life, etc...Your article reminds me of the line from Les Miserables (but undoubtedly lifted from somewhere else), "To love another person is to see the face of God." Your article was both inspired and inspiring.

    As for your professor – that's about what I would expect from a Harvard divinity professor. So self-absorbed.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:46 am |
  17. Chuck O'Ceallaigh

    Dear Ms. Egan;
    Beautiful, simply beautiful. The compassion, incite and feelings you live, are truly those of God. What your Divinity School Professor never understood, was what you have so eloquently learned in spite of them; "God's work must truly be our own." Thank you

    January 29, 2012 at 9:45 am |
  18. artem

    thanks your article is a breath of fresh air .

    January 29, 2012 at 9:44 am |
  19. Haley Behre

    Reblogged this on haleybehre and commented:
    Death is inevitable. It is the one fate every human shares. But that does not make it any easier to know, especially when you lose someone you love so much.
    Halloween weekend 2011, I lost my grandfather. It was honestly the hardest thing. I sat at my grandparents house all day with family. We sat with my grandfather and told him how much we loved him and how much he meant to us. He left us around 6:20 p.m. I was not there when he died, even though I spent all day there. I left for 10 minutes to get some books to read, and in that time he left us. Even though I am mad for not being there and regret it, I would like to think that he left us while I was gone because he did not want me to see him die.
    You see, my grandfather was a very thoughtful man who was loved by everyone and loved everyone to his fullest and because of that he lived life to the fullest.
    Death is a crazy concept. It is something that never gets easier. But what makes it easier is knowing that you spent every year with your loved one with no regrets and had so many memories. These memories are the thing that will keep him/her alive.
    My grandfather was a man who was surrounded by people he loved. He was a man who was loved by everyone who met him. He was a real Southern gentleman who did not die with his death, but lives on through his legacy- his family.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:44 am |
  20. Slupdawg

    Well done.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:44 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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.