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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Alright, I'm only going to say this once.
It's CHAPLAIN. Not chaplin. Chaplin was a master of slapstick comedy in the early 20th century. A chaplain is a religious position.
I mean, it's right there in the article, and you get a red squiggly line underneath it when you spell it wrong. How can you possibly keep spelling it incorrectly?
(gently spoken) Are we in a judgmental mood today?
Not quite sure where you get judgmental. It's not like people's inability to spell-check is a genetic condition. If you're going to write someone in the public sphere, the least you can do is make sure that you're using the right words.
get a life and TROLL somewhere else
So people can exercise their freedom of speech only if they are perfect? Words are mere symbols to convey a meaning.If the meaning is understood, then the writer has done his/her job. For you formalism is more important than content. It makes me wonder if you are not an elementary school English teacher.
It not about money as most Americians think and live.
Too politically correct. Jesus Christ said in John 14:6 that "He is the Way, the Truth and the Life, no one can come to the Father except through Him." She seems compassionate but lacks the compassion for Christ...
That's because compassion can stem directly from the human heart as well as from Jesus Christ. Compassion, empathy, sympathy, and love are all attributes that don't require divination, even though it can indeed stem from there as well.
Heaven forbid that someone be compassionate without having to be told that they have to be by an old book.
How does she lack the compassion of Christ? She is sitting with people in their last hours...listening to them. Greater love hath no man than that he give up his life for another. She could be sitting at home in front of the tv stuffing her face. Instead, she has more compassion than most of us who are too selfish to do the same for another.
People like you really have to get your head out of the bible; spirituality is about your own PERSONAL relationship with god, not the dogma in some stupid old book
beautifully written and heartfully received. Thank you. I would definitely want this lady by my side during my final hours.
As a pastor, the best thing we or anyone can do is simply listen and be present.
thank you. i would want you there.
I find it odd that no one is mentioning the elephant in the room. This article was written by a woman. Women should not be chaplins or pastors. Only liberal churches do that.
Not an "elephant in the room" to me... I don't see why there should be a gender requirement to be a religious charlatan.
First of all, I object to your characterization of religious people as charlitans. Secondly, the Bible is quite clear on the proper roles for men and women. Why do you think that not one of Jesus' diciples was a woman?
I'm a conservative Lutheran, George. We find it right and appropriate for women to minister to people in situations like these. The Stephen Ministries that we and many other churches support encourage full involvement of women. I encourage you to look into it for an example of how many Christians become fully involved in caring for others.
Ok, you don't like charlatan – I'll use a more colorful phrase.
The snake oil salesmen in The Babble are all men because The Babble was put together by men in a time when women were considered less than equal. This controlling tradition has been carried on by cults that insist on clinging to past fiction and bias.
Lutherans are not fundamentalist Evangelical churches. They are one of the worldly churches like Anglicans.
... whatever ...
Ah, yes. No true Scotmen. Good one, George. You never fail to fall to the lowest possible expectation.
This comment does not deserve a response but I will give it one. I read this comment about this beautiful piece and said: Are you kidding me? What sort of simpleton would read this article and respond with something like that. As a practicing catholic, I have to say that it is people like this who keep others from seeing and experiencing God. Would Jesus have responded in this way.....I think not.
I won't try to sell you on Lutheranism, George. I would encourage you to look into the theology and activities of the various Christian groups. You will probably find we have much in common. We can and should work together as one.
This is a story that focuses on family, forgiveness, and love itself, and you focus on the fact that it was written by a female chaplain? I don't care by whom it was written. The Truth is the Truth, because it is True-not depending on whether or not the vessel through which it passes abides by the same traditions as do the receivers of such wisdom. George, if you can read this genuine, heartfelt piece and your first reaction is to dispute it by being critical of the source and not appreciative of the message,it seems you have a mind set more similar to the scribes and pharisees than to that of honesty, generosity, grace, and love that Jesus commands us to pursue.
Wake up ... it's no longer the 18th Century. You have been asleep for 200 years
Do you actually believe that?
