My Faith: What people talk about before they die
January 28th, 2012
11:00 PM ET

My Faith: What people talk about before they die

Editor's Note: Kerry Egan is a hospice chaplain in Massachusetts and the author of "Fumbling: A Pilgrimage Tale of Love, Grief, and Spiritual Renewal on the Camino de Santiago."

By Kerry Egan, Special to CNN

As a divinity school student, I had just started working as a student chaplain at a cancer hospital when my professor asked me about my work.  I was 26 years old and still learning what a chaplain did.

"I talk to the patients," I told him.

"You talk to patients?  And tell me, what do people who are sick and dying talk to the student chaplain about?" he asked.

I had never considered the question before.  “Well,” I responded slowly, “Mostly we talk about their families.”

“Do you talk about God?

“Umm, not usually.”

“Or their religion?”

“Not so much.”

“The meaning of their lives?”


“And prayer?  Do you lead them in prayer?  Or ritual?”

“Well,” I hesitated.  “Sometimes.  But not usually, not really.”

I felt derision creeping into the professor's voice.  “So you just visit people and talk about their families?”

“Well, they talk.  I mostly listen.”

“Huh.”  He leaned back in his chair.

A week later, in the middle of a lecture in this professor's packed class, he started to tell a story about a student he once met who was a chaplain intern at a hospital.

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“And I asked her, 'What exactly do you do as a chaplain?'  And she replied, 'Well, I talk to people about their families.'” He paused for effect. “And that was this student's understanding of  faith!  That was as deep as this person's spiritual life went!  Talking about other people's families!”

The students laughed at the shallowness of the silly student.  The professor was on a roll.

“And I thought to myself,” he continued, “that if I was ever sick in the hospital, if I was ever dying, that the last person I would ever want to see is some Harvard Divinity School student chaplain wanting to talk to me about my family.”

My body went numb with shame.  At the time I thought that maybe, if I was a better chaplain, I would know how to talk to people about big spiritual questions.  Maybe if dying people met with a good, experienced chaplain they would talk about God, I thought.

Today, 13 years later, I am a hospice chaplain.  I visit people who are dying - in their homes, in hospitals, in nursing homes.   And if you were to ask me the same question - What do people who are sick and dying talk about with the chaplain?  - I, without hesitation or uncertainty, would give you the same answer. Mostly, they talk about their families: about their mothers and fathers, their sons and daughters.

They talk about the love they felt, and the love they gave.  Often they talk about love they did not receive, or the love they did not know how to offer, the love they withheld, or maybe never felt for the ones they should have loved unconditionally.

They talk about how they learned what love is, and what it is not.    And sometimes, when they are actively dying, fluid gurgling in their throats, they reach their hands out to things I cannot see and they call out to their parents:  Mama, Daddy, Mother.

What I did not understand when I was a student then, and what I would explain to that professor now, is that people talk to the chaplain about their families because that is how we talk about God.  That is how we talk about the meaning of our lives.  That is how we talk about the big spiritual questions of human existence.

We don't live our lives in our heads, in theology and theories.  We live our lives in our families:  the families we are born into, the families we create, the families we make through the people we choose as friends.

This is where we create our lives, this is where we find meaning, this is where our purpose becomes clear.

Family is where we first experience love and where we first give it.  It's probably the first place we've been hurt by someone we love, and hopefully the place we learn that love can overcome even the most painful rejection.

This crucible of love is where we start to ask those big spiritual questions, and ultimately where they end.

I have seen such expressions of love:  A husband gently washing his wife's face with a cool washcloth, cupping the back of her bald head in his hand to get to the nape of her neck, because she is too weak to lift it from the pillow. A daughter spooning pudding into the mouth of her mother, a woman who has not recognized her for years.

A wife arranging the pillow under the head of her husband's no-longer-breathing body as she helps the undertaker lift him onto the waiting stretcher.

We don't learn the meaning of our lives by discussing it.  It's not to be found in books or lecture halls or even churches or synagogues or mosques.  It's discovered through these actions of love.

If God is love, and we believe that to be true, then we learn about God when we learn about love. The first, and usually the last, classroom of love is the family.

Sometimes that love is not only imperfect, it seems to be missing entirely.  Monstrous things can happen in families.  Too often, more often than I want to believe possible, patients tell me what it feels like when the person you love beats you or rapes you.  They tell me what it feels like to know that you are utterly unwanted by your parents.  They tell me what it feels like to be the target of someone's rage.   They tell me what it feels like to know that you abandoned your children, or that your drinking destroyed your family, or that you failed to care for those who needed you.

