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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?”

“Sometimes.”

“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. Bogalusa

    I spent years working with the dying. I am honored to be with anyone whether they be a believer or not.We all need dignity and respect at the end.No one can speak for God but when we do kind unselfish acts for others we kinda do some whispering for Him.
    Check out, It is all good and God is at the end. You may like it or not but it will give you something to think about.

    March 15, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
  2. ColoradoAthiest

    Thank you Kerry Egan. I do not share your belief system. But as an atheist I too think that love is something which transcends death. You gave those people a chance to leave in their own way, without the need for deep theological discussion. You showed love and compassion by just sitting there and listening as they took inventory on their life experiences. I hope you are given the opportunity to teach others this special kind of end life companionship and guidance.

    March 15, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
  3. JC

    Wow. That was the most beautiful and true article I've read in a long time. It's amazing how simple the words of Jesus are, "Love God and love your neighbor," yet reading an article like that humbles me incredibly. Thank you!

    March 15, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
  4. Rheinlander

    Shaking my head , and kinda smiling at all the atheist comments.
    Because the blind cannot see does not prove the sun doesn't shine.

    March 14, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
    • ColoradoAthiest

      sillyness. The blind can still feel the sun. The suns effect on our solar system can still be measured, even by the blind. You nor I haven't any proof that fairies, trolls, leprechauns, big foot, chubacabra do not exist. by your argument, this must be proof they do exist.

      March 15, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
    • Satanluv

      What you said, like the rest of the bible...doesn't prove anything...its a nice sentiment...that's about it

      March 15, 2012 at 8:18 pm |
  5. garyR

    Physicians called my family, who lived thousands of miles away, because people in my situation in ICU never left alive. My family also consisted of the friends and colleagues and professors who were doing research in labs nearby the hospital, and also those elsewhere. My family included scientists overseas who were calling in. My family was my friends – at Harvard! – who, before I ended up in the so-called last step, were with me daily as I was being bludgeoned with chemotherapy and radiation and moving around in a daze. My family was the physicians who guided me and gave me love and put up with me, and threw out protocols and began treatments that they could only guess at because nothing else was working and I was on the way of checking out. My family was also the friend who took it upon herself to take my family in hand, my family who had arrived sad and confused to say goodbye, and guide them through the maze of a place to stay and the bureaucracy in front of them. I've always considered her my family's guardian angel. I am not even remotely religious. But I do not explain why I have always considered this woman a guardian angel. There was never a chaplain around. But these things can happen to people who are, and are not religious. Love – and fear – comes from many people and from many places and many things and at the end of the day, starts and ends in the human heart. I know that I am really lucky. Nobody can, or should ever shove religion down someone's throat. Someone like that mean spirited professor, who had no understanding of his craft, would have gotten a reaction that he would not have liked much. Ms Egan understands her religion. Because she does, she is able to bring some measure of peace – or perhaps not- to someone who is leaving.

    March 14, 2012 at 11:15 am |
  6. Lorraine

    Chris, thank you for your comment, for we all must keep the door open in our hearts for the others, now this is a true virtue of the Creator YHWH, the only redeemer, and savior, as written in Isaiah 49v26, and Isaiah 60v16.

    March 14, 2012 at 1:07 am |
  7. hahaha

    the 'logic' of a religious person:
    X: I think people who are dying should talk about god, because god is totally awesome!
    Y: Gee, as I see with my own eyes, people who are dying actually DON'T talk about god.....
    Conclusion: when those people weren't talking about god, they really were talking about god. Yay, god! You're the best!

    March 13, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
    • Nicholas Robinson

      I'm with you, friend. It's too bad that when the time comes to meet their maker, they couldn't give a flying heck (this is a family group!) who their "maker" is. If they're religious they're praying they won't die and the LAST thing on their mind is wasting their last moments on earth discussing something they've never personally seen, only read books about or heard lectures upon.

      Now I certainly wouldn't be too concerned at that point whether or not the earth was round, would I?

      March 14, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  8. Harry

    With all due respect, that professor was an idiot. There is no way to sugar coat it. A typical, arrogant, ivory tower egghead. Who is he to decide what you ought to be talking to people about as they die? It ought to be about the dying person you're comforting and not about "the depth of your spirituality." To paraphrase him, I'd say: “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 professor wanting to talk to me about faith or the depth of his spiritual life.”

