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. Sheryl

    My greatest fear is death. I fear leaving my children behind, the children I raised alone. I fear no one will love them the way I always have. This piece by the author really hit home. I believe in what she said, that spirituality and how we talk to God IS through our families. I felt it all along, but never actually heard anyone say it. What an enlightening article.

    January 30, 2012 at 10:05 am |
    • myweightinwords

      Sheryl, if you have raised your children with Love, then they will know Love when they see it and will go on to create families that share that Love and in a way, you will be with them forever.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:12 am |
    • Chris

      If you fear death, then you should give your life to Christ and lead your children also to Him. Jesus Christ not only embodies love and peace, but He IS the love and peace you seek.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • *facepalm*

      @Chris, that would be the same jesus who is also the father. The same father who murdered infants to try and prove a point (you know, he's omnipotent, but needs to use infanticide as a persuasion tactic. right....).

      Your jesus is hardly the essence of love, unless you think that most of the OT is a bunch of bull.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • Chris

      Your roundabout reasoning would demonstrate a lack of understanding. I've spent several minutes trying to soften that comment and that's as good as I can do. I'm really not trying to pick a fight, although your tone would suggest that you are. Maybe you care to explain a bit more what you meant with that post.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
  2. d

    Interesting article. I agree with so many in that I have never given much consideration to what a dying person wants to talk about. Even if you take the religious aspect out of it, it is still interesting those on their death bed want to talk about family. Good and bad experiences.

    January 30, 2012 at 10:02 am |
  3. catholic engineer

    " We don't live our lives in our heads, in theology and theories." The author Kerry Egan is exactly correct. Faith is not the result of an intellectual exercise that requires verbal treatises on the deathbed. Faith is an interior quality. CHristopher Hitchens thought that questioning the dying person's religion was in bad taste. He was somehwat right. But whereas Christopher thought of such things in terms of taste, people like Egan realized that such spiritual things are beyond expression anyway.

    January 30, 2012 at 10:01 am |
    • Fallacy Spotting 101

      Post by catholic engineer is a form of the Argumentum ad Novitatem fallacy.


      January 30, 2012 at 10:18 am |
    • catholic engineer

      @ Fallacy Spotter 101. Good morning to you, sir. I've done very much sitting with dying people. It's much more educational than fallacy spotting. Have a good day.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  4. Jennifer C

    If I was ever dying in a hospital, the last person I'd want to see is a closed, cold Harvard professor who is unable to listen. May the world have many more Kerry Egans than cold professors.

    January 30, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  5. Chris

    This article is misleading. It paints a picture of two people who are wrong (although that's not her intent). First of all, the professor shouldn't criticize a person for talking about family with one who is dying. Second, Ms. Egan shouldn't criticize a professor for thinking it's obviously important to share more than family anecdotes with a dying person. A chaplain is one who is supposedly there for spiritual guidance. If not, she should call herself something else. If she's not witnessing to the person and talking to them about eternal life through Jesus Christ, she's not ultimately doing them any good. I understand the professor's point even if his delivery was a bit callous.

    January 30, 2012 at 10:00 am |
    • dike

      you are assuming only Christians die....

      January 30, 2012 at 10:10 am |
    • Teri

      The first reply I saw, from Chris, was as callous as the Professor's words to the class that long ago day. You don't think talking about their loved ones IS talking about Christ's love? Do you think that, as a person is dying, they want to discuss whether or not they believe in God, Jesus, or eternal life? As someone who is dying from pancreatic cancer, I can tell you now, the last thing on my mind is am I going to live forever with Christ. My thoughts are focused solely on being there for my friends now and doing what I can to help future pancreatic cancer patients win their fight with the disease. I don't focus on my regrets or failures but on what I've done right, and that includes the family of friends I've made during my 50 years on this planet, not how well I worship God.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:13 am |
    • Al

      "You don't think talking about their loved ones IS talking about Christ's love?"
      No, we just see it as a part of being human, something that ties all people together. Only Christians such as yourself want to make it a wedge to separate people with.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:32 am |
    • Diane

      The Bible clearly teaches that we, as Christians, have a responsibility to share the good news about Jesus Christ. Believing that Jesus was the son of God, that he died and God raised him from the dead, is the ONLY way to get to heaven. Matthew 7:14 "But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it."
      Kerry Egan, you are doing such a huge disservice to dying people you are with if you are not witnessing to them in this manner.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:47 am |
    • Bill P

