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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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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.
Whatever illness, unhappiness, terrible and bad things happens to non-believers they deserves it! I hope they live terrible short life and may God make them blind
Keep praying. You'll die like all the rest.
You are the reason Christians get a bad sterotype. I'll pray for you.
How wonderfully Christian of you
Praise the lord! I'm sure your god would be so proud of you.
You crack me up.
Spoken like a true dummy
....I love Airforce One, all the perks and I will miss them after I'm thrown out of office next Nov. I also love Michelle's big booty! I love Joe Biden even though he's an idot.
I'm not gonna love Gov Romney beating me like an old drum....but I know it comming!
I feel sorry for your total lack of funny. I will pray for you.
I do not feel sorry for many of you because you do not believe because clearly you are happy in that. I do however feel sorry for many of you because of how much bitterness and anger you have in your heart. Why so much passion for what you do not believe?
well said mark. i agree.
If Christianity weren't crammed down my throat constantly in ways that no one in this country would tolerate from any other religion, I'd be more laid back about it. I have to say, though, that things have improved considerably since the days when our public school music teacher felt the need to teach her largely Jewish students about the divinity of Jesus.
Great Article! The prof was a dumbo.
I agree. An arrogant dumbo.
agree ... probably a chauvinist too ...
"Scott Pederson" the Bible thumper and 'IamDeadlySerious" the athiest, you are on dipolar opposite ends of the belief scale and both so wrong as you are opposed. How ARROGANT for people like Scott to pontificate and assume that if you don't believe his beliefs one is without question going to burn in a Hell he's come to believe because of some words contorted by some MAN thousands of years ago. God you make me sick with your narrow-minded arrogance and portrayal of what YOU believe God is and what Christ wants. I'm a Christian and I KNOW Christ exists, but not in this man-conttived and contorted punishing unforgiving version conceived and dictated by those with morals much more questionable than the average decent person on the street or even myself.
And you oh godless one "Iam..." you will find out two things when you croak; Scott was dead wrong in his perceptions of Christ, along with his exclusionary version of the after-life, and YOU are waaay beyond wrong in stupidly assuming that there is no Christ or worse yet, there is no God. You would have to be a booger-picking moron who has been living under a rock for most of your life not to have seen all the signs around you as well as the verifiable proof brought back by NDE'ers and the ancients.
EVERYONE IS GOING TO DIE!™*
*(Individual results will vary in pre-death experiences. Post-death results will not vary beyond standard relativistic quanta.)
Death is Death™
Hopefully atheists learned something about this article. Jesus is the way to heaven baby!
Who did Jesus have beside his deathbed? It couldn't have been an atheist right? lol
OMG Jesus will punish you and make you blind for saying that.... I promise. Go hold the bible and say sorry, otherwise I feel bad for you
This article has nothing to do with Jesus. I am an atheist and experience love over and over again in my life.
Oh how is Jesus is going to find me in hell? I thought it was a restricted area for non-believers. A party place dedicated for us.
Does Jesus want us to vacate and welcome christians?
Why Jesus is the only way? Did you meet him or did he talk to you or you just read a book? I feel that my soul is free and will travel with no religions help...
This is by far the most relevant content I have ever read on CNN.
Thank you Kerry Egan
This bi.tch doesn't know her ass from a hole in the ground! Those people are now going to Hell because she didn't do her job!
Nothing like that at all Chad.
Only christians go to hell.
To those who believe all roads lead to God: You are RIGHT! All roads DO lead to God: One to His forgiveness – all others to His judgment. :oO Get right or get left.
The god of death will always win in the end.
*just death; no god required
The god of death sounds nicer 🙂
Beautifully written, incisive, comforting post. It makes so much sense to me and I had never thought about it that way. It made me feel so much better about a couple of situations that have bothered me for years. Thank you for this, Ms Egan...
Nah, she just wanted to bi.tch about that fat old man who dissed her in front of everybody by making it sound like she's just the sweetest little ole thang that never did anything wrong ever!
She doesn't tell about the times she plssed off all the relatives or terrified her victims. She doesn't talk about that stuff.
And I confess. I am the nastiest thing anyone can do in a hotel room.
Yes, you are, herbert.
How strange to see my name stolen for such a lame response. Sad.
Yes, did you want something, Ironicus?
herbie's just mad because he got his ass handed to him.
Alright, here's my last real post. The rest are herbie. Have fun, herbie. I guess that's how you comfort yourself. Sad.
Our home and native land!
True patriot love in all thy sons command.
With glowing hearts we see thee rise,
The True North strong and free!
From far and wide,
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
God keep our land glorious and free!
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
There are no gods to keep Canada glorious and free and none are needed or wanted.
This is the best weblog for anyobdy who wants to search out out about this topic. You realize so much its nearly laborious to argue with you (not that I truly would need…HaHa). You definitely put a new spin on a topic thats been written about for years. Great stuff, simply nice!
Thank you for this reflection! My own personal and professional experience is as you described. I have been a healthcare chaplain for 24 years. Interestingly, your professor heard it wrong- he said the chaplain talked with patients about their families. You said the patients did the talking. That's right too. Thanks again.
