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. Jae

    Amazing experience Ms. Kerry. Thank you for sharing this. My concept about love and God changed. And you're right, for us to really share who God is and what love is - we don't need theories or whatnot. We just need to show it during the time they need it the most. Thank you.

    March 3, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
  2. Mike R

    Like the line from the hymn "Let There Be Peace on Earth" says: With God as "Our Father" WE (meaning all of us) are Family. Let me walk with my brother...in peaceful harmony. It is a shame so many feel the need to express such negative feelings and strongly worded opinions to folks they don't even know. If we all understood that we are one Family perhaps wars would end and peace would reign. Unfortunately, we have taken being "right" to the extreme and now any minor difference in our belief's or tradition's is a cause for division and strife. I pray that God's Spirit of Peace will touch us all.

    March 3, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
  3. Shawna

    http://www.areyouagoodperson.com A simple test regarding the most important decsion in life.

    March 3, 2012 at 11:48 am |
  4. Mary

    On a long enough teilmine, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero. Question: e o lectie, dar e o lectie despre ce ar trebui sa fie sau se transforma intr-o lectie de manipulare a maselor la un moment dat?

    March 2, 2012 at 9:28 am |
  5. Heather

    My twin sister and I were thrust into the role of caring for our grandmother after our mother's unexpected and sudden death. It was only a few years after our mother's passing that our grandmother had a massive stroke that effectively ended her life of independence. To care for her properly we moved her to our city ( sister and I live in same city) into a nursing home that was run by our in-laws who are also nurses. This was truly a blessing as there was no possible way for me to accept placing her in a nursing home otherwise. I to, was also in the healthcare field and had seen first hand some of the patient's conditions that were brought into the emergency room. My sister and I were able to "take" turns visiting, running errands for, and simply spending time with our grandmother over the 2 years until her death. Toward the end I had started to visit my grandmother after my shift and we were able to have some truly good talks. I knew that my grandmother had had a horrific childhood, and had unfortunately, in turn, given my mother one as well. Somehow my mother had the strength, wisdom, and love to not pass on that particular family legacy to her children. Something that I am in awe of to this day.... As my grandmother weakened and her time was short I remember her quietly saying to me, " I wish you girls had raised me. I see how you interact with your children. You both have a lot of love for them and aren't afraid to say and show it to them. Oh, I wish you girls could have raised me." That was the single most terrible and beautiful thing anyone has ever said to me. Oh, how I grieved for the child she had been and the person she became because of it ! I simply told her it would have been an honor to raise her and that we loved her dearly right here and right now. I remember her looking so sadly at me and saying, " I never believed anyone could love my until now. You girls had no reason to do what you have done for me except you must love me. Why else would you have done it?" That shook me so deeply and I grieved for her lifetime of not believing in love. That, to me, would be such a lonely and horrible existence. It left such an indelible mark on my heart.... Love and be loved while your alive. Don't let fear stop you...Learn from my grandmother's life and take a chance. I know that I must in order to honor her memory.

    March 1, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
    • Jan

      Thank you for your story. I can only imagine that your grandma must have felt some kind of peace at the end knowing that she was so dearly loved by you. The biggest we give people is love.

      March 1, 2012 at 7:08 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      Thank you Heather. I have to say there has not been many stories that have touched me like yours.

      March 1, 2012 at 9:24 pm |
    • Mafi

      Thank you, Heather; what a beautiful and sad story!

      March 1, 2012 at 10:18 pm |
    • Tina

      Your mother found that love in her life because she had you and your sister. You were her love outlet.

      March 2, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
    • Pritka

      Beautiful story and not one word about religion in it, just basic human truth. Love is the measure of our lives at the end of it.

      March 3, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
    • In reply to Heather

      Heather, thank you so much for sharing your story. It reminds me of my own, in a way. One thing I have learned is that family life is a progression. My own childhood was very violent and I was able to not have any violence in my home but I know I wanted a much more normal life for my kids than I could provide. There are some things you can never fully recover from, but when you witness just how "normal" your kids are, you realize that you have succeeded. Sorry, I'm not making any sense, but I just wanted to say that you should be very proud of your mother. She obviously raised wonderful daughters. Bless you both.

      March 4, 2012 at 11:32 pm |
  6. Alex

    Perhaps you will be confronted by angry Allah (Zeus, Jupiter, Feathered serpent, whatever) asking you why you did not pray 5 times a day to Mecca. How do you know your fairy tale is the correct one ?

    March 1, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
    • Max

      When u die soon, you will be asked by satan hey Alex redneck maaather faaaker why did u screw ur own sister and do u know who is ur dad or ur mom can't count!!

      March 1, 2012 at 7:15 pm |
    • Michael

      Alex your trite, often repeated and silly remark shows you have completely missed the point.

      March 1, 2012 at 9:21 pm |
    • Sirspeaksthetruth

      Michael, is there any oxygen left in that ivory tower you occupy?

      March 3, 2012 at 5:13 am |
  7. Marcus

    I really liked this article. I don't think that people were intentionally or unintentionally talking about god when they were near death and talking about their families. I just think they were talking about the most important thing in their life – not god, not money, not accomplishment – family.