Even in these cases, I am amazed at the strength of the human soul.  People who did not know love in their families know that they should have been loved.  They somehow know what was missing, and what they deserved as children and adults.

When the love is imperfect, or a family is destructive, something else can be learned:  forgiveness.  The spiritual work of being human is learning how to love and how to forgive.

We don’t have to use words of theology to talk about God; people who are close to death almost never do. We should learn from those who are dying that the best way to teach our children about God is by loving each other wholly and forgiving each other fully - just as each of us longs to be loved and forgiven by our mothers and fathers, sons and daughters.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kerry Egan.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Death

soundoff (4,494 Responses)
  1. Bryce

    Thank you Kerry Egan. I needed to read that this morning.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:27 am |
  2. Franny

    As a retired Nurse, and having also lost many loved ones. What I've observed is a sadness in leaving, and some are given a moment of grace, and some are not. It's best just to listen if they wish to talk, and never bring up religion unless they do so first. Many Patients talk of having vivid dreams of loved ones who've passed, and upon those last few moments of awareness? They usually do call out, or appear to see a loved one, or yes even Jesus. I've witnesses this hundreds of times. I do believe they see, or hear something, and it appears many are in a peaceful place. The Bible tells us we know as little about our death as we do our birth. I hope that's true.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:21 am |
  3. TheMan

    Death an experience that is forced onto each human. The fear of death can be worst than the experience death. It gets closer as time pasts, not even the most powerful persons can escape it. Reproduction is the best weapon against death, but as soon as a new life is created, death is ready to destroy it, sooner or later. It is something that can be bad and also can be good. The less you think about it the happier you will be. Just think you will live forever, in thought maybe.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:20 am |
    • Can I have some

      Whatever you're smoking, I want some.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:22 am |
    • George

      pssst, you need to work on some correct verbs and adverbs.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:38 am |
    • rick

      TheMan is right, although with a writing style that can be improved. What is the point of fearing death? It will come upon us all.

      January 30, 2012 at 6:13 am |
  4. 1stonethere

    I feel like we have argued down to the most trivial things in this Atheist vs Christian act that it is disgraceful. Let the dying lead the discussion. None of us should even have a say (ironic right?) The only pie holes that should be open in times like these are the ones about to expire.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:19 am |
  5. Nicole

    I'm an atheist, and I was moved by this article.

    At the end of life I hope whomever is there to hold my hand or the hands of the people I know and love will follow their lead in what they want to speak about. If they want to speak about their god or afterlife or ask for a prayer, I hope whoever is there will do so. If they want to talk about family, about their happy memories, about their painful memories, or about who will win the superbowl, I hope that person will listen and speak with them. People deserve comfort at the end of their lives. They deserve to know they are heard and cared about.

    To me that time, especially at the end of your life, is precious. I don't believe there is anything after that. I believe death is an ending, after your brain stops working you cease to be except in others memories. Those final days and hours should be a time to be comforted in whatever way possible.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:13 am |
  6. Chicago Nick

    What would one expect from a Harvard Professor? THAT is what I would,. Nothing of any use in THIS life.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:06 am |
    • George

      With THAT grammar, you obviously couldn't get in here.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:40 am |
  7. Brownsound

    Wow, a decent article on cnn. Never thought I'd see the day.

    January 30, 2012 at 3:56 am |
  8. sister christian

    It is irritating when articles like this are represented to be written by Christians. And it is also irritating how openly people bash any Christian reply to this post. If I was a Chaplain, I'd definitely ask dying people where they thought they stood with God and if they had peace about it. My grandmother found true faith in God on her death bed. I wrote her a letter explaining the love of God through Jesus, and she accepted Jesus the day before she died. She was peaceful for the first time during her last stage of illness, NOT because she got to talk one last time about the love from her family but by talking about her salvation she found through Jesus. She was elated! I think any Christian chaplain has a moral obligation to at least bring up the topic. I'm not saying to cause stress and pound ideology down a dying persons throat. But it is a completely appropriate question for a CHAPLAIN to ask a dying person whether or not they have peace about their beliefs about death, God and the afterlife. Come on. Seriously.

