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. pd

    this is incredibly accurate.,. i went through an experience like this when i thought i was dying and had a few minutes to live. love is what it is all about.
    – the unconditional love i have for my children – realizing i am a good loving mother
    – the pain and lack of love i felt from other family members
    – the final loving words to be given to my children upon my death,.

    January 30, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
    • jimtanker

      I'm glad that you got better. Thank the doctor.

      January 30, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
  2. stella

    I was struck by how little this "Chaplin" understands their role and what they should be helping dying people with.

    January 30, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
    • rick

      And you know better how?

      January 30, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • Steven Capsuto

      Everyone's prepared to tell someone *else* what their job is.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:38 pm |
  3. Reality

    The only words that really matter:

    Increase the morphine drip to the "easy death" level !!!!

    January 30, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
  4. ab

    This article brought tears to my eyes and I'm not religious. Actually I'm agnostic.

    January 30, 2012 at 11:59 am |
  5. J. Crobuzon

    "Only when the music stops do we finally hear the band" When the music stops, what do you hear from the band? Coughing and throat-clearing? Whispered wisecracks and feet shuffling? I can hear the music better when the band is actually playing it myself.

    January 30, 2012 at 11:48 am |
  6. Topspot58

    Matthew 11:25 And Jesus prayed this prayer: "O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, thank you for hiding the truth from those who think themselves so wise, and for revealing it to little children." Note:It's always a good idea to research the context of any quote, otherwise it can be misinterpreted.

    January 30, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • rick

      O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, thank you for hiding the truth from those who think they know your mind

      January 30, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
  7. betty proffitt

    Wow!!! That was the most powerful moving story I have ever read. I so related to all of the feelings with my family that were so very painful to learn from and turn into a positive outcome. The struggle sometimes seemed unbearable, but love for your family gets you through. If you can forgive and set free the illusions you told yourself as a child were okay because it was your family that hurt you so deeply. I could actually feel the pain and shame that I had carried for years go away when I gave it back to my father. It was amazing as I looked back that my father actually led me to healing because of his strength in his dying. I truly loved the message you gave, It touchedd my heart. Thank you for sharing.

    January 30, 2012 at 11:45 am |
  8. J. Crobuzon

    I expected to die last year; I told my wife and son I loved them, and it had been fun. I also told the doctor 'good luck!' and I woke up fine two hours later.

    January 30, 2012 at 11:45 am |
    • jimtanker

      I hope that you thanked the doctor and not some fictional god.

      January 30, 2012 at 11:49 am |
  9. jore

    This lady is doing a wonderful thing simply caring for the sick and the Jesus/God thing, saving their souls, is already taken care of by her doing so.

    If you care for the sick you care for God and He will accept you into heaven for doing so. Jesus is recorded in Mathew as saying this (obviously I paraphrased but the meaning is the same). It does not say if you convince the sick I am their lord and savior you please God.

    These people know she is a pastor; this is why they are telling her these things. They are letting God into their hearts just by her caring for them nothing more needs to be said by them or her to accomplish this.

    January 30, 2012 at 11:44 am |
    • daughterofTHEKING.

      The Bible does not say anything to that effect at all... Please check your resources.

      January 30, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
    • Bill P

      jore – Yours is a pure rationalization ....

      "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?" (Jeremiah 17:9).

      You have deceived yourself into thinking that some amalgam of life's experiences plus this chaplain's comforting words and good deeds will somehow measure up to God's requirements for righteousness and justification. Nothing is further from the truth:

      "For by grace are you saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast." (Ephesians 2:8,9)

      "That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved." (Romans 10:9,10)

      January 30, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • jore


      Matthew 25 34-46. It will be interesting to see how many people will say that the simple truthful statement below needs to be taken "in the correct context"!

      34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

      37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

      40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

      41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

      44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

      45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

      46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

      January 30, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
    • joe p

      Interesting quote from the bible. A lot of Republicans are going to have some explaining to do!!!

      January 30, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
    • Bill P

      joe p – It will hardly be a Republican issue only.

