CNN Belief Blog

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.”

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2 thoughts on “

  1. Jim,

    Thank you for re-posting this article by Kerry Egan. My religious experience has involved seeing and hearing about religious people gathering around someone who is dying and they try to make sure that person is “saved” so that they will go to Heaven as opposed to going to Hell. They dominate the conversation with the dying person and sometimes do not allow the dying person to talk about the things that the dying feels they need to talk about. I have also wondered why these religious people do this. I am sure that they feel they are doing what they need to do, but I also see a good deal of selfishness in their actions. I am sure that the religious person feels that he or she has not done their duty if they do make an attempt to save the dying person from the jaws of Hell. The religious person does not want to feel guilty because he or she was not successful in saving the person from going to hell. It seems to be more about their feelings and values than it is about the feelings and the values of the dying person. Instead of being so focused on obtaining a “deathbed conversion”, maybe we need to allow the dying person to express their feelings about what their life has been all about. In allowing a person to do this, we hopefully help them to come to terms with what has happened over the course of their lives. In helping a person come to terms we, hopefully, can help them to have peace at the time that their life is ending when they are desperately in need of peace.

    We are all sinners and the conversation we have with the dying person is a conversation between sinners. In allowing the dying person to talk about their life experiences, good and bad, we can hopefully can help allow them to ask for forgiveness for the pain that they may have caused others, allow them to forgive others for the pain they may have caused the dying person and, most importantly, allow the dying person to forgive himself or herself for the pain that they, as sinners, have caused themselves over the course of their life. Elizabeth Kubler Ross wrote that she felt the final stage of the grief process is acceptance. I have long felt that acceptance and be equated with forgiveness. If a dying person can come to an acceptance that their life “is what it is”, then he or she can then seek forgiveness and offer forgiveness. Through forgiveness a person can achieve the peace needed to help a person to face the great unknown that awaits all of us beyond the veil of death.

  2. Wow! Thank you for pointing us in this direction. As a hospital chaplain Kerry’s words resonate with my pastoral experience. We are indeed on holy ground!

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