I grew up Catholic, and I know that there is no way on this planet that a woman could ever become a priest. In fact, to advocate such a thing is heresy and takes you out of communion with the Catholic church.
At the risk of appearing to defend George 'cause I'm not, this was not George's first reaction. Below, you will see that he agreed that the most important thing to do for a dying person is to replay the jesus myth. He must think his god is keeping track of how any conversions each charlatan, sorry he doesn't like that word, each snake oil salesman makes.
Who gives a flying fig how you "grew up", George? You're not God, much as you'd like to pretend to be.
George, "not one of Jesus' diciples was a woman"? What about Martha, Mary, and Mary Magdalene? The twelve apostles were all men, but Jesus had many disciples who were women. Aren't both men and women made "in the image and likeness of God"? By focusing on the gender of the author you miss the point. St. Paul said we are to be subject to one another, to serve one another. Instead of focusing on whether the author is a "pastor" focus on the fact that we are all called to minister to each other according to our gifts, and if she has the gift of giving comfort to the dying I say God bless her.
The most loving thing that you can do to a dying person is talk to them about forgiveness through Jesus and seeing him on the other side, and then trusting the Holy Spirit to do his work while you speak.
Yeah, and with all of the religions and beliefs abound, it's just that....a mere psycological belief. Other than the sights of "god" on a piece of toast or otherwise, while it'd be great for something when life ends, there just isn't, other than the hope while one is living, because once dead, you never knew you were alive....
How can you even be serious? How dare you assume that's the best thing one can do for a dying person? Good grief, what an arrogant, sanctimonious bozo.
Oh go eat it, the love that people have actually experienced in their lives is so much more real than the abstract notion of an afterlife.
So basically we have religious people coming in homes of people who are dying to exploit them for their sort of pseudo-pity, self-righteous gain.
Maybe we should also have a "Reason Police" that walks into peoples homes and say "Hey guys, your god is fake!" as they are dying.
@Luke: Anyone who attempted to come into my house saying that would be escorted out by the police, assuming, God willing, that I'm able to contain my own temper long enough to wait for them.
Nobody comes to your house, anyway.
let's see. a good samaritan in my home....or a hate monger. I think I will take the good guy.
And of course, you believe all believers are "good guys", don't you?
Chaplains don't come into homes unless asked to. No need for any inherently unreasonable reason police.
My friend, who lived in my house at the time of his illness and death, was formerly one of Jehovah's Witnesses. He forbade me from telling his JW family that he was on his death-bed. He knew only too well the shenanigans that might go on if they knew. He contacted them and told them that he was terminally ill, but he did not give them the specifics about where he was living.
I think that her thought that "God is love" is perfect and the best understanding of God that I've ever had.
Beautiful article.... but I disagree. I believe its an active injustice to the person to not offer them the hope that comes from their religion at the end of life. If that is a trust in a god or in a reincarnation or an afterlife, then that will give them an uncalculable amount of comfort as they approach the end of their life. Religious people of all types deserve to have that reminder ESPECIALLY on their deathbed. Yes, talk mostly about family and love and life, but don't withhold elements of that persons faith that they deserve in settling their existential angst.
Where did the article say anything about 'withholding"?
no bible, torah, koran
that's withholding if the person is religious
I must have read a "Different" article, I didn't read that in the one we are discussing.
If the person wants to talk about Family, Love, and missed opportunity, should the person sitting there to comfort them "force" them to talk about Religion?
Did the author say she didn't discuss God or redemption with someone who wished to talk about them? Do show me where.
I don't believe in a God but I do believe in Love.
@JohnQ – well, you're wrong. You'll see and be judged by Christ when you die.
I can admit that I "could" be wrong, can you?
I want my Priest there when I'm on my death bed. I'm so glad Athiests aren't in charge, they'd probably deny me that basic need just to assauge their own hatred, anger, and bitterness due to their own empty, soulless existance.
What can a Priest tell you that you don't already know?