      Teri – I am sorry that you have pancreatic cancer. Often the prognosis is not encouraging. In my case, I have impending total renal failure (about one to two years, maybe sooner) with a kidney transplant not an option. Will I live for a while on dialysis? Who knows? My dad lived only a year after his kidneys failed. This uncertainty in life could be devastating, if not simply disheartening, without faith in the Lord. "For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth" (Job 19:25). Consider that Job was a person who suffered loss as almost no other human being had – loss of family, loss of health, and loss of wealth. Once when Satan came before the Lord, as very often, accusing, the LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered My servant Job? For there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, fearing God and turning away from evil.” (Job, chapter 1) I often wonder if the Lord will say of me, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!” (Matthew 25:23)

      As you read through the rest of the Book of Job, you will see that the Lord tried Job's faith, allowing Satan to prevail with much suffering on the man. Job was unshaken in his love of the Lord. Of a test of any human being, Job is one of the greatest demonstrations of faith and obedience to His will, save for God's only Son, Jesus Christ. Now, you might ask, why would God allow this and how does that apply to me? Everything that happens to us on this earth is all about preparing us for what life is really about: to love and honor God and then be with Him for eternity. (See Ecclesiastes 12:13) It is a hard pill to take when you think that you are not healthy at a young age or your life will not reach its zenith, but be cut short. Yet, when we consider this life in the context of eternity, this is just but a drop in the ocean of existence.

      Living one year or one hundred years is meaningless without the Lord in our lives. We have been created expressly for the purpose of loving God and being loved by God. This life, on earth, defines whether we will spend eternity with Him or without Him. You said, “As someone who is dying from pancreatic cancer, I can tell you now, the last thing on my mind is am I going to live forever with Christ.” Teri, God bless you, but that is not the right answer. “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on him while he is near.” (Isaiah 55:6) Indeed, even the two thieves on the cross on either side of Jesus at His crucifixion found in those last moments where they stood in terms of their relationship to God: to the one, repentant, “today you shall be with me in paradise”; to the other, mocking and indifferent, Jesus offered no such comfort. The most important work of a chaplain, by definition a Christian, while providing comfort, is primarily to help a dying person deal with spiritual matters.

      January 30, 2012 at 11:05 am |
    • Al

      Maybe this story illustrates that most dying people are far more interested in the welfare of others than selfishly concerned with what will happen to THEM after they go?

      January 30, 2012 at 11:20 am |
    • Chris

      Teri, I don't see it as a mutually exclusive choice; that's my point. I wouldn't criticize a person for talking about family. That would be dumb. However, I do understand the concern of the professor that the conversation extend beyond the person's family into the subject of salvation and eternal life. Everyone faces a choice of believing in (believing on) Jesus Christ or not. That choice affects a person's eternal state. I can only think that if a chaplain doesn't think it's important enough to talk to a person about Jesus, then that chaplain probably isn't a Christian.

      John 3 is an excellent example where Jesus (and later, John the Baptist) presents a very clear choice.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
    • SeanNJ

      @Chris: You said, " Everyone faces a choice of believing in (believing on) Jesus Christ or not. That choice affects a person's eternal state."

      Or...it doesn't affect a person's eternal state at all. You left out that possibility. Just a typo on your part, I'm sure.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
    • Chris

      God says otherwise, Sean. I made no typo and mean to present no other possibility because God presents no other possibility. Jesus said He is the way, the truth, and the light, and no one comes to the Father but through HIM. There is no gray area there.

      If you choose to rationalize away what God has shown you innately to be true, that's your choice. It's still a choice, though. You can accept Jesus as your personal Savior or you can reject Him. I pray that you will accept Him because He is your (and everyone's) only hope for a meaningful life here and hereafter.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • Chris

      Heh, in my post about a typo, I made a typo. I typed "light" when I meant "life". 🙂

      January 30, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
    • SeanNJ

      @Chris: You said, "You can accept Jesus as your personal Savior or you can reject Him."

      Or...we can continue to live our lives with the realization that Jesus may not have been divine, there may not be a god and there may not be any afterlife. You really need to be more careful with your unintentional omissions. People might get the wrong idea.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
  6. anonymous

    Amen. The dying find peace and comfort, in remembering the love they gave and received before they die. Why should they be praying, or discussing religion? I'll never forget spending time with my mother before she passed, telling her that I loved her, and her passing in peace.

    January 30, 2012 at 9:56 am |
    • Liliane Morgan

      A beautiful article. I was tearing up reading it.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:09 am |
  7. cathy

    wow this meant so much to me, thank you so much for this article.