    March 1, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
  8. dinak

    If Santorum had written this article, you'd be up in arms, CNN.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:45 pm |
    • Steve

      Nope you're wrong. However, Santorum would not have written this article. It is against everything he believes.

      March 1, 2012 at 11:33 am |
  9. Benjamin Smith

    So true, and so beautiful.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:44 pm |
  10. G'ma67

    What a wonderful article. It literally moved me to tears. I was with my mother-in-law when she died. I stood by the bed holding her hand. She opened her eyes and looked from me to where the ceiling met the wall and said, "Ma? .... MA?"......I saw nothing... but she did. She was a stroke victim and had not spoken in 7 years. She looked deeply into my eyes, back up to the ceiling, closed her eyes and took a deep, deep breath. She exhaled and she was gone. It was an amazing event I will never, ever forget and I feel so blessed to have been there at that moment. I have shared this amazing article on my Facebook page. I am so glad the author did not let that thoughtless, arrogant professor influence her as she truly has the gift of understanding. I hope she sees this so I can say "Thank you".

    February 29, 2012 at 7:25 pm |
  11. Mistylynn

    This story has touched my heart.

    February 29, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
  12. Carol

    I hope I have the privilege of having someone like you with me when I experience death. You have a beautiful spirit.

    February 29, 2012 at 6:27 am |
    • Carol Keys

      I certainly would not want Ms. Egan's divinity professor with me when I am dying. How reprehensible to think pressing one's own agenda at a time like that – a SACRED TIME like that – is lofty or appropriate. Shame on him. He should be fired.

      I had the privilege of being with my mother in her final months, weeks, days, hours – watching her prepare for this passage, hearing her conversations with departed loved ones, and seeing the way she looked at me, was evidence enough that her own contact with her higher power and with her family was strong, invincible. How could anyone not do everything they could to listen, reflect, and learn from such an experience.

      February 29, 2012 at 11:55 am |
    • Sirspeaksthetruth

      I think I rather have sister morphine, and I suspect you will too.

      March 3, 2012 at 5:14 am |
  13. Michael

    Very insightful article, but the leap I don't get is how love is "god". Why is it god, as opposed to simply a biochemical/hormonal phenomenon that bestows an evolutionary advantage in living beings, since it ensures protection of one's own genes? If "god" is just "love" then what about all the other things religious people attribute to "god"? To me it is totally unsurprising that people, at the end, talk about their families, since the great genetic drive within us is to reproduce ourselves – to achieve immortality through our genes living on in the next generation (as Dawkins might argue it) – and the our family is central to this fundamental life force. I wonder whether mixing up any concept of "god" with "love" is simply that – mixed up.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:57 pm |
    • Rodney

      Your entire comment is completely ridiculous in its conclusions. While I do believe God is love, and that her definition of this"love" is lacking, it's obvious that God is more than just love. Also, You can make the B.S. genetic fitness argument on almost any behavior if you stretch your reason far enough. Calling out to your parents has nothing to do with protecting the longevity of your genes. Through your reasoning, the person would only be concerned with their offspring in a detached utilitarian way.

      February 29, 2012 at 11:27 am |
    • Heather

      I think love is equated with god because in it's purest form it is a selfless act...Not simply an act of evolutionary advantage.

      March 1, 2012 at 7:00 pm |
    • Sirspeaksthetruth

      Rodney, nothing is obvious in your broze age belief systems. Get off your high horse and try to enter the 21st century.

      March 3, 2012 at 5:16 am |
  14. Gail

    What a great question to ask the dying...would you like God's forgiveness.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:00 pm |
    • gg

      What a terrible question to ask a dying person..

      February 29, 2012 at 3:41 am |
    • Sirspeaksthetruth

      Only a ghoul would do it.

      March 3, 2012 at 5:17 am |
    • Pritka

      Presumptive of the person asking. Irrelevant to the person dying unless one is afraid and grabbing at anything to assuage regrets. I especially resent any human being claiming to have the power to provide God's forgiveness. As if a being as omniscent as God is purported to be would not bestow forgiveness directly.

      March 3, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
  15. Patricia Gillisie

    To Ephriam: Yes, my belief system is made up of a living trinity with God at the head; Jesus at the right hand and the Holy Spirit in an intrinsic spot. I have never posted anything before and I guessed that we were talking about Jesus. Thank you for pointing out that I wasn't clear enough. pag

    February 28, 2012 at 6:59 am |
  16. scott

    This was a very touching article. well done!

