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.
I love this article. It shows true compassion on the part of the chaplain. I find it amazing that at the end of one's life family and love are central themes. I totally agree that the family is the premier place to experience and develop love. It is also the place to learn about and come to know our Savior. With Him we can have 'more abundantly' even eternally what we yearn for the most: love and family.
Carry on Kerry Egan. The world needs a lot more people like you, who live what the gospel is all about. You are a real example of a true Christian in my book.
"The first, and usually the last, classroom of love is the family."
That's wrong, MS. Egan...The Bible is. That's where you first got your morals and love of family. Seriously, you should go back to school and learn that (any objective, educated person understands it). Perhaps your professor (if he was real) decided the only way to "get through" to his "stubborn, foolish" student was to use the tactic he did. You should thank him for trying, if that was the case.
No, Ms. Egan, The Bible is where we first learned of love, and should be where we last hear of it in our final moments. For without The Bible, we have nothing.
If you have nothing nice to say, than plese say nothing at all. Unless you believe you can judge.
You certainly did not learn that arrogance or ignorance from the Bible, David B. Your post is a sin.
Before they can understand the messages in the Bible (or any written or spoken thought), children must learn to understand language, but they do not need to understand words to feel and express love.
The author's point is apt: children first experience love from their families.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kerry Egan.
Naturally, because CNN is nothing but a lying piece of toilet paper.
Excellent story. It was based in reality.
Thank you, Kerry Egan and CNN. That is also my experience with dying. We attend. We hold hands that are letting go. Dying people often say, "I want to go home." And they don't mean here. We say, "Yes. Soon." We listen with the heart to the language of the heart. We let God be God. Everything is a gift, and we are thankful for the honor of bearing witness.
One thing I've learned is that no two families process the dying/death of a loved one alike. But the bible gives us all real hope of life eternal a t C h r i s t ' s c o m i n g. http://yurconnected.blogspot.com/2011/03/colton-burpo-sat-in-jesus-lap-in-heaven.html
Some people aren't interested in pretty lies, not even on their death beds. When visiting an individual who knows their life is ending, don't speak - listen. If they want to hear your stories, they'll ask. Be a decent human. Let them decide where the conversation will lead.
JESUS2020.COM AMEN WANNA KNOW HOW GET SAVED!!!!!!!!
COME ON CHRISTRIANS LET PREACH GOSPOEL! AMEN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! CONFESS ALL KNOWN SINS, BE FILLED WITH HOLY SPIRIT, AND PREACH AWAY AND LET HOLY SPIRIT CONTROL!~ AMEN!
As most atheists, you completely mischaracterize what Christianity says.
They're not kidding when they call it the NEW Testament. For some reason
atheists tend to deliberately ignore that fact or pretend it isn't true. Next you'll
be pointing to Science as an explanation for the creation of the Universe; which
all intelligent educated people realize is a logical fallacy.
At least those scientific theories we accept as true have physical evidence to support them and/or can be replicated in a lab. Religion has nothing to support it but heresay and popularity - neither of which can be counted as real evidence.
Pray for the professor, he accidentally forgotten about The Golden Rule. 😛
The arguments here are, for the most part, human beings who want to be right, right in their own belief of God, Church, Religion, or Non-Believers of any or all of the above. I find it amazing the extremes to which we as humans will go to be right. Why not just say I BELIEVE as I did earlier, and let others believe as they believe (non-believer is also a belief). Does one's ego have to be right in order for one to believe it? Science is not the answer in that it cannot prove NOR disprove. The more we read in alot of areas the more we tend to open our world view and questioning is good. However, there are no exact answers just as there are no exact paths for everyone to take. It is my experience that questioning is human nature, and the experience is the adventure of our lives. It, to me, is being alive, living is seeking...two quotes of other seekers to consider: "...live the questions themselves...and someday, maybe, you will live along into the answers..." Rilke and "When you think you know everything, you know nothing. When you think you know nothing, you know everything." LaoTzu ! We truly need not feel threatened by what other's believe, unless they intend harm by actions based on those beliefs–but their beliefs are only that, beliefs and cannot hurt us. One more to consider:
"Out beyond the IDEAS of right doing and wrong doing is a field. I'll meet you there." RUMI I like that because we all need to be tolerant of others beliefs. It is only when we are forced or truly threatened to not be free to believe as we do, in this country, that we must stand together for that freedom. I really don't care what you believe as long as you don't try to tell me what I have to believe or live by. Without respect for another's right to believe what they believe, we are going to continue to have more problems in this country and around the world. I always think of the idea of those PEARLY GATES we are told, as Christians, we will stand before going to Heaven and the thought of all those we will meet there, much to our surprise IE: do not judge others. Listening, reading, seeking always is, to me, the greatest adventure of all.