    By the way, I have been sick in the hospital. I've had my heart stop five times and when my minister at the time came to see me, the last thing I wanted to do was discuss faith. At that moment, I couldn't care less about the depth of his spirituality or mine. Ms. Egan, you are right and he is wrong.

    March 13, 2012 at 6:04 pm |
  9. Nino

    I'm an atheist, but I respect the message in this article. It's funny that you can have a much better sense now (and even when you were a college student) of what's important in life than your benighted Harvard Divinity professor. What a shamefully ignorant individual he is, especially for ridiculing you anonymously in class. As if the right thing to do to dying people is trying to indoctrinate them. What a fool. Though I don't share your beliefs, I found this article insightful and moving, Ms. Egan.

    March 13, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
  10. Paula

    Shame on your professor. After losing our baby, it was a chaplain who came in to baptize our son and brought us comfort. Who was he to question what you do or how you do it? I thank you for your beautiful article and for being there for people. Even with all the hustle and bustle of a hospital, it is a lonely place and the comfort you bring to others is a blessing.

    March 13, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
  11. Satanluv

    They talk about their families because that is what really matters in a person's life... that is thier true legacy and their only real immortality...most people, I am fairly sure, know deep down that god is a fairy tale, a cushion, and that death is truly the end ...what this very excellent young woman heard from these dying people makes perfect sense...death is a time to end the bs and look at and reflect upon what was real and important in that individual's life

    March 12, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
  12. Leucadia Bob

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sIu5aPIIzzM&w=640&h=390]

    March 12, 2012 at 11:18 am |
  13. Reborn

    I suffered a terrible car accident... during 3 weeks I almost died "many times"... Now I can read a beautiful article like this one and agree with it... Believe me... no matter your faith, your fortune or whatever you may be involved with... on the face of death if you are human you will only care about your loved ones... you will remember about the moments you were happy together and dream they happen again... you will remember your childhood like you were 7 again... you will ask forgiveness and try to show your love, no matter how hard you are... In the face of death we realize that nothing more then our family matters... For the professor, once his life of arrogance reaches an end, he will then understand what is the meaning of family...

    March 12, 2012 at 3:02 am |
  14. Paul

    I am amazed at how many Atheists comment on this Blog??

    Is it you are missing God in your life and keeping in touch, just in case you miss something that might mean you are wrong about God. Like a bet each way.

    Or is it that you are so empty without God you have a need to tear others down to your level?

    Just make your own Blog and call it 'Godless' or "God, Yeah Right' and if the God believers want to find you and comment they can, but I have a feeling you will be in a lonely place.

    March 12, 2012 at 1:11 am |
    • Jameson

      I concur, it's mind boggling that every time I see an article or something about religion (in particularly Christianity) there are a ton of atheist who feel the need to comment. Obviously they're not true atheist if they would even read an article about religion, because according to their beliefs, after this life, there is nothing, so why do they feel the need to comment on something they say doesn't exist? Everyone knows in their heart that there is a God, that's why they keep coming back to read these articles. A person has to be really foolish to think that this complex world is all there is.

      March 12, 2012 at 7:56 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      Those assumptions don't hold true for many atheists. I am an atheist yet I come here and read and comment on these articles. This is not out of any feeling that there is a God, I merely come here to read stories like the one above. Religious or not what the author does is an amazing thing, and her insight into the human psyche of what is truly important to the person that is close to death is a good one. Why should atheists not be able to come here? This is an open forum, as is the other forums on CNN.

      March 12, 2012 at 9:31 pm |
    • Paul

      Good comment, but why try and discredit ones view as foolish. I don't mind listening to reasonable reasons, however it seems the Atheist offers no other reasonable answer just critising. They admit they have no answer, so why not leave it at that?

      March 13, 2012 at 12:48 am |
    • HawaiiGuest

      @Paul

      I have never simply discredited someones views as foolish. I have pointed out hate and bigotry from both atheists and theists. I do not come here to belittle.

      March 13, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
    • Paul

      I admit I have not herad you personally do that. But it seems the norm for most Atheists. Sorry to put you in the box with the majority.
      So may I ask what positive future to you as an atheists have for the future of mankind?

      March 14, 2012 at 6:06 am |
    • Ariel

      Don't assume people are missing out just because they don't have or want God in their lives. Life can be fulfilling with or without God.