    February 27, 2012 at 9:35 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Amen Scott. So glad to see that she survived her idiotic instructor. As I contemplate my own death, I know that my loved ones will be most present in my thoughts and final prayers

      February 28, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
  17. Lorraine

    This all reminds me of the book of Job, of how he loved his family so, and how he tried to convert his first family to do the law, and be with YHWH, he wanted so badly for his sons, and daughters then to follow the law, and to live a better and righteous life but they were resistent, and wanted to do whatever they want. Still to no end Job would pray for them, and many times he would sacrifice unto YHWH for his loved ones to get in good with the Creator YHWH for the forgiveness of his disobedient children until the day when the challenge of Job's faith began. All of his children were killed, his wife, and the many sufferings of his own took him through a terrible world wind, but Job stayed faithful, but he held on to the 'pride' of his love for his family, and YHWH had him to break down to witness the truth of them. They were stubborn, and ungrateful, and this Job had to face, and let go of the 'pride' something that many of us uselessly hold on to wasting time to what is truly important, and that is being a crucial part of your family staying close to them no matter what and spending time with them don't let them get away from you. But unfortunately many of us slip away from each other, not realizing our own 'pride' and absence from each other. Until, we get sick or are dying, then we can see more of what we should or could have done, but now its too late, we do not have much time at this point, but somehow we try hard to squeeze in those few moments of what life we have left to try to make sense of it all or what we should have done or what could have been best, then we die. This is so sad and empty, letting 'pride' stand in the way through life, and yes, I too think that religions seem to take us further away from each other, with all of its rules and standards, is just a waste and it divides us when it should be bringing us closer to our spirituality of real life, but religions do not do this it takes us far from each other or it just puts up a pretense. With the spirituality of YHWH the Creator, this is what he wants from us to come together as one, for we all need each other in this life and to do His law of righteousness and peace of all no matter the skin or differences we are suppose to love one another and live all with peace and care about each other life is precious and its too bad that none seem to get it until they die, sad. Now, Job after his bought with 'pride' he ask YHWH for his forgiveness, and was later blessed with more sons and daughters who did the law, who were good children and an even better wife, and he lived for four generations of his children and their children, and died a very happy and fulfilled life, knowing that all of his family was left with love, and peace and togetherness among each other, now this is true life, living righteously and wholesome by ourselves and by others around us is what we are all suppose to live like, caring for your neighbors faithfully, and all be as one now not after it is too late but now we need the law of righteousness from YHWH, the 10 commandments, the sabbath, a day of rest, and the passover to remember the ones who died innocently, and to remember the freedom of our lives given by YHWH and do good by one another and not let each other fall, right now is what we need in this world today people. We should not wait until we die.

    February 27, 2012 at 8:59 pm |
  18. Geoff

    Kerry Egan,

    My Mother is a Chaplin and does similar to you, talks with seniors at her nursing home. We often talk about how to reach them, with the Love of God. Everyone has their hurts and pains, and their loves realized or not. Theology is not the issue, eternity is. Though I am revolted by your professors lack of understanding or wisdom, I am not surprised. So many don't understand the good news of the gospel. God is Love, and he does for us what we can never do for ourselves, make us right with Him through Jesus. He gives us new life, eternal life. So, the question is not as I would suspect was on the agenda of your professor "are they ministered to in a accord with a prescribed manor fitting for there particular denomination", but in loving them are you offering them the grace Jesus purchased for them and giving them absolute forgiveness in the loving conversation you have with them. If the spirit of the living God resides in you it is only natural to share that love with them like Jesus did giving them opportunity to believe Him and come to know him personally. Religion only pushes rules and rites on the living or dying, but Jesus sat at dinner with everyone who would and healed the broken hearted, the sick, and even the dead. Jesus' love knew no bounds and was always quick to engage with people in conversations to see if there heart was open to what he had to offer them. The biggest mistake we make a ministers is to get people to move into a contrived pattern of relationship for religious purposes instead of meeting them where they are at whatever level they need to be met at and still offer them love, grace, acceptance, and forgiveness. May the Love of God keep you ministering all the days of your life as you usher many into the life eternal and many if not most right into the presence of God.

    May we know the power of His Love,


    February 27, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
    • Sirspeaksthetruth

      What happens when those wheelchair bound folks dont want to hear it?

      March 3, 2012 at 5:19 am |
  19. sortakinda

    When you get to the end of the road, there really isn't much to say. I've seen Catholic chaplains make a quiet appearance ask a conscious patient if he/she would like God's forgiveness, administer the anointing of the sick and bless the patient. The time for a HARD SELL or FIRE & BRIMSTONE is out of place at that time.

    February 27, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • c

      I love your response

      February 29, 2012 at 11:08 am |
  20. Fiona

    I was with my father while he was dying, and when he died. I have witnessed the decline into death of other relatives. I did not experience the "talking about families" tendency noted by the author. What I saw was a gradual withdrawal from the world, a growing quietness, a lessened tolerance of small talk, and in some dying patients a great anger. Some did try to reconnect with estranged family or patch troubled relationships when they learned they were dying - more for themselves than for the happiness of their families. The only thing that was anywhere a plea for forgiveness that I know of was offered by a self-centered and abusive, hateful man (relative of spouse) who told the offspring whom he had manipulated for a lifetime that he'd actually always loved her. That is my experience of human demise - people try to reorganize their lives in their minds into a form that they can feel good about. So if people really do talk about their families and relationships to a stranger, that's what they are doing. They are rewetting the scripts of their lives.

    February 27, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
    • Fiona

      *rewriting. (stupid autocorrect)

      February 27, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
    • Bill

      Incredible post. I will have to spend more time thinking about it. It seems to make a lot of sense but it seems a rather cynical viewpoint.

      March 3, 2012 at 10:40 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.