I am so terribly sorry for the harsh things I've said today.
captain america, I presume? Go die in a fire, herbie.
Poor herbie. He means well.
If he meant well then he could have simply said something without going to all this trouble of stealing your name.
A very nice article. Having been close to a number of people who've died before me including my father, I agree that an explanation for the most poignant emotions we've expressed and been involved in is where we look for meaning at life's end. Atheist, agnostic or believer does not seek out third party dissonance but the feelings and love of people that are or should be close.
One thing that surprised me, is that most people who still have their wits at the end are very angry with their palliative care providers as they see the pain killers as fogging over that ability to feel and recognize and come to grips with those feelings, especially when they are trying to interact with another.
thats weird, i'd be angry at them for not giving me enough painkillers to flat out kill me...
Stay away from those Satanic Catholics! They will refuse medication to you to enhance your suffering on purpose!
They are evil! Flee them! Speak no words to them! They are evil!
Well done! Thank you for your foresight
I'm not religious and don't know if there is a God or afterlife. But when I do die, and if God is there and doesn't accept me for doing the best I could as a human being, then I don't want him. If there is a God then my God should accept me for who I am and love me like a son unconditionally. That is a true God. Not these Gods that say I will go to hell if I don't believe in them.
I don't often see the "no true scotsman" applied to a "god" and can only say that your expectations, while misplaced, are certainly more sensible than most I've seen. Kind of a back-handed compliment, but it could have been worse. Enjoy.
You don't need to worry about anything.
Jon, God gave His only Son so that we might live because we could never pay the price ourselves. God sacrificed His sinless Son so that YOU might live. If you do not sacrifice something for Him, you will not be recognized. Our "best" is like filthy rags at the feet of the King. We must live our lives for Jesus Christ or we will hear the dreaded words "away from Me, I knew you not." The Bible says that ALL have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Jesus is our Savior...He paid the price for OUR sins and without a relationship with HIM...none of us shall enter the gates of Heaven. Heaven is reserved for those who submit to His will for their lives...we were made to know Him and to make Him known. THAT is the best we can do. We will all stand (be face down on the floor) before the God of the universe one day and He will ask "What did you do with my Son?" If you cannot say "i worshipped Him God, i praised Him, i lived my life for Him each and every day." then anything else you say will be heard as "i drove the nails into His hands and feet...i never knew Him. Please don't let that be you my friend. You said yourself "i don't know if there is a God or afterlife." Please, FIND OUT. Seek Him while He can still be found. Your eternal soul is at stake. and eternity...is a long long time.
john, i have to respond to your post after reading it. I come from a family with a long history of Christianity. My great grandfather was a pastor of the church who was taken out of his house in the middle of the night and executed for his believes. My grandfather died from a heart condition. which was most likely caused by the persecution that he faced for his believes most of his life. my father was put our in front of his class mates and made fun of for his believe in God.
when i came of age when i had to make my own decision for what i will do with my life i did research. I was questioning the decisions that my family has made in the past. why would someone in their mind go through all of that when all they need to do is turn away from their believe. I read and found out for my self who God is. that he is the God of love. once i let him into my heart i knew for a FACT that he exists. because i could feel His presence around me. its a feeling that can not be described.
i know we are all very busy. but please take some time out and inform yourself. read and speak to someone who knows. saying that you are not religious and you don't know does not change the fact that God exist and he want to have a relationship with you.
i plead with you not to go through your life not knowing. my heart is praying for you.
To Kerry Egen: "...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." WRONG ANSWER, you false teacher. If you are not talking about the redeeming blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, how He paid the price for our sins, that He and He alone is the gate to the narrow path that few find, that no one i repeat NO ONE goes to the Father except through the Son then you my friend are talking about the wrong things, teaching false doctrine, and complacently sitting there and letting these poor people slide right away from your counsel and into the depths of HELL. We do not earn our way into Heaven regardless of how good we were, what or how much we did for others, how much we loved or were loved – if we do not know Christ, we do not enter into the gates of Heaven. That is the gospel that you are denying them and for YOU as a "shepherd" you are held doubly accountable and their blood shall be on YOUR HEAD. Your professor was right and still is – you should seriously consider another line of work CHAPLAIN.
Do you believe you know everything, Aircarz? Last I checked, no one knows what happens when we die. Just because you believe it does not make it a fact. And just because you believe it doesn't mean anyone else is required to do so. It also doesn't mean that the chaplain has to do things your way or the way you believe she should because you think God said so. It's not your call. You want to tell people they're going to hell if they don't repent? You want to be a chaplain? Then get into Harvard and work that cerebrum of yours. Get a degree and you can operate as you wish as long as any hospital will put up with your idiocy. Otherwise, you don't get to give advice to someone who's doing the job.
Don't push your religious beliefs upon others. We do not have to believe in what you believe. It is her opinion and is not pushing her beliefs upon you. She is just telling her life experience about people who are on their deathbed. Live by your golden rule and treat others as you wish to be treated.
The rabble has a propensity for crucifying those who speak the truth.