    January 30, 2012 at 3:35 am |
    • Tallulah13

      If a chaplain is invited to visit a dying person but not asked about religion, perhaps that dying person feels no need to discuss their faith, but is simply looking for a compasionate ear. If a chaplain is not capable of that compassion, perhaps they should limit their visits to those who DO wish to discuss religion.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:50 am |
    • The Maurey Povich Bible Show

      No YOU come on. Seriously. And if the dying person, says, "your're full of crap, leave me alone", and "take you religion and shove it, and stop wasting my last few hours", then what ? Your going to start an argument ? I KNOW you are the annoying idiot who always sits next to me on the airplane, insisting on starting the conversation about whether I know Jesus. She is more "christian" than you are, you judgmental fool. There are 22,000 sects (and growing), sects of your Christianity, and YOU think YOU have the ONE true one. Maybe if you got an education, that might tell you something.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:53 am |
    • Disgusted

      Chaplains are not invited by the family; they are sent in whether you like it or not. You think they ought to waste a dying person's last moments by shoving their religious delusions on the victim? That is such heartless and bigotted thinking that there is really no need to discuss this with you.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:57 am |
    • 1stonethere

      Seriously-as a chaplain in the fire service-bringing up questions about God is most certainly not a moral obligation. A chaplain can be Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Humanist or even Atheist. Yes, the modern chaplaincy originated in Christianity,but it has evolved to so much more than that. We are here for people, in whatever way necessary. That means a good Atheist chaplain can help a dying Christian and a good Christian chaplain can help a widowed Muslim. It is about compassion and empathy, not religion.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:00 am |
    • Christopher

      You come from the belief system that states that anyone who doesn't accept Jesus is going to hell, and that is where your motivation comes from. That is why you insist that a chaplain should talk about belief as someone is dying.

      But you are wrong. Jesus doesn't live inside the box that you made for him, or that box that your church made for him. Jesus is love, and he is an idea. I'm not saying he existed or that he didn't exist. And I'm not saying other highly spiritual people haven't come along besides him. All I'm saying is that he is more than you know.

      Jesus would not shove anything down anyone's throat as they lay dying.

      Jesus would have listened.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:21 am |
    • Christopher

      You are lost, and obviously have some deep kind of anger somewhere inside you that motivates your incendiary speech. I hope that you find peace.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:23 am |
    • George

      Isn't it funny how humans make their gods in their image. They used to be angry, and demanding of sacrifices. Now they are peaceful, and all psychological, and loving. Funny how no god was loving until the concept of the "romantic ideal" entered Western culture.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:43 am |
    • UncleBenny

      Well, I'm glad your grandmother found peace in her final moments. But as someone who has worked for many years in nursing homes, I have found that among those facing death with at least some awareness of their situation, some of the most fearful are those who were raised with Christian beliefs. They have heard so many stories about hellfire and damnation and the price of sin that they are terrified of what lies ahead. Sometimes the job of the chaplain in those final days is to try to undo the damage done by years of conditioning.

      January 30, 2012 at 6:46 am |
    • sister christian

      Again, I said that a Christian chaplain (yes I know chaplains can be of different faiths) would have a moral obligation to at least ask the question. And as another person said in a later post, if there was any curiosity whatsoever about Jesus, and salvation through Jesus, at that point is the time to share what Christians believe to be the truth, the way and the life. The anger I see in the replies to my post saddens me. But at least it gets people at least talking about God. I understand your points of view to a degree, as before I was born again, I was a devout Buddhist for years. Years! I thought Christians were bigoted fools. Then I got the eyes to see and the ears to hear, and came to know a loving God that pursued my heart personally and passionately. The love affair has never stopped. And, the intellectual and historical side would astound all of you! Not one question of mine or objection I have about anything – validity of the bible, accuracy of the bible, completeness of the bible, historicity of Jesus life/death/resurrection... it's all so air tight I was ashamed at my unbelief and reveled in the unshakable truth of it all! I challenge you to really examine your objections. Ask God to reveal himself to you and to answer your questions. He can handle all of your objections. You just might need to swallow a little pride, but don't worry... even that is sweet when you consider the prize!

      January 30, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
  9. kiwiatlarge

    Thankyou Kerry you have helped remind me that christianity is about unconditional compassion not about belief.

