January 28th, 2012
11:00 PM ET
My Faith: What people talk about before they die
Editor's Note: Kerry Egan is a hospice chaplain in Massachusetts and the author of "Fumbling: A Pilgrimage Tale of Love, Grief, and Spiritual Renewal on the Camino de Santiago."
By Kerry Egan, Special to CNN
As a divinity school student, I had just started working as a student chaplain at a cancer hospital when my professor asked me about my work. I was 26 years old and still learning what a chaplain did.
"I talk to the patients," I told him.
"You talk to patients? And tell me, what do people who are sick and dying talk to the student chaplain about?" he asked.
I had never considered the question before. “Well,” I responded slowly, “Mostly we talk about their families.”
“Do you talk about God?
“Umm, not usually.”
“Or their religion?”
“Not so much.”
“The meaning of their lives?”
“And prayer? Do you lead them in prayer? Or ritual?”
“Well,” I hesitated. “Sometimes. But not usually, not really.”
I felt derision creeping into the professor's voice. “So you just visit people and talk about their families?”
“Well, they talk. I mostly listen.”
“Huh.” He leaned back in his chair.
A week later, in the middle of a lecture in this professor's packed class, he started to tell a story about a student he once met who was a chaplain intern at a hospital.
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“And I asked her, 'What exactly do you do as a chaplain?' And she replied, 'Well, I talk to people about their families.'” He paused for effect. “And that was this student's understanding of faith! That was as deep as this person's spiritual life went! Talking about other people's families!”
The students laughed at the shallowness of the silly student. The professor was on a roll.
“And I thought to myself,” he continued, “that if I was ever sick in the hospital, if I was ever dying, that the last person I would ever want to see is some Harvard Divinity School student chaplain wanting to talk to me about my family.”
My body went numb with shame. At the time I thought that maybe, if I was a better chaplain, I would know how to talk to people about big spiritual questions. Maybe if dying people met with a good, experienced chaplain they would talk about God, I thought.
Today, 13 years later, I am a hospice chaplain. I visit people who are dying - in their homes, in hospitals, in nursing homes. And if you were to ask me the same question - What do people who are sick and dying talk about with the chaplain? - I, without hesitation or uncertainty, would give you the same answer. Mostly, they talk about their families: about their mothers and fathers, their sons and daughters.
They talk about the love they felt, and the love they gave. Often they talk about love they did not receive, or the love they did not know how to offer, the love they withheld, or maybe never felt for the ones they should have loved unconditionally.
They talk about how they learned what love is, and what it is not. And sometimes, when they are actively dying, fluid gurgling in their throats, they reach their hands out to things I cannot see and they call out to their parents: Mama, Daddy, Mother.
What I did not understand when I was a student then, and what I would explain to that professor now, is that people talk to the chaplain about their families because that is how we talk about God. That is how we talk about the meaning of our lives. That is how we talk about the big spiritual questions of human existence.
We don't live our lives in our heads, in theology and theories. We live our lives in our families: the families we are born into, the families we create, the families we make through the people we choose as friends.
This is where we create our lives, this is where we find meaning, this is where our purpose becomes clear.
Family is where we first experience love and where we first give it. It's probably the first place we've been hurt by someone we love, and hopefully the place we learn that love can overcome even the most painful rejection.
This crucible of love is where we start to ask those big spiritual questions, and ultimately where they end.
I have seen such expressions of love: A husband gently washing his wife's face with a cool washcloth, cupping the back of her bald head in his hand to get to the nape of her neck, because she is too weak to lift it from the pillow. A daughter spooning pudding into the mouth of her mother, a woman who has not recognized her for years.
A wife arranging the pillow under the head of her husband's no-longer-breathing body as she helps the undertaker lift him onto the waiting stretcher.
We don't learn the meaning of our lives by discussing it. It's not to be found in books or lecture halls or even churches or synagogues or mosques. It's discovered through these actions of love.
If God is love, and we believe that to be true, then we learn about God when we learn about love. The first, and usually the last, classroom of love is the family.
Sometimes that love is not only imperfect, it seems to be missing entirely. Monstrous things can happen in families. Too often, more often than I want to believe possible, patients tell me what it feels like when the person you love beats you or rapes you. They tell me what it feels like to know that you are utterly unwanted by your parents. They tell me what it feels like to be the target of someone's rage. They tell me what it feels like to know that you abandoned your children, or that your drinking destroyed your family, or that you failed to care for those who needed you.
