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.
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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.
Let's hope that 13 years later, now that you are able to articulate these facts so eloquently, that your professor can appreciate the truth in what you have to say–and share it with his current students. (DC, Having been a believer and a member of a rather large "religion" for all of my 54 years, I assure you that touting the importance of family in teaching human beings how to love is hardly being dismissive of religion. Why does everything have to start an argument?)
what a GREAT article. just the fact that you "listened" to people. you took the time and let THEM speak, what a gift! your professor should be teaching something other than divinity. he missed a chance to learn something and it was lost on the entire group. thank god you didn't change your approach! when my time comes i would appreciate someone like you to "listen" to me on my way out! keep doing your work exactly as you have been, it's a true blessing.
Spot-on Bob. The professor is arrogant and self centered. He in that situation would be speaking about what he wants to speak about not what the dying person wants to speak about. The prof. would be attending to his needs not the dying person's needs. I hear not only the word family repeated here. I also hear the word love. What is God if he is not love ? Fortunately God knows to meet us where we are at.
You were spot on. You were EXACTLY right. You were right to talk about what THEY wanted to talk about, not what someone else thinks they should. That professor of yours knew nothing of God, religion or LOVE. You knew more as a student than he will ever know. It was very comforting to read your article.
Just wanted to add, why would the prof. assume you always handle that situation the in that manner ? Are we not to ask God for guidance and follow him ? I have come to appreciate that sometimes when you think you are the teacher- you are actually the student. God is THE teacher. We are all just students.
Wonderful article – completely consistent with my life experience. At night, when putting my kids to bed, I have consistently told them how much I love them, what wonderful people they are, and that being with them is the greatest feeling in the world. I explain that when I'm with them it gives me a feeling of total, complete LOVE... and that it's an AMAZING feeling that ANYONE can feel, anywhere in the world regardless of who they are, where they are or what they have. The feeling of LOVE so deep is knowing that there is nothing, absolutely nothing else in the world that I would rather do, or anything I would rather have, or any place I would rather be than right there, with them... and it's the absolute best feeling in the world. It is complete and total happiness.
That's awesome, Rob. You're a good Dad!
Well said Rob.
Loving your family is great practice. The trick is ".....knowing that there is nothing, absolutely nothing else in the world that I would rather do, or anything I would rather have, or any place I would rather be than right [there, with them} here and now."
Thanks, Rob. I don't know what I would have done without having had my children. It IS very hard work, but nothing else we do is more important. When the doctor told me, at 30, I could not carry any child full term, it was like that red flag waving at the bull. I have 2 beautiful children who, although both now well into adulthood, hear everyday how much they are loved! What else is there?
What I have noticed, beginning with my mother, and continuing through a best friend, and lately my sister, is that people seem to know that they are going to die, even if they have few or no physical symptoms. When my best friend, who was only 41, began to show this behavior in 1998, I called on all of our friends to create a support system, although he did not seem to lack this. In fact, I told them that he would not make it until 1999 in 1998. He purchased many books three days before he died, giving me false hope. On Christmas morning, he was hit with the :widow maker" form of heart attack. He had been having ultra-vivid dreams about a friend he lost years earlier. My sister suddenly began to place flowers on the graves of our family, including those two generations older than her. She had never done this before, and I told my other sister to talk to her and see if she was feeling bad or differently in any way. She reported nothing. Two weeks later, she was in the same cemetary that she had been spending long periods at and placing flowers. These are two of five instances where I knew that they knew that they were going to die from a change in their routines that dealt with dead people in their past. None of them showed any fear at all.
That's because they had nothing to fear. I just lost a beloved Aunt two weeks ago who meant so much to me and my family. She had absolutely no fear of dying, I believe that she was happy and anticipating her death with open arms. That's because she was a good person and lived a good life. I had another Aunt who passed away last year who was so fearful of dying it was somewhat shocking. I'm beginning to believe that maybe she didn't live the way she should have in life which caused this tremendous fear in her. Your point is well taken, and I thank you for sharing this.
What a moving piece. Thank you. I lost my mom and my dad. My mom had alzheimers and slowly died but my Dad was aware of his impending death and I held his hand while he passed on. God is an individual concept, I think. Nobody else can define how or why or if you believe in God.
how beautiful that you were able to hold his hand!