    January 30, 2012 at 3:29 am |
    • sister christian

      Christianity is most definitely about belief.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:43 am |
    • Mirosal

      NO religion is required at all for one to show compassion.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:46 am |
    • Crystal

      / Thank you to our Father God for giving us atnoher healthy and beautiful grandchild. We are looking forward to many wonderful times together. We are so very blessed to know that all our grandchildren are being taught of the Lord and taught lovingly. Though we are very far apart and can't see each other often like we would hope, God gives grace and comfort and keeps us close through His Holy Spirit.It is beautiful to see you two with your new daughter and to see the love in your eyes for her and for each other. We will faithfully pray for her, Evan and you all.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:25 pm |
    • Kalaiy

      I feel gratified when I can be of help in a small way. I just oloked at your blog. What a wealth of helpful information you've provided. I have a friend who might benefit from your blog and I'll have to let him know about it.

      April 3, 2012 at 10:11 pm |
  10. Laurie

    Thank you Kerry for putting into words what is so hard to express. Your approach to interacting with those who are dying will stay with me as I unfortunately watch as a dear friend sinks into dementia and her past becomes her only reality. I shall sit there and listen intently to the same stories I hear each time I visit as if it was for the first time. God bless you and may you continue your very special work.

    January 30, 2012 at 3:20 am |
  11. Lynn

    That is Beauty...Good job...

    January 30, 2012 at 2:53 am |
    • Alice

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      April 1, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
  12. nikkitytom

    I have tears in my eyes as I read this. I have no doubt that you in these words have expressed what years of preaching from a pulpit can never do. You wrote.

    " 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. "

    It can be said no better. We do not need words and prosetylizing ..... we need simply to understand that our purpose is to learn to love and even love enough to forgive. In my over fifty years, I have sat with gurus, teachers, philosphers and thinkers all around the world .... and not one of them has spoken so eloquently and powerfully.

    Thank you.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:49 am |
  13. Strange1-2

    Great article that brought a flood of memories to me. I was fortunate to have been with my father in his last hours. He was a religious man, but his last days were spent almost entirely focusing on his family who he loved so much. Organized religion is so wrapped up in its own power and self- promotion that we forget that for the truly religious soul God is within each of us – not in some self aggrandizing organization or self-promoting leader. As I've entered my last years of life I've reflected on my own parent's deaths and my love for my family has been my foremost consideration in my own mortality.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:42 am |
  14. Michael Ament

    When my maternal grandfather was dyeing I went to see him on spring break. we talked of the times we went fishing. We talked of going fishing again. He died weeks later during finals. I didn't go to the funeral, Many of my aunts and uncles criticized me for not coming to the funeral, they were harsh. They didn't seem to understand what we shared while he was alive. The funereal was for them, the time i spent with him was for him. Amen

    January 30, 2012 at 2:40 am |
    • Nicole

      Thanks, Calean! I am trying add some of my dvontieoal material each week that I've written through the years. I've used it for dvontieoal huddles for staff on one of my ICU units. Have a wonderful week! Bob

      April 3, 2012 at 10:35 pm |
  15. WIll

    Kerry, you are a great woman and that professor was/is a complete and utter piece of garbage. But how did a great woman like you get involved with religion in the first place? Religion is the purview of the intolerant, the hateful, the hypocritical, the selfish, the weak. You are none of those things. Leave this gutter practice to those gutter people.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:27 am |
    • 1stonethere

      You are the reason I despise the modern atheist movement. As an atheist, I feel there is nothing wrong in religion itself, just the people that follow it. Then, when a person like this comes along, that is everything a good Christian should be, you criticize them. You are no better than the religious zealots you so obviously think you are better than.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:45 am |
    • Gedwards

      Will, in your post, you seem to have captured intolerance, hatefulness, hypocrisy, selfishness, and weakness. OK maybe not weakness, but in effect you've proven that those characteristics are also the purview of the non-religious. Oh, and add one more – arrogance.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:55 am |
    • An agnostic atheist

      "you've proven that those characteristics are also the purview of the non-religious. Oh, and add one more – arrogance."

      Thanks for lumping us all into the same bucket. Get a clue.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:00 am |
    • Gedwards

      "An agnostic atheist,"//"Thanks for lumping us all into the same bucket. Get a clue.
      I really didn't think I'd have to explain this, but apparently I do for some. Anyone, regardless of their beliefs, can be those things. They are not reserved for the religious, as Will has shown. And therefore anyone, regardless of their beliefs, can be anything but those things. Perhaps you missed the "also."

      Understand now?