Here's the truth, Airhead: nobody cares what you think a chaplain should say to those dying. If you aren't the one doing the job, you're not qualified to judge.
I doubt you're qualified to push a broom.
Kerry made me feel love and God. Aircarz you made me feel that I hate you and your damned God.
The heaven you believe in sounds terrible and the God you pray to sounds childish, incredibly narrow minded and capricious. If heaven is filled with that kind of deity and with the evangelicals I know, I don't want to go.
Wow thinking of others as rabble .. that is so kind for a christian isn't it?
Glad to see that your kind will be going to your hell.
It's your hell, Airhead. You burn in it.
Wrong, Aircarz! The only TRUE redeemer, the TRUE God who provides our only course of salivation is the FSM*. May the wrath you, the non-believer, suffer from his noodly appendage be swift and al dente.
All kidding aside, I really liked the article despite the obvious fact that I'm an atheist. Although some days I am a pastafarian.
*Flying Spaghetti Monster, for the uninitiated
It cracks me up that Airhead thinks he's being "crucified". Get off the cross, bub. We need the wood.
I love Italian foods.. I could use a good dose of noodly appendage.
Here's the thing. If this person is professing to be a Christian Chaplain. Someone who represents a teacher of Christ. Who teaches the Bible which is the source of information about Christ. This Bible teaches Repentence, Baptism in Jesus Name and receiving the Holy Ghost or the New Birth experience (being born again). Why would the Chaplain deny this valuable information to the dying and untaught? I could see if you were representing some other organization....but not if you are representing Christ who said He came to seek and save the lost.???
parrot man parrots nonsense.
Who said she ever did any such thing? Do you really not get this? If the dying person wants to talk to a chaplain and seems to want to talk about a particular subject, such as his family, why should the chaplain attempt to force him to discuss something else? Where do you get the idea that she denied anyone anything?
Actually, I didnt miss anything thanks. I am simply saying that yes, people may want to talk about many things but there are priorities. As a minister of Christ the highest priority is to help the person make it to heaven. There is nothing else more important at that moment. That person deserves one last chance to "get it", get it??
How can you be so self righteous? Love is what matters, unconditionally! Your soul has a lot of growing to do. Pity.
I say, if the person wants to talk about their family, send them a shrink, or someone else, but a Chaplain has a responsibility....and that is to represent Christ and all that He would want them to do to save that persons soul. THAT my friend is the greatest demonstration of love. Unless you are saying that a Chaplain is just a shrink with a cloth.
Sanctimonious know it all.
You will never know the answer until you die. We all have a right to our opinion. I like Kerry's article. Religion is a faith not truth. If it is the truth then there would be only one religion since it happened one way. But there are different religions because we have a choice of what faith we want to believe in. We will never have the answer to God, heaven or hell while we are alive. If you find out in the after life you will never be able to tell some one who is alive. I notice as people get older and closer in age to death they seem to want to believe in a God. It makes them feel better. I don't know if there is a God or not. But the religous people always have a reason for why the bus load of children fell over the cliff and died. It was their time. WHAT! God has another purpose for them. Is God inpatient? The better purpose would be for them to be with their family's. Oh but the family's are stronger now. God never gives you more than you can handle. That's not my God. The older I get the less I believe. Maybe there is a God but you won't know until you die. Maybe the bus load of children know more than us. Was that the purpose? Still a non believer.
I agree with you a 100%. As a chaplain there is a huge responsibility to guide people that are on their last days. I strongly hope that she rethinks her career. Talking about your family will not get you to heaven. Jesus is the only way.
Tom: check in the Bible...you will find out what happens when you die in those pages. Everything and i mean EVERYTHING* else the Bible has said has come to pass...i have no reason therefore to doubt what it says about Heaven and hell.
*Israel arose from the ashes- was resurrected if you will, after being literally extinct for more than 1900 hundred years. On May 14 1948 It arose in its original location with its original Hebrew language and the BIBLE predicted that. That was the LAST prophecy that needed to take place before the rapture to occur. That means there si nothing else that needs to happen before the return of Jesus...all remaining prophecy is during and post tribulation. Check those things out while you're finding out what happens to you when you die.
Dayum dying people wanna just keep yapping....shut 'em up right....we all know they'll have plenty of time to chat their little mouths off after they're gone.....now pay attention to me and stop your interrupting....amen.
@ Aircarz:”The rabble has a propensity for crucifying those who speak the truth.”
Well that means your safe
@A Matter of Faith:” but a Chaplain has a responsibility....and that is to represent Christ and all that He would want them to do to save that persons soul.”
I thought a Chaplin’s primary responsibility was to give spiritual help and support whatever their beliefs might be, not to pedal a particular brand of dogma. It would suit you right if on your death bed you get exactly the kind of Chaplin you want them to be, only yours should be Muslim
My first experience with death was when I in a car accident the car flipped in the air three times and then four more times down a hill i had a piece of glass lodged in the back of my skull scars down my arms and stomach and apparently flatlined three times. The third time I was legally dead for 30 minutes.
My last words are going to be, "I can feel my spirit leaving my body" as I fart one last time....