What people talk about before they die

The meaning of life is discovered through actions of love, Kerry Egan says.

Story highlights

  • Hospice chaplain Kerry Egan shares what she has learned
  • 'We don't learn the meaning of our lives by discussing it. ... It's discovered through these actions of love'

Kerry Egan is a hospice chaplain and the author of "On Living," and "Fumbling: A Pilgrimage Tale of Love, Grief, and Spiritual Renewal on the Camino de Santiago."

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.
    "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.