      January 30, 2012 at 4:12 am |
  16. Reagan80

    Tallulah13- I haven't referenced the greatest minds from the time most thought the world was flat. I've spoken of very intelligent people who are alive today and who I thought had the same evidence that you have on which to form their beliefs. But, maybe you do know more that the rest of us since you're willing to make the blanket statement that not a shred of evidence point to God exists. That's a strong and certain statement. Ever read Darwin's Black Box? You're going to cringe when I tell you that it's about "intelligent design", which has gotten a lot of bad press. But, it's not something like "ancient aliens" or spirits floating in the air. It's written by a molecular biologist and, it's not light reading. Read that and then tell me there's no evidence.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:27 am |
    • WIll

      The existence of God can neither be proven or disproven. There is no evidence of God. None. On the flip side, it is also impossible to disprove the existence of a magical being who can bend the rules of space, time, and physics at will. So rejoice Reagan, your version of reality is safe.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:30 am |
    • Reply button fail

      The reply button is the link just to the right of 'Report abuse'

      And you can wrap ID in the prettiest bow you can find, but that still won't make it science.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:30 am |
    • tallulah13

      Reagan, the book you recommend is simply another variation on the whole "I don't understand, therefore god must have done it" trope. Michael Behe has chosen to end his search for answers in a spot that supports his position. There are other more intellectually honest scientists still searching for answers. When they find them, what excuses will Behe make then?

      January 30, 2012 at 3:13 am |
    • llɐq ʎʞɔnq

      The fact that ONE molecular biologist has chosen to repeat the same-ole-same-ole, dressed up in "sciencey" words proves nothing to no one. Behe is a Catholic who believes in "irreducible" complexity. That is just a re-spun version of the "god of the gaps" fallacy, (and most other scientists disagree with him, and his arguments are easily refutable). But MOST important, he omits THE most important part. He may be a scientist, but he is no religion scholar. He jumps from his untenable premise, to "MY god did it", and why he believes in HIS cult. Any one who knows the long and convoluted, very human process of the integration of the "Yahweh" god, (the god of the armies), into Hebrew culture, could never for a moment take it seriously, as well as the development of the major tenets of Christianity, most of which were not spoken of by the so-called "founder" of that religion, (but instead were developed by his followers), many years later, including the long, and very interesting concoctions of his cult. Behe does NOT reject all of Evolution, only parts of it. Too bad you don't know his thinking any better.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:15 am |
    • Jasmeet

      Here is another math trick This will work only with 7 digit Phone No. 1. Grab a clauclator. (You wont be able to do this in your head)2. Key in the first three digits of your phone number (NOT the area code)3. Mutiply by 804. Add 15. Mutiply by 2506. Add the last four numbers of your phone number7. Add the last four numbers of your phone number again8. Subtract 2509. Divide number by 2 Do you recognize the answer? IS'NT IT YOUR PHONE NO:?

      April 1, 2012 at 1:44 am |
  17. Campdogg

    Wonderful article...we will all be there someday and I feel as though every word written will be found true. love your children and teach them well...

    January 30, 2012 at 2:25 am |
  18. Angie

    It was a beautiful article, a wonderful message and a great woman who is willing to show someone coming to the end of this life a caring ear.

    1.) If I'm the one dying, it should be my choice what to talk about. So shut your pie-holes and listen.
    2.) For those of you who are atheists, good for you. I'm glad you're comfortable with your beliefs as much as I'm comfortable with mine. So shut your pie-holes and respect diversity of thought.
    3.) For those who identify as Christian and believe you've got to be willing to cram it down someone's throat in order to be 'in God's favor'. Shut your pie-hole. We'll argue about it in heaven when all is said and done.

    Can't you guys just be happy at one simple article of beauty where a human is showing unconditional caring and kindness toward another human in need of company during those last moments?

    January 30, 2012 at 2:17 am |
    • dave

      your pie hole is pretty wide

      as a militant atheist, i found this article moving

      January 30, 2012 at 4:06 am |
    • Colleenarn

      Thank you Angie

      January 30, 2012 at 4:09 am |
    • Vicky Evans

      Thank you Angie. I agree, shut your pie holes.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:33 am |
  19. *facepalm*

    Anyone wanting to read an open-minded and wide ranging view on death, I'd suggest Mary Roach's Stiff.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:08 am |
    • 1stonethere

      I second that this is a great book. not sure how well it fits into this though...since most in that book are previously dead, except the narrator.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:28 am |
  20. KyRunner

    people say whatever CNN tells them apparently

    January 30, 2012 at 2:07 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.