      January 30, 2012 at 11:28 pm |
    • Bill P

      jore –

      Actually, the Bible is not ambiguous about salvation. There are two main thrusts:

      1) Salvation is by faith in Christ and not at all by good works
      2) Anyone who rejects Jesus Christ is cast into hell (lake of fire) for eternity

      January 30, 2012 at 11:33 pm |
    • jore

      @Bill P

      Does Crist ever say you will be sent to hell if you don't accept him as lord and savior before you die?

      Or, is this a statement from Saul of Tarsus?

      If I am going to profess my faith in somebody I am going to look at that persons teachings and put my faith in him for what he says. I am not going to be led astray by what others say about him or what he stood for.

      Let me put this another way, if you have truly accepted God as your savior your actions will prove it – not your words. And your actions will lead others to God – where your words will probably scare them away.

      So, I agree with you.

      January 31, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • Bill P

      Jesus indeed told Nicodemus that not believing in the Son of God meant that such a person was condemned (John, chapter 3).

      January 31, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
    • Bill P

      jore – You make an interesting comment regarding words and actions. And, generally, I agree also with you. In theory, it is possible to be led astray by a person who, well meaning and apparently upright in his ways, told you, nevertheless, to go down the wrong and destructive path. Then there is the person, maybe not-so-nice, harsh in tone, blunt, having one fault after another, that yet holds the truth. It is true that it is easier to be effective when you “practice what you preach”. The Bible admonishes the Christian to be a “living letter” and not be hypocritical.

      January 31, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
  10. gateway

    Wow, that professor was such a mean human being! Kudos to you for continuing what you believed in! I hope he reads your article and sees all the approving comments.

    January 30, 2012 at 11:43 am |
    • J. Crobuzon

      The last thing I want to see would be some priest trying to get me to hand over my money. Keep the church-rats and God-botherers away from me, please.

      January 30, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  11. daughterofTHEKING.

    Although you certainly need to show love in these situations, if those people die without knowing who they are as sinners and who God is as love, that love you're showing means nothing because they still end up in hell! Use the opportunity to still share Christ. It's easy to bring the subject in at this point, whether they were broken or whether they've already experienced love. (Broken: I know a King who loves you unconditionally and sacrificially, and whole heartedly, who wants a relationship with you. Have experienced love: I know an even GREATER love. I know True Love... Etc. etc.) Because no matter how much you listen to and love on them, that listening doesn't save people on their deathbed. And if you TRULY love them, you won't want them to die without Jesus... Think about it. Pray about it... You have a huge opportunity, if you're a Christian. Don't fall for satan's scam, tricking you to think love is enough. It's not enough if you die without knowing True Love (JESUS CHRIST!!!).

    January 30, 2012 at 11:43 am |
    • jimtanker

      Or, they end up where everyone does. In a box in the ground. There is no god, no afterlife, nothing to fret your whole lives over.

      January 30, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • jore

      So, why does Jesus tell us that God will accept us into heaven by unwittingly taking care of him by taking care of the sick? Jesus also states that God will turn away the person who professes he is saved and evangelizes in His name if that same person ignores the sick, needy, and the pore, because that person has also ignored God by doing so.

      It is kind of a hard concept to get your head around. But, just try helping somebody in need without evangelizing to them and it should become very clear to you.

      January 30, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
    • Sandy

      If you ever wonder why more people don't identify with a religion, simply read your own posting. If God works the way you think he does, hell will be full of interesting people with far more compassion that those in Heaven. "And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:13)"

      January 30, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
    • daughterofTHEKING.


      I fully understand where you are coming from... In the Bible it says not everyone who cries Lord, Lord, performed signs and wonders and claim Christ will enter heaven. Matthew 7:21-23. But the context of that scripture is relating to people whodo religious practices without actually loving and coming to know Christ. I'm not saying Christians should always evangelize, we should ALWAYS love, BUT, with this woman, she is speaking to people on their deathbed. She is most likely their LAST chance to hear about Jesus. And you don't become saved by loving people. You become saved by repenting of sin and asking Jesus to come into your heart and to be Lord over your life.

      January 30, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • J. Crobuzon

      Get back to me when a dead person comes back, ok?