Don't worry, I'm sure many atheists feel the same way about religious chaplains spewing fictional nonsense in their dying days. It shouldn't matter what the chaplain believes. It is their duty to talk, listen, pray, not pray, or do whatever brings dignity to the dying in their final days. Put religious divisiveness on the side.
@JohnQuest: Many things. My understanding of God is limited, due to the fact that I have too many worldly things to think about- Rent, family, child, bills, blah blah.. I don't have time to study God, to learn to truly understand His message to man. My Priest does, however. That IS his job. It's his job to learn it, to understand it, and to teach it to others like me so that we can understand it better.
What "special" incite can another person have about God that you don't have, we are not talking Rocket Science. A Priest can not know more about God than anyone else, he may know more about what's in the Bible but that does not mean he knows more about God, how could he? God talks to the Priest as much as he talks to anyone one else (not at all).
Really? You speak from ignorance and obviously know nothing about atheists - though you're probably surrounded by them without even knowing it because they don't feel like battling with the ignorant. The people you perceive to be atheist are those extremists with whom I and most other atheists I know have little in common. I'm an atheist, and so is my mother. We gave her mother the benefit of a priest when she died, and she rolled her eyes and said no. My atheist mother sent me to a Lutheran school. In fact, I would say I am Lutheran in my ethic, though I don't believe in God. I live with a man who believes in God and prays every night at the dinner table. And, yes, he knows I don't share his beliefs. I don't think my story is so unusual. The only thing we want is to not have your religion foisted on us, but most of us certainly are willing to respect others' religious preferences.
What you just said is very hateful. Ohhh....the hypocrisy.
You've bought into a lot of anti-atheist propaganda. If you're mainly hanging out with other theists, that's hardly surprising, but on the whole it bears no resemblance to what you'll find among real-world atheists.
Divinity studies is like going to study at Harward to become a "sanitation engineer". Ridiculous!
Let us all know when you're accepted to "Harward".
there is more involved than you think. where do you work......walmart?
I want to hear about the love of God and prayers when I'm on my death bed...thankful to have a Pastor that knows me and prays with me and for me. Don't wait until you are dying to look for a chaplain. Seek the face of the Lord now while you are still living.
I think no one needs a religious buffoon around at this private time of their death!
I agree. On my death bed, the last thing I want to hear about is the "man in the sky". I have to hear that nonsense enough being alive!
Some people are more religious than others....and most hospitals ask if you want religious services to stop by. You are not forced to see someone...bafoon.
Correct. I was recently in the hospital with a life threatening condition and was given a form to fill out which included questions on religious beliefs/denominational adherence. I checked off the box that more or less said "none of that stuff, thank you!" (can't recall how it was actually worded) and no one came around to pester me.
Best post ive read in a long time. Thanks for the positive post! ..BUT, i think you should talk to them about Jesus, or GOD.
Only if they WANT to hear about Jesus or God. Chaplains aren't final-moment missionaries.
The chaplain's duty is to deliver spiritual comfort. That comes in many forms. There is no one way to help usher anyone to the other side. Some people are more comforted at the thought of being reunited in the hereafter with the parents they missed or the child they lost. If that's what it takes, then so be it. As my father's brother lay dying, my mother and I went to see him. While we were there, the chaplain came in and asked whether he could do anything. The fact is, my and my mother's presence was far more important than that of the chaplain, even though I hadn't actually seen my uncle in years. I'm pretty sure it was more important for him at that moment to hear I loved him than for him to hear how God was waiting for him - especially since he didn't believe that.
I think what the article is saying is that the first rule of chaplaincy is: Don't be gassy windbag or a jerk of any other sort. Obviously, a lot of people, especially a lot of religious people, would have a hard time making it as chaplains.
Seorsa (1/29/12 @ 1:36PM) – Although you apparently do not believe in God (and I respect your civility on the subject), you thought enough of the subject to read the article. Perhaps, in time, you will see that God does exist... that God does want us to love each other and that He loves us. It is humans that make religion intolerable; not the presence of God. However, God's love lasts forever. I wish you peace in your journey, for I believe we all stand in front of God at some point.
