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.
Fascinating article – for me and send to Dylan
Good article. I am touched deeply. Families is the cell of sociaty.
Love the article, I am a hospital chaplain and agree – God is not found in theological debates, but within the world He created.
So touching, Iam facing death very soon, and i so wish I had this gentle woman by my side.
Please check out tentmakers.com and read about how God will save everyone and that there is no hell. It is such a blessing to know that God created everything and that eevryone, yes even Hitler, will repent and go to heaven.
Lovely and well said.
What a beautiful column. It's so true about the family. It is what we fall back on in our times of need and what we carry with us throughout our lives. The love of a close family can help its members to survive just about anything.
As someone who has sat by the death bed of a sister, father and mother, I full heartily agree that those looking into the thin veil that separates the living and dead, think about their loved ones not God. My mother saw her beloved daughter and talked to her, she also called out to her own mother and grandparents to help her cross over. Mom called out for me to help the baby crying in another room, there was no baby except the unborn one that never made it into this world.
Thank you for your thought provoking article, Kerry. As a physician and a believer who lost his own mother 3 weeks ago tonight, I was very touched by your article. Thank you for your courage in challenging your obviously "neophyte" professor. I suspect I would have kicked your professor out of my mother's room, and I would have welcomed you for your compassion. Don't know your professor's credentials, but I suspect they are extensive....Jesus chose to reveal himself to the peasants in a backwater Roman colony, not in the library of Alexandria....I am encouraged to see so many comments, because you have clearly touched a nerve or a heart. I hope to hear more from you.
This one of the most moving articles I have ever read.
You touched my heart. Your experience would guide us in future.
A fine article. Families are truly eternal. I was touched!
See Primary Songbook #188
very nice article Kerry, you have a big heart and are very compassionate. I hope that pious, insensitive professor does not have any contact someone who is dying or in need of spiritual uplifting.
When people are dying in the last moments when they are looking up, not at you or anyone around you what are they looking at? Some say that its past family and friends calling the dying home, is there any truth to this? When my brother was dying he often talked about how wonderful his kids were and what an excellent wife he has. I cant say there was any mention of God at anytime. I loved your article and your professor sounds like a small minded creep!
Nice job!! An important example of how a Harvard Prof cannot teach but can belittle students
True...it's a very poorly-regarded school. Idiot.
Ironic, given that Harvard is supposed to teach truth, no?
You can see how a person is prejudiced by the way it focus its reading. I am a atheist and I never, not in a single moment I focused my reading in the word God, only in the message she really want to pass, the importance of the family, love and forgiveness. You don´t need to be religious to believe in all those things!!
Ricardo, great comment! I am a believer (Catholic) and got the same meaning out of this article. I wish more people would get past it. Thanks!
As an oncology nurse that has experienced many of these situations, I must say that this was one of the most moving articles about death and dying that I have ever read. It brought me to tears and conjured many beautiful memories of last minutes, hours, days spent with some amazing people and their families. Thank you so much for sharing with us.
She should've become a secular counselor rather than a chaplain; she missed her calling.
Yeah, we'll take your advice on career choice. Moron.
What is the nastiest thing you can do in a hotel room?
Man, leave off. She's 50 or something.
I wouldn't know. Why don't you tell me, you loser?
Geez ... get a room.
I hope that professor has read this. Great article.
He probably gets his news from less low-brow sites than this.....
This is an incredibly moving and deep article, especially to find on CNN. I have forwarded it to a number of people for different reasons, who are growing older or who are dealing with imminent death. I am an attorney. A client went through 4 years of terminal lung cancer. This article is totally accurate and correct. There should be a book by this person.
Not very religious and never have been around someone that was dying. Often wondered what to do or say. Seems like this was very good advice as to listen, and being gentle and kind. Certainly not being judgemental.