Missus P, you are right on it. Kerry's essay was wonderfully spoken from the heart. We can all be a part of the human experience without references to God or religion. Tollerance is the key here and whether we have the same beliefs or not we are all of this planet and we are connected.
To MissusPowell: Your comments are so well stated, they gave me pause. Brava!
Having been a few situations where a chaplain was present I found that I had to ask for prayer. My situation with God was in tact and I simply needed one of His reps to hold my hand and link me once again with my Lord. Often when in pain or dispair over surgery and/or our diagnosis we need someone to pray for us as an intermediary not especially being a pathway to insure heaven. I think that chaplains are in sink with the severe health experience, however, they are directed many times by a criteria that says not to "offend", be "correct" in what they suggest and never, never, "step over the boundaries" and make the family or the hospital upset. We cannot depend on our visits from pastors, our chaplains and whoever else wanders in, we leave (maybe frightened, maybe unfulfilled, maybe in dissaray) knowing that whatever and however we understand God, He will definately be there for us and we will be safe in the arms of our bellief system.
Does this belief system have Jesus anywhere in it?
I have to agree with Susan and Sarah although their comments seem to come off as belligerent and perhaps insensitive, given the nature of this article and the congruence of their posts to the word of God they have a much more biblical stance than the chaplain. As a matter of fact most of the people criticizing Susan have little or no biblical reference or principle; its only opinion, status quo, popular culture, and political correctness; you guys lack the conviction of (God's gift to us)-The Holy Spirit. You have a feel good mentality when you don't have the slightest clue of what good is. You yourselves are lost or at best (no insult intended (Only Truth)) baby Christians; and while you might make it to heaven our concern is bringing people with us.
I have the number of a great psychiatrist who can help people like you. The medication does has side effects like returning to reality, just as a warning.
FOR YOU and those you are defending is YOUR BELIEF. You have no right to claim it is THE RIGHT AND ONLY ACCEPTABLE BELIEF!! YOUR EGO IS SHOWING!! My total frustration shows as I have little to no tolerance for those who have little to no tolerance. Have you heard nothing of others who have written of their own beliefs? Do you only continue to judge in some self-imposed superior position you take? I say that to your sarcastic BABY CHRISTIANS comment. I will truly pray for your humility in not-knowing to return to you so that you may widen your view and hear others to learn even you, as I, DO NOT HAVE IT ALL RIGHT! I ask your prayers for my own intolerance with your intolerance.
Kerry – thanks for a great article! You truly are a blessing to those you serve!
I was appalled how the professor 'shamed' you so! Thankfully, you courageously continued on in the field. He obviously had never learned what a chaplain Really does. He may have learned in the last 13 yrs. Just to make sure, send him a copy of your article. In fact, it should be required reading for present & future students!
I agree about the chaplain not pushing an agenda, including talking about God. The patient directs the conversation & she listens Alot. Her patients are So fortunate to have her! It is So rare to have someone committed strictly to listening! (& thereby serving you) People who know & /or love the patient would naturally try to 'edit' their story. Ex.) The patient could mention that they wished they Could have been nicer, or loved a particular person more. This person who knows the patient may respond: "Oh, you always showed so & so alot ot love". But maybe the patient knows 'in their heart' they didn't fully love or accept that person. And they may or may not want to discuss the reasons or history with that person. That's where a stranger, someone who isn't 'emotionally attached' to the patient & others in their life can be invaluable. She is an additional resource serving a different purpose.
Can we all just drop the god/religion BS, and just be nice and kind, and have respect for one another, and just get along? All this religion crap just sets up a "you vs me", "us vs them" situation and the next thing you know we have a crusade or jihad (yes extreme I know, but you get the point). All good for Kerry for letting her God sales pitch drop, and allowing people in their most agonizing moments to talk about what they naturally want to talk about, and letting people be people...talking about family and love.
If you have such disdain why read the article? Why comment? Why whine?................you shall be where she visits sooner than you think.................schedule that next doctor appointment soon..........
@libsdestroyamerica. With your last line and its smarmy, implicit threat, you betray yourself. You are no christian. You are not just the sinner – you are the sin.