No one talks about money or possessions, so stop obsessing about it when you are young.
I would add that no one says they wish they had "spent more time in the office" glad I didn't waste time taking the kids fishing".
And typos, such as then/than
Wow. A great article about the most personal human event, death, and you dwell one word. And quite angrily. You shoul have more important things to worry about then that.
you have looked into the face of god
Thank you for your very moving article about your experiences with those who are leaving us. It moved me, taught me and comforted me.
As the days grew fewer before my mother passed, late at night I'd say that it was okay if she let herself get some peace and that her suffering had been too much. As a child, she had been responsible for taking care of her younger sister. She was still away at her winter home, and hadn't come back yet. Sometimes, she'd look up and say "Dad, I'll be home soon. I just want to make sure Mattie gets home okay.". A day after her sister came home and visited her, she left us. She'd welcome visits from a chaplain, but it was true, my Mom just wanted to talk about her family and didn't feel any need for prayer, although she had always been church-going.
This is so true. My mother was a holocaust survivor. At the end of her life, she told me what she had experienced during the war, events that she had never shared previously. She spoke a lot about her family that had perished. I felt then and I still feel that as she got closer to dying, she felt closer to them and knew that she would see them again soon. My mom took great comfort in this. There is a great connection between family and spiritual belief – they cannot be separated.
Please read my reply to FreeLunch – one of the first postings.
Yes, that is because family is real.
@caw...The Greatest gift is free will, to give you a difinitive answers would destroy that and create mindless zombies. He doesn't need us to believe, WE need us to believe. Selfishness and ego dont help. Remember, we have brains, but we all use less than 3% of it and even Einstien used less than 10%...The more we learn them more we know we DONT know anything.
The more we know, the more we become painfully aware that we know nothing. It's the paradox of knowledge. Is it a curse or a blessing? What is truth? It's the question that one asked Jesus before he washed his hands. All we have is that mustard seed of hope. Hope for a better existence, where we'll find love without pain. Is that what we call faith? This hope? Love and pain are two sides of the same coin. Our capacity to love is so closely connected to our capacity to feel pain. A big coin carries a big burden. Many chose to shrink their capacity to love in order to feel less pain, and carry a small coin. Everything we do in life is somehow related to this battle to be loved/ to love and our escape from pain. Without this seed of hope/faith we would be nothing more then a process of evolution. If that's the case, then Hitler was right, by speeding up "natural selection". I believe he was wrong. In Greek mythology, Pandora's box had one thing remaining: hope. All we have is this mustard seed of hope. This hope for unconditional love without the fear to be hurt in the process. It's what many of us call "heaven". The reason we talk about family, is that it's the place we first learned about unconditional love or the lack thereof.
From the headline:
"In their final moments, she says, people talk more about family then they do religion"
Really? "... more about family THEN they do religion"
Good God, English is really dead, isn't it?
It's THAN, for Christ's sake!
That is the first thing I noticed. Standards are going through the floor.
LOL. Look at the bright side, it's keeping an otherwise OWS editor employed.
Besides, it would seem that the message of the article is that in most cases, they ARE talking about religion when they are talking about their families...."people talk to the chaplain about their families because that is how we talk about God." That editor must have been in the class with that professor.
John, of course it's a typo. A simple "Typo in the subhead: 'then' should be 'than'" would do.
Is that the only thing you got from this article meathead? Just a chance to "correct" someone....must be nice to be perfect
Of course, maybe they DO talk a lot about their family, and THEN about religion. So maybe the byline is right, and the story is wrong.
You have this beautiful piece in front of you, and all you get out of it...all you can comment on is a misused word? All you can do is find fault? You REALLY didn't get what it was all about...loving and forgiving.
Dean, why are you then expressing disgust and being unforgiving towards John?
FROM A DYING MOMENT TO A LESSON ON ENGLISH 101. THANK YOU!
God gives you an A+ in grammar! Yay, you!
John, I used to be very uptight as well, but learned to let it go and focus more on positive things that really matter in life. Think about how much time and energy you spend correcting people you don't even know. You'll be amazed at how much better your life becomes after you let go.. Give it a try..
I hope you are comforted by correcting the grammar of all those around you while in your final years, days, minutes, seconds.
What a sad statement from your part. Here is she talking about something so moving and so meaningful and all you got is English grammar error.