No Lisa, not condescending. I simply refuse to be drawn into the negative exchange that has become so prevalent in today's society. Life on earth is but a wink of the eye as compared to the eternity of heaven. Christ Jesus taught humanity to turn the other cheek. What is wrong with simply pointing out another view and wishing the person peace? In the 60's, it was quite a popular movement among the youth.
Your remark IS condescending. Just because people don't believe in God does not mean they aren't spiritual or that they don't acknowledge there are forces greater than themselves. It also does not mean we are disinterested in that which is of interest to the people around us. I am an atheist who attended a Lutheran school and taken college-level religion courses, and finds a great deal of truth - not the same as fact - in the Bible. I have two close friends who have attended seminary or divinity school, and I have no problem attending church with them. I attend church on Christmas Eve. But I'm not there because I believe the story. I'm there because I come from that culture, and it's the tradition of my family. Funny how it all comes back to family, even in death,
Lots of non-beievers visit this blog because the QUESTIONS of belief are important to them both personally and politically. And yes, you are an insufferably condescending blowhard. It's just the truth, lovingly shared.
your divinity prof was a jerk!! he does not know anything!!!
of course people will talk about their families... these are the roots...our ancestors grappling with the same things we do now going back millions of years. the same questions and the same answers....
And perhaps the ones that don't talk about "god" are intelligent humans with a shred of common sense.
So, you do not talk to them about God, or try to pray with them....so what good was your divinity studies; oh you learned about love. I would ask for my tuition back. A 3yr old knows more about love and dependance, and that is how God wants us to come to Him...as little children.
Another arrogant azz who thinks he knows what everyone else wants and needs.
Get over yourself
Love has nothing to do with deities or imaginary friends.
Love is about people and what they care about and hold dear to them.
You do not need a god to understand love...just look in a young child's eyes when listen to their mother or father.or
consider the intense feelings of closeness and harmony between two people in love....young or old.
Gods have nothing to do with love.....and f you love a god more than yourself or another person....you need a mental exam.
chris, did you really read what you wrote before you hit the send button? must be interesting to go through life without a soul
Every person is different when it comes to faith. For me personally, if a Chaplain comes to my dying bedside, I wouldn't want to talk about God. I want to talk about my fears, my hopes and dreams for my loved ones, the life I've led, etc. God is an important part of my life, but I don't need to talk to a Chaplain about my faith as I'm dying. I'm confident in my faith and know that God will be waiting for me when it's my time.
You are an idiot
It is through the act of discussion that people passing from this earth, ultimately come to grips with their love experiences. When people 'confess' (and I use the word very generically), it's a form of soul cleansing. We, as humans, cannot expect forgiveness from God if we do not 'confess' (again, i use the word in a generic sense). The first step to any recovery is always openness. God listens, even to those who simply – in their last fleeting earthly moments – come forward with those things weighing heavy on the heart, perhaps for a lifetime. No, Ms. Egan's work is salvation; just takes a different path.
Chris, you are an arrogant jerk, and I'm glad I don't know you.
Tom Tom, have a brain. Chris is only telling the so-called "chaplain" to be a real chaplain or do something else.
Chris – I agree with the author of this piece. People should not be lead through hoops as they approach death. They may want to feel close to God, or they may want to focus on family and friends. They may come around to prayer. They may not. We can't orchestrate God's work in people. Instead, as always, when we minister to the dying, we should be open to how God is moving in the situation.
Since when do you make the rules about what the job requirements are for "chaplain"?
David B., she IS being a "real" chaplain. Her degree was not a waste. Did you ever think that maybe this is God's way? A chaplain can't bring religious preference to the bedside. She has to be a chaplain to the Christian, the Buddhist, the atheist. It's a chaplain's job to bring the individual to his or her God in the way that individual understands - not the way you understand. When it's your turn, hopefully, you will be in the presence of the spiritual leader who will guide you the way you need to be guided.
A beautiful piece, that'll stick with me. Best sermon I've heard in a long, long time. Thanks, Ms. Egan.