    January 30, 2012 at 9:56 am |
  8. DT

    Wonderful article, and one that resonates will me deeply. Almost 20 years ago I had an illness that left me, literally on death's door, and at the time I don't recall thinking about my spiritual beliefs – all of my thoughts were indeed on my friends and family. Just a few weeks ago I had a health crisis that landed me in the hospital, and due to the business of the ER it was a few hours before the doctor gave me a diagnosis. As I sat alone in a room wondering f I was living my last day on earth – the things that went through my head were exactly what this author touched upon in her article and that I had felt during my illness in my younger days. I thought about my family – the thought of never seeing them again, and my regrets for never settling down and having a family of my own. In any event, the health scare ended up being nothing serious (the symptoms were similar to a potential fatal condition, that thankfully I didn't have)...and when I walked out of that hospital and back to my life – my passion for living and striving for new goals has never been stronger. It's too bad I needed a death scare to get my life back on track, but I've very thankful it happened (and to be alive!). 🙂

    January 30, 2012 at 9:55 am |
  9. Brendan

    I want to read more! Wonderful message Kerry! Thank you!

    January 30, 2012 at 9:54 am |
  10. marianne

    My dad died this weekend...his last conversations were about his family and about his parents. There was no regret or hatred in his last days, only love and memories .....he didn't think he understood about God, but his loved showed that was not true..he did understand because he loved.

    January 30, 2012 at 9:52 am |
    • catholic engineer

      "he did understand because he loved." A beautiful way to express it, marianne.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:03 am |
  11. HappyNana

    Beautifully told. This is a true example of teaching vs living. The dying are blessed to have a good listener instead of a preacher.

    January 30, 2012 at 9:50 am |
    • Zoe

      A good preacher IS a good listener.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:06 am |
    • Al

      I think the point is that there's a lot more to being clergy than just being a preacher.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:23 am |
  12. Dwight


    You don’t understand how your explanation makes God even less meaningful and real? Apparently, in spite of the contrary, atheists do abound in foxholes. You have to trip into the metaphysical back bending to tie God into what is important to these people at that moment in time.

    Bravo on you being there to listen to them. No so much for piggy backing your own agenda onto theirs.

    January 30, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • Jennifer C

      I'm sad for you, Dwight. You don't understand that there is no metaphysical back bending here. God is present in these people's last moments because God is love. Love does not exist without His presence.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:07 am |
    • Jessie

      Jennifer C
      You may believe that love is impossible without God, but this article proves otherwise.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:13 am |
    • Al

      Jennifer C
      What I find sad is the degree to which some Christians will go to protect their claimed monopoly to things like "love", as if non-Christians do not any experience with it at all. Anyone who buys into that bigoted line of thinking is indeed deluded.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:21 am |
    • Jennifer C

      @ Jessie: How does this article prove otherwise? As Ms. Egan states, " We don't have to use words of Theology to talk about God." God is present in love.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:23 am |
    • Jennifer C

      @ Al- Who said anything about Christian? Jews and Muslims believe in God as well.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • Al

      Jennifer C
      Only Christians seem to claim that "God is Love". I haven't heard that come from Jews or Muslims. They haven't attempted to bring God down to the level of being just an ideal. The criticism aimed at this minister's approach seems largely focused on her not forcing the message onto dying people that "Jesus is the only Way." That's why I aimed my comment at Christians.

      January 30, 2012 at 11:33 am |
    • Jessie

      That's her understanding of what she's doing, but to the people being ministered to it matters that the word "God" isn't being forced upon them while they die. That they can talk about what they want to instead of just listening to what she wants to tell them. She keeps the time she spends with them all about their needs, and not any desire she may feel to preach the Gospel to them one last time. This way, a person doesn't have to believe in God at all to get the same benefit from her time with them.

      January 30, 2012 at 11:39 am |
    • Jennifer C

      @ Jessie- Yes, I completely agree. I think you misunderstood me. My whole point is that God is only concerned about our love for others.

      January 30, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
    • Chris

      Al, I think most Christians would object to this lady's approach because she's a chaplain. I understand a chaplain to be a Christian (unless that definition has changed), and I definitely know what a Christian is. If she's a Christian, I would expect her to believe the gospel. However, she sounds more like a universalist which is not Chrstianity at all.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
  13. Denis K

    A moving article, well written and thought provoking. As an atheist I only home more "people of faith" subscribe to the understanding of god shown in this article. I honestly don't care what "supposed immortal" you believe to be your god as long as you project love. We all feel love, we all know love even if we can't describe what it is.

    January 30, 2012 at 9:47 am |
    • 007

      Yes, this is a moving article, well written, and so very true. I want to thank the author for heightening my self-awareness & contemplation of "learning to forgive," my mother. I have seen many people die and have heard incredible thoughts that come out of their mouths, love or lack of, being one of the most often talked about. Often mistakes and missed opportunities. The moral of the story is to always execute love 100% over a lifetime and never have regrets by the time youre on your death bed. Fix what you can, it's never too late.