Take a pill John. If a minor typo gets you this upset, you're going to be pushing daisies before you know it. Then, perhaps you'll recognize the beauty of this piece, grammatical errors notwithstanding.
And THAT'S what you're taking away from this article? I'm normally the grammar police on heightened patrol, but given the depth and focus of this article, and the lessons we can take from it, grammar is hardly an issue. Sure hope you don't do this to your family. On their deathbeds, they'll all say, 'Thank God I'm gonna be out of the grammar Nazi's life now!'
I dont see the gramaticle air.
"In their final moments, she says, people talk more about family then they do religion"
Really? "... more about family THEN they do religion"
GOOD GOD JOHN. YOU FORGOT THE PERIOD IN YOUR QUOTE.
GET A LIFE!
I thought it was funny. Of course the article is much more than that typo. But, for me, it was like a "geez, people!" moment.
I, for one, appreciate your attention to grammar. It's much more important than imaginary friends.
Wow, lighten up. Somehow I suspect that when you're dying, grammar will not be foremost on your mind. Try to remember that now.
Wow, you have issues. You are a very sad person when you see the grammatical errors and dont see the message of the article. I feel so sorry for you
If that's all you got from the article I feel sorry for you. Have you never made a typo?
Being a military man, I've had to choose duty over family numerous times. The worst was in the first few months of 2010. My grandfather and my grandmother passed in febuary and march of that year. During the funerals I was thousands of miles away grieving on my own while my families had each other. This article gives me comfort in knowing that what they talked about before the end was about me when I was home. I would have given anything to be there at the end, to help comfort my family and they comfort me. Unfortunately, due to the life I choose I had to mourn on my own. I don't blame anyone for that nor hold any grudges. This article grips my heart because now I can have peace after the past few years knowing what it was they probably talked about. I never had the heart to ask anyone what those final moments were. In my heart, I feel like I never actually grieved for them because I never got the finality of the end for them. But in all honesty, this article has helped me with that. So as I sit here thousands of miles from home, I feel like I can have closure on my loss. Maybe now their spirits can rest knowing I have the comfort I have been short of. Thank you for this, it's given me a peace that could not be achieved by myself.
Thank you so much your comment really moved me. "dmoss"
Thank you for your service to our country. The sacrifice you and others have made to be apart from your famiiies is hard enough to begin with let alone having to experience a loss so close to you while you are many miles away. May you have the peace in your heart you were longing for, and know there are other people out here who feel the same. I was around when my mother passed, and I don't know how I would have handled it if I would not have been. My mother was a very spiritual person and although she never spoke to myself about her past, we did have chats on what I would do without her. It has been rough and I miss her every day. But I know she is in a better place than I. Peace to you.
I feel the exact same way, and had a similar situation. A few years ago I couldn't go to my great grandma's funeral because I was in the middle of boot camp. My dad wrote to me and said like he really felt like I was there with him anyway, and that thought alone aided me in feeling less helpless. Family really is a powerful thing.
My father passed away while I was still on active duty and many miles away. Mother and a friend told me of his last hours and I was able to get home for the funeral. Yet I felt that sense of absence deeply. The police officer who did CPR on dad before the ambulance arrived spoke to me at the funeral. He was very upset that dad had not lived even though he had been revived several times. Having spoken to dad's closest friends I knew that he had known death was near and had prepared for it. He had made sure all the jobs in his shop were finished and he had given friends instructions on how to help mom with various busines and personal matters. In reassuing the police officer that he had done all that he could have I realized myself that I didn't need to be physically there to be close to dad even in his final hours. A friend he had spent a great deal of time with outdoors in the months before his death told me they had been watching a great horned owl in the morning hours all winter. This friend was in the ER room when dad's heart stopped for the last time. When he left the hospital he had gone back out to the area where they had been watching the owl. It was waiting there on a tree branch, it rose in the air circled once, flew away and he never saw it again.
Thank you all
Prayer changes things
Religion befuddles EVERYTHING! And as EVERYONE knows....It should NOT rear its head Online
demon fears prayer and is terrified of the possibile
I agree that religion befuddles, because it is a counterfeit. But the fact that man has a built in spiritual hunger is proof positive there is a God. The fact that people get angry when the name of Jesus used in a non-derogatory fashion exemplifies man's distaste for the cure that was given for his disease (his sinful nature). If there is no God, then is it not dog eat dog?