And if there is no god all that matters in our lives is the ones we loved and loved us anyway.
Gee Mark... thanks for letting us know this. Now I can stop praying and carrying on. How did you find this out?,, you really need to share this with the world.
Kerry, I love your article no one should be surprised about what you have described. I for one understand it as god is family too.
Bless you for your work
I was very moved by this essay-letter! I would be so honored for Kerry to speak with me in my last hour! I agree with LULA. Shame on her professor- but let us know the gift she gave of her heart- through God.
Lula, EXACTLY!!! Susan, get a clue, girl, Jesus taught us to be kind and the truth is "in the end only kindness matters"! If your God is really that shallow and vengeful, I want no part of that him. My God is loving and wants all his children to come home to him. My God will give anyone and everyone a chance to come home. He will reveal himself to all of us at the moment of our death. At that point the choice will be each person's alone. That's the kind of judgmental rhetoric that turns others away from Christ. I hope you find the loving God that I know. He's really the absolute best 🙂
GOD: God is the Creator of the universe in all its dimensions and the source of Knowledge in all sentient beings.
God has sent a New Revelation, a Teaching and a Pathway to rekindle humanity’s relationship with the Creator as we face living in a declining world. The New Message comes with the Will and Power of God to unite the world’s religions, to end our ceaseless conflicts and to call forth the greater gifts that each person has brought into the world. The New Message is the largest Revelation of its kind ever to be given to humanity.
We stand at the threshold of Great Waves of environmental, economic and political upheaval and change which will alter the face of Earth. Humanity must unite to prevent collapse from within and subjugation from without.
Each of us has been sent into the world for a greater purpose, waiting to be discovered. This greater purpose resides beyond the realm and the reach of the intellect, in Knowledge that lives deep within us.
KNOWLEDGE: Knowledge is the core reality within us, a deeper mind beyond the intellect, and is our direct connection to God. Knowledge represents the part of us that has never left God. Instinct and Intuition are at the surface of Inner Knowledge.
We live in a Greater Community of intelligent life in the universe for which humanity must prepare.
We live in both a mental and physical environment. The mental environment contains forces that affect our thinking and emotions and that can dominate us until we become strong with Knowledge.
I read this article with great sadness. How deluded and decieved this chaplin is. Those who are without Christ, facing an eternity in Hell and she has an opportunity to witness to them and tell them of the most wonderful gift of Gods salvation that can change thier eternal course and she choses to talk to them about something that she thinks makes them feel good. Feel good, but for how long, the last few minutes and hours of thier life? What about thier eternal state? All those lost souls going off in front of her and she refuses to answer the call the Lord gave her in the Great Commission, go and spread the good news of the Gospel. I take Gods view on the best way to teach my children about the Lord, not hers, yes we are to love them, but my source, the inerrant word of God says, train your child up in the way, in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, so that when they are older, they will not depart from it. Why are we all so keen to listen to human advice and human points of view. We have the ultimate truth right there in the bible, its advice is all sufficient and absolute. Yes we can take advice from people with experience in matters, but what does Gods word say about that situation too? I will be praying for Kerry Egan, that she is saved, because with such a lack of concern for someones eternal soul I would question her salvation ever being real, but if she is saved, then she will have to stand before a Holy God one day at the judgement seat of Christ and give an account of what she has done for Him, I pray that she may yet grab this opportunity she has to change the course of so many souls, before its too late!
Blaaaaaaaaa, you are dumb.
You are assuming that the patients who are dying are faithless. Nowhere in the article does it say that. You are also presuming that she doesn't offer them a chance to be "saved", yet you jump in and bash her. That's the kind of Christianity that can turn many away from the Bible.
Right on, Susan! My sentiments exactly. A chaplain’s job is to represent God on this Earth- if they can’t do that, choose another vocation, please!! Be a candy striper but not a chaplain. God – at least Jehovah God of the Bible – wants everyone to go to Heaven when they die, but they can't if they don’t know God’s plan to get them there! In the Bible, a man named Nicodemus asked Jesus how to get to Heaven—and Jesus told Him he must be born-again- it was that simple.