      TO KERRY EGAN: You talked about the strength of the 'human soul,' and how people know what they were missing in love. Well, it's not due to strength of soul, but that we learned about what we have been missing by looking around at others who do have it. The way it should be.

      *******And the dfference is that you can not miss what you never had! *******

      The only sad thing is when you have self-realization of what you were missing. The greatest strength here is learning to muster enough forgiveness, especially if that 'relationship' is still alive. To break that shell of cold, emptiness and bring about closure.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:36 am |
  14. joe

    Way to go Kerry! You sure showed that IGNORANT professor that he is SO wrong!! You are SO right!!! I'm sure you feel proud of yourself. While we're at it, give us his name so we can email him (throw some more stones at him) on how wrong he is!! It's great that he will have no way to defend himself after this article gets out. Kerry to professor and Harvard class: "Who's got the last laugh now idiots!!!!!"

    January 30, 2012 at 9:45 am |
    • TomF

      Well, Joe...not to be unkind, but I would rather have Kerry at my side when I was dying than you. In my experience, the people with the most impact in my life have been those who quietly serve and comfort, not those who wear their faith on their sleeves.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:58 am |
    • kimmie

      Joe, I did not feel a hateful, revengeful tone in this article at all. I felt that Kerry expressed the embarrassment and self-doubt she experienced as a young chaplain, and that over the past 13 years she has come to see more validlity in her methods and thoughts.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:23 am |
    • joe

      To me this article would have had much more power behind it, and Kerry much more credibility, without Kerry's elaboration of what her professor did/said when she was in divinity school. She undermines her own character (that of trying to help people) as she covertly elevates herself over the prof. I really dislike it when people do this. Like Kerry, I think that our relationships/family are the vehicle in which love is shown and given in life and I'm not surprised by the fact that most people talk about family on the deathbed. I agree that the professor and "laughing" class had no clue. We all know that there are people out there in religious circles like the lost professor. No need to throw him under the bus in a very public article like this though. Let's hope and pray that someday that he will discover what love is about.

      January 30, 2012 at 11:41 am |
  15. Jared

    Wow! I made sure before my Mom died that she knew how much I loved her and how much her love meant to me. I know your watching over me, Mom. I'll see you again. I love you.

    January 30, 2012 at 9:44 am |
  16. Cathy

    Caring for both of my wonderful parents as they passed, they continued to teach me and love me. Thank you for the wonderful article.

    January 30, 2012 at 9:41 am |
  17. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things
    Prayer eases the transition of believers from one world to another
    Prayer comforts the grieved
    Prayer offers hope
    Prayer changes things

    January 30, 2012 at 9:41 am |
    • Bobs your uncle

      you're not healthy for children.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:47 am |
    • Denis K

      Are you saying dogs and cats need to go to church? Do they need to pray? What is your definition of "healthy"? I am an atheist and I am very healthy. I also really liked this article, honestly I do not see it as connected to god in any way. It's about love, something we all as humans know and feel.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:50 am |
    • urbanhippie

      Prayer is not healthy for children and other living things

      Love changes things
      Love eases the transition of all people from one world to another
      Love comforts the grieved
      Love offers hope
      Love changes things

      January 30, 2012 at 9:58 am |
    • Prayer is not healthy for children and other living things

      Prayer causes small kids to get hit by buses when they aren't paying attention.
      Prayer takes people away from actually working on real solutions to their problems.
      Prayer wears out your clothes prematurely.
      Prayer contributes to global warming through excess CO2 emissions.
      Prayer fucks up your knees and your back.
      Prayer can cause heart attacks, especially among the elderly.
      Prayer reveals how stupid you are to the world.
      Prayer exposes your backside to pervert priests.
      Prayer prevents you from getting badly needed exercise.
      Prayer makes you hoard cats.
      Prayer makes you crave the smell of kitty litter and leads you on to harder drugs.
      Prayer wastes time.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:21 am |
  18. West

    I work in a convent infirmary with elderly and sick sisters....they also talk about their moms, dads, brothers, sisters and other people who passed on before them. Sometimes they see and speak to these people before they die. Sometimes if they have the strength they pray but, usually they can only speak a few words. I'm thinking Mr Professor didn't actually sit with many people and experience the act of death.

    January 30, 2012 at 9:41 am |
  19. Larrywp

    Wow; what a beautiful piece. This woman should be heard from often. She is in the fight, and her soul is full.

    January 30, 2012 at 9:41 am |
  20. jeff

    Bravo to you Ms. Egan. At the age of 26, you understood better the needs of the people you were helping than your "expert Harvard professor". Even more importantly, you followed your own path than caving to his rhetorical dogma. Thanks for sharing.

    January 30, 2012 at 9:39 am |
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