Even in these cases, I am amazed at the strength of the human soul. People who did not know love in their families know that they should have been loved. They somehow know what was missing, and what they deserved as children and adults.
When the love is imperfect, or a family is destructive, something else can be learned: forgiveness. The spiritual work of being human is learning how to love and how to forgive.
We don’t have to use words of theology to talk about God; people who are close to death almost never do. We should learn from those who are dying that the best way to teach our children about God is by loving each other wholly and forgiving each other fully - just as each of us longs to be loved and forgiven by our mothers and fathers, sons and daughters.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kerry Egan.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.
At such a critical point in a persons's life I would hope that there would be some discussion about whether their soul is right with God before they die. By being right with God I mean that they are born again and have made Jesus Christ their personal Lord and Savior. To be priveledged to be with a person at THAT time, and NOT make sure they are in right relationship with God is, IN MY OPINION irresponsible. As a child of God/Christian we should know the seriousness of what happens AFTER a person leaves this life and be PRAYERFUL for a way to inquire of the person's standing before God. There are NO second chances after we leave this life.
"God forgives, I don't!"
Thank you for sharing your perspective. I try to limit it, but sometimes think about our last moments. It reminds me of how I might want to live my life and possibly change it.
Sunni, you commented that this article truly states that God cannot be found in churches but within our families. The author, Keri wrote ... 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 ... (of the family) Many times this same love that gives meaning to our lives can be found not only in family, but is also found within faith communities. There is much love within a faith community (a faith family) and it is very much a part of the church, synagogue and mosque. But yes, it is most often recognized in the everyday life events of family.
Religion is a lie.
nothing is a lie if those telling it truly believe it
This is a beautiful article. It purports the idea that "Just Being There" with the grieving and the dying is the purest, kindest love. St. Paul said that we should cry along with those who are crying. Dr. James Kok has a Pastoral Counseling Ministry at the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, CA. He is a Pastor, a Minister, Author and an excellent person. God bless you, Kerry.
What a beautifully written article. Thank you for sharing your experience.
It was faith that sent you there, Kerry, and that's what I'd call an incarnate demonstration of God's presence. I think it was St. Francis of Assissi who said, "Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words."
I have a different calling in life, but have been priveleged to witness many of the same moments in one's life where what you speak of becomes clear. Your article was deeply moving and resonated with my long standing observations and beliefs. Thank you for your insightfulness, and your eloquence.
Thank you for writing this beautiful article with such complete heart felt wisdom Love spoken clearly here.
Lifechanging. Thank you.
No one usually speaks of those conversations. Thankyou for a moving and thoughtfully written article leaving much room for thought and self-contemplation.
Thank you for this article this is exactly what i needed! An ex-friend went online and ranted about me yesterday saying that i need JESUS in my life and she is a better person then me cause she attends church, but this article truly states that God cannot be found in churches but within our families and this is such a beautiful article. I am a mother of two, a daughter, a sister, a neice, and a friend and between being all of those i have learned about love and lost love. I do believe in a God and i dont need to be preached about it, this is very uplifiting!
Sunni – I can understand your reply and I can feel how your friend upset you. Please remember that many if us try to help and are very clumsy with the way we present our message. The love from family is personal for each of us. I know many that have found the love of family in a pew at a local church. Your conviction of the church is in error. A church is not a pastor, or priest, or building. A church is a group of people trying to get through life and trying to understand love as God would have them understand it. Each of us is alone with our thoughts. Each of us is trying to find the answer. I pray that you find your love and your God.
Dear Sunni, Anyone who "rants online" about how you need to find Jesus is no friend. None of us really can say what another person needs and she was out of line.
This was truly beautiful and so true. Thank you.
And sometimes when the dying are too weak to speak, a look or holding hands speaks volumes. I know this when in my Dad's final moments, at age 52, saying goodbye to his bride of 33 years. Not just his wife and four sons, but his two hundred plus friends in his home. His friends were family too. That is love.
Fantastic article, thank you! And what an ass your professor was. I hope he or she reads this and finally learns something.
This was a beautiful and insightful article. I was deeply moved by your observations and words of truth about families, love and God.
One of the best columns I've read in a long time. I work with dying people and have similar conversations. Thank you Kerry for sharing your wisdom. Some people never learn this... like your professor.
Absolutely pure, and beautifully written.........They are special people who have you by their sides Kerry.