      January 30, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  12. mindy

    This was beautiful. Thank you

    January 30, 2012 at 11:41 am |
  13. Daniel

    Cool story & all, but what does this have to do with God ? Love is an interaction between PEOPLE and event the thereof if felt because this interaction actually helps the brain to develop , reduces anxiety, depressions etc... we know all that. These stories are touching, but the reason why God wasn't mention is because he really has no business, you're taking someone's experience and put the word God in there. Love & Family aren't God, it's just LOVE !

    January 30, 2012 at 11:24 am |
    • Topspot58

      Unless God said He is love.

      January 30, 2012 at 11:41 am |
    • Michelle

      "God is love" (1 John 4:8)

      January 30, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • rosie

      Correct Daniel. As an Atheist I read this article and just dropped all of the god gobble-de-goop.
      Life has no need for religious belief. Just love and caring. And no, that doesn't come from any god.

      January 30, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
    • Michelle

      "..love comes from God." 1 John 4:7

      January 30, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
  14. george colacicco

    I loved the article for it's honesty and lack of piety. The essence is people do not talk about God, or passing into the next life, but equate the sum of thier lives with respect to love, and family. It is who we are, and the definition of our lives, good bad, and indifferent. It was a beautiful description of what we need to concentrate on that is more important than money, career, or goals, it is about family, and love, becasue when it is all said and done that is the only thing that is left.

    January 30, 2012 at 11:19 am |
  15. Jamie


    January 30, 2012 at 11:15 am |
  16. tom clements

    The family has always been the most important thing. Stats prove that people growing up in the nuclear family have a much better chance of success. The scary thing is that in 10 years, not only will medicaid be unsustainable there will not be enough skilled care homes for our aging population. In three years (2007-2010) the number of people caring for an elderly person went from 40 mil to 60 mil. We are on the advent of a humanitarian crisis, and the nuclear family has somehow become politically incorrect. Better start loving your relatives. Loving God is not a bad idea either. All you deep thinkers who can not believe in a creator have not spent enough time studying the creations around you. You would never believe that a 6 part wind up watch could put itself together, but the milllions of miracles that are required for life, this planet, this universe, to exists you don't even bother to think about the simple mathmatical impossibility. Believing there is no creator takes more faith than believing in a creator from a science prospective.

    January 30, 2012 at 11:15 am |
  17. Kenny of Salt

    Lovely! I am not very churchy, and my familiarity with the Bible is probably less than most of you, my fellow posters. With that said, I am greatly pleased to read these words from a person who seems to live according to Jesus' actual example, passing over the mathematics and politics of Christianity With A Capitol C. I don't understand how the nastiness and bile expressed in the Desparate Plea For Attention section is related to Jesus' work and message, nor how it is related to any humanistic ideas. Conversely, this woman's work is clearly – to my unpracticed eye – clearly Christ-like and deeply human.

    January 30, 2012 at 11:13 am |
  18. palintwit

    When I'm on my deathbed I'll probably just remind everybody one last time that Sarah Palin is an oaf.

    January 30, 2012 at 11:08 am |
    • dkelly

      I know this is a serious article, but I laughed extremely hard at this comment.

      January 30, 2012 at 11:52 am |
    • J. Crobuzon

      I don't care for her either, but you are going to live forever because you have to have a life before you can die.

      January 30, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
  19. AS

    Wonderful perspective of life. I dont believe in God.. well, if he is there, he could spend his time saving others who has less or dying undue death. This story touched my heart. In a way all religion teach you to love and respect others – some times religion(rather the people who claim they own the religion) gets over its head and not enourage love for other religion's believer.. but for common people, they are always loving and caring.

    This stopry brought tears to my eyes.. told me there is so much to regret if I dont do my best to help my family and others.. I got so much from this world – from it self and its people.. how much did I give back?

    I still have half my life to give back! I better make that a priority.

    January 30, 2012 at 11:07 am |
  20. beautiful day

    There is a depth of understanding here that is all too often lost in the dogma of organized religion. Sadly, it can only be learned through real life...and death. As they say in the armed forces; where the metal meets the meat. When faced with our own mortality, when the undeniable finality of death is understood to be real and true, God, such as he is, disappears. Love is all that remains, because love is all there ever was. Everything else is just a dance. Sometimes beautiful, sometimes graceful, but always an illusion. Only when the music stops do we finally hear the band.

    January 30, 2012 at 11:06 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.