Responding to Dorothy, well, while nowhere in the article does it state she did not tell them, she said she usually does not talk about God to them. That makes it pretty clear that while she "might" tell them sometimes, she "usually" does not. To my knowledge with those dying, most do NOT know where they are going so it would be a good idea to "usually" talk to them about God. Feeling good as you die is great, but feeling great after you die is MUCH BETTER, which I believe you would agree with! 🙂
@Susan and Sarah
An all loving god that requires you worship him before you can get into "paradise" no matter how good you are in life....you know what I'll pass. That is not an all loving god, that is a 4 year old going PAY ATTENTION TO ME LOOK AT ME ARENT I COOL!!!
Ah, well. Heaven for the weather, but Hell for the company. You know, full of people who talk about their love of families.
Oh Susan, I'm sorry you are so closed minded to the possibilities that God IS love and that families are our connection, past and future, to the pathway to God. This kind of closed-minded self-righteous opining is exactly why Christians have a bad name. You sound angry and beligerant in your beliefs and I find it offensive. Who are YOU to question anyone's salvation??
I was going to say what Lula said. GOD IS LOVE. It's as simple as that.
Susan and Sarah, in the greek language, there are a few different words used to describe the different types of love.
Agape – Unconditional love, the kind of love that's based on Godly principle.
Eros – Romantic love. Love usually based on ones attraction for another. (Which is the most shallow of "loves".)
Philios – Having love for your neighbor, general caring and courtesy of others, looking out for one another
Storge – Familiar (family) love. A caring, loving bond between Mother and daughter, or father and son.
Yes, this chaplain said that they mainly spoke of their families. Quote: (the families we are born into, the families we create, the families we make through the people we choose as friends.) That is what life is all about. PEOPLE. Interacting with one another. Why do you think God created Earth and people to live on it. Just for the hell of it?! No! We are here to live through Him. GOD IS LOVE. Agape is the kind of love we're supposed to learn. Unconditional love and forgiveness. And we learn by living life. By interacting with the people around us, namely our "families and friends".
Delusional? Wow lady...All replies/comments like Susan's scream the following: brainwashed, insecure, religion dependent, god fearing, Christ and lord freak, can't think for myself, if you don't believe in the religion/god that I believe then you burn in eternity, closed mindedness. This type of religious zealot dribble and criticizing is what causes war, death and hatred for fellow man/woman...all in the name of religion. Good for Kerry that she keeps it real in the most emotional, traumatic part of someones life without pushing and selling god, Chris, religion. If someone is on their death bed, let them talk about what they want to, they've had enough already to have a damned used car (religion) salesman pushing a deal through just so they get quota for the fricken month!
If a person is dying and they are not "right with GOD" before hand do you think the last few minutes should be spent repenting? Do you believe that GOD does not know what is in their hearts? You cannot find salvation at deaths door without really believeing to start with otherwise you are just trying to hedge your bets and if GOD does exist do you really think he'll fall for that one? You remind me of the sinners on Saturday night repenting on Sunday morning. Wash, rinse, repeat for your entire life. The last thing a dying person needs is someone preaching at them, they need someone to listen to them. How many people have you been with when they have died? None is my guess.
you are clueless. god is not some formula you get out of a book. the chaplain is beauty and peace....you are off course.....
Great response, just make sure you speak the Truth in Love. Thanks for not compromising what the word of God says. God Bless.
In other words, you are without compassion and would steal the final moments of a person's life to satisfy your vanity. Provide one SINGLE ounce of proof that your god, your heaven or your hell exists, and you might have a leg to stand on. But you have no evidence, only your selfish conviction that only your way is right.
If a person asks, by all means tell them your belief. But if they don't, either let them lead the conversation or at least have the human decency to leave them alone.
@Susan & Sarah: And you feel so smug and secure that YOU are right, with your book under your arm every Sunday morning. If there IS a deity watching your every move, I bet "he" will see just how insincere you really are. That's the best part of this nonsense: the "look at me" crowd. "Did you SEE what so-and-so wore? Oh, she looked like a TRAMP!" Yes, that's christian. GASP! "Is that so-and-so's daughter? She looks like she's PREGNANT! What a little who.re!"
When was the last time YOU volunteered at the hospital or the Red Cross or the library? I don't mean raising $2,000 for the new church annex, I mean REALLY helping people? Or, is the only thing you can do is run them down because they're not as "good" as you, because they don't go into a building every 7th day of the week and drop a tax-deductible check into a plate or basket in order to be "saved"? IF this mythological heaven DID exist and by some cruel joke, it's full of people like you, I want no part of it.
it's tacky, susan
I hope this little professor recognizing himself in this story if he happens upon it.