"""fact that man has a built in spiritual hunger is proof positive there is a God. """
Your premise is false, your conclusion is absurd.
Man's survival has always depended on his ability to understand the world around him. Early man didn't understand why things happened the way they did, but it was necessary that they knew what to do about the things that got thrown their way. They searched for meaning with their limited knowledge, and they came up with gods to explain what was going on around them. Plural gods.
This was not spiritual hunger – it was a survival mechanism.
"...And other living things"? I can't imagine what that could refer to. Are you teaching your chihuahua to pray?
God IS love. Awesome and simple. Love one another. The Golden rule. The perfect answer to an imperfect world.
Oh and btw..Faith and Love go hand in hand, how can you love without trust? It's always better to know and not say, than to say without knowing. @J Guerrero.
You do not need any religion or deity to have faith and trust in the ones you love.
I'm still waiting for the single verifiable and recorded miracle to occur (and not just a statistical anomaly). Come on God, split that Red sea again and the whole world will be converted. If you're real, then why did you give us brains that question and then fail to answer the questions?
You're existence is a miracle.
Your heart beating – your eyes seeing, your blood and body temperature all set, your ears hearing – those are all miracles ; and even now God is being gracious to you by not taking away your life
You don't consider life a miracle – and a complete contradiction and in opposition to entropy and the 2nd law of thermodynamics?
That's because HE IS NOT there!...Just silly ignorant people that NEED SIMPLE answers so they create him!
The last time he split the sea, the world wasn't converted. He really doesn't owe you a miracle.
God made that brain to question so that you might respond to Him by faith, not sight.
Cnn unfortunately doesn't allow long posts, so I cannot post what I would like to answer a question commonly asked such as caw's. The only thing I could do here is give sites that he could check out if he wants to, which acknowledge and examine topics such as this. It is not possible to form a quick answer to these kind of excellent questions which are on many people's minds and are valid questions. Chabad.org and Aish.com are two excellent websites which he could peruse to find these and other pertinent topics discussed.
"""You're existence is a miracle."""
Can't you people do better than this?
Caw... How do you know that you are thinking? What is it that makes one think? Where does that come from?
No life is not a complete contradiction to the laws of thermodynamics silly fool. We eat food which is full of energy and our body uses this energy to keep us in an ordered state of being. If you do not eat any food therefore bringing in no energy from an outside source you die and the laws of thermodynamics are then satisfied...............keep believing everything the church and you imaginary god tells you 😉
NIck//"No life is not a complete contradiction..."
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing Nick. The fact that life came into being is what is inconsistent with entropy – that the universe always heads towards randomness. The molecules, cells, organs, organisms, consciousness, etc. that are part of life should never have begun at all. The fact that we, if we are solely a product of physics, should not even have free will. Our actions should be absolutely repeatable, not random or individually decided.
Think about it a little.
I agree Caw, there is NO God. and religion is some man-made b***S**T
If you guys are going to try to bring in the "science proves god made life" argument, I guess we will turn this into another "you are wrong, and here is why" argument.
The 2nd law of themodynamics >>ONLY HOLDS TRUE IN A CLOSED SYSTEM<<. The earth is NOT a closed system... there are pockets of closed systems on earth (such as an air tight closed coke bottle in some undistubered location), But, the planet itself is not. An early statement kinda of broke it down when they stated when you consume food, you are not in a state of decay.... this proves the "only in a closed system" aspect of the law.
Why is CNN's 'religion blog' always so dismissive of religion...?
Because CNN is simply dismissive of religion.
Because CNN is run by responsible journalists who present both sides. Some believe in God but don't believe in religion. Some don't believe in neither. Frankly, no one has the definitive answer. When you consider the strife religion causes worldwide can you blame some who question it?
Maybe there is a definitive answer.
Because they are undermining Christianity one article at a time and only Christianity. They are left wing so it is a political slap at right wing Christians. I knew all that politicking would one day come back to bite them on the rear.
Was there something in this article that was dismissive of religion? I must have missed it entirely.
I don't know how people could read such a touching article as a slam against Christianity. It seemed very pro Christian to me. Do you guys interpret ever article as a left wing conspiracy? Seems like a huge waste of time and effort to me.