      March 14, 2012 at 10:51 am |
    • ColoradoAthiest

      Hmmm, upset about atheists commenting on this blog. So I take it you NEVER comment on non-religious blogs or articles. I've got a task for you... Go to any political, or world news article and read the comments. I'm willing to bet you will find numerous commentors bringing up religion and god, even in articles which have no religious base. so Paul your point is moot.

      March 15, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • Satanluv

      I guess becuase i am a teacher I have that Bodisatva mentality wherein I want to shake people from there delusional musings...I look at as if I had a high school student who believed in the Easter Bunny.. I would feel it as a duty to wise them up for their own good so they didn't seem the fool...it is so obvious why there is no easter bunny or santa and if you take a step back and apply logic to god it as just as obvious...it is painfully clear actually..just think of how you know there are no unicorns or fairies or leprechans, by what logic do you know this?...well the same logic applys to god...i enjoy dropping these logic bombs on people and see how they react and hope that maybe that logic bomb will eventually set up a chain reaction in their consciousness...or maybe I am an egotistical f c k who just likes to have an unassaiable argument which with to beat others over the head with...maybe I am wrong to do so because the Human Condition is so cold and bleak in its finality that people need the cushion of god to go on with their everyday lives..1 thing I can tell you for sure, I am constantly slipping atheism into my lessons and I am very good at it and i like honing my argumnet here among the believers

      March 15, 2012 at 8:36 pm |
    • Paul

      @Satanluv
      Sounds like an appropriate name you have taken. I too am a teacher and see no evidence for evolution as to the answer for the origin of man.
      But I do see through science evidence of an intelligent creator. There is obvious signs on design and we all know design needs a designer, there is no other logical answer.
      This article gives evidence of man's need for spirituality, something greater than himself. The only other answer is caos and no future.
      For example why is it man has always died and yet we cannot accept this fact. Our brains are designed with unending capacity to store knowledge for enternity. We barely scratch the surface of our potential. For some reason we have the ability to live forever but get cut short of this. Why is this? Only the Bible gives us the answers.
      We were designed to live forever. The Bible tells us why we don't and what our Designer has planned to reverse this dying process. I too am compelled to tell others the truth.

      March 16, 2012 at 7:05 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      @Paul

      Exactly what evidence do you see that supports intelligent design? How does evolution not give an account for the origin of our particular species?

      March 16, 2012 at 7:10 pm |
    • Paul

      @Ariel.
      I have not assumed that people are missing out at all. Even the Bible indicates that people can have a measure of enjoyment of life without God. But it calls this a ‘temporary enjoyment’. Surely you would want a more permanent solution!
      Our creator offers us this, but as free moral agents we can of course choose. Of course our creator cannot allow man to continue on this path of destruction of his planet and like any landlord there comes a time when the tenants (us) have an accounting. Those who choose to follow the landlords (God) direction have been offered to live here permanently, the others will be evicted. I know who I want to be. You choose!

      March 16, 2012 at 7:18 pm |
    • Paul

      @ HawaiiGuest
      Where would you like me to start?? Evidence abounds.
      For example. DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) and RNA (ribonucleic acid) and proteins.
      What is the chance that RNA or proteins could form by chance? The RNA molecule is constructed of smaller molecules called nucleotides. Robert Shapiro, professor emeritus of chemistry at New York University, said; “Some writers have presumed that all life’s building blocks could be formed with ease in Miller-type experiments and were present in meteorites. This is not the case.” He further stated that the probability of self-replicating RNA molecule randomly assembling from a pool of chemical building blocks “is so vanishingly small that its happening even once anywhere in the visible universe would count as a piece of exceptional good luck.”
      Here is another problem RNA is required to make proteins, yet proteins are involved in the production of RNA. The chicken or the egg problem.

      March 16, 2012 at 7:35 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      @Paul

      I'm sorry to say, that you have refutted your own argument. The fact that the self replicating RNA assembling has a chance, almost gauranteed that it happened at least once in the last 13.7 billion years. When you look at a place as large as the universe, then as long as there is a chance of something happening, it is only a matter of when. Probability, no matter how small, can be discounted when speaking in terms of billions of years, and an area the size of the universe.

      March 16, 2012 at 7:45 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      @Paul

      Above should read

      "Probability, no matter how small, CANNOT be discounted when speaking in terms of billions of years, and an area the size of the universe."
      Sans the all caps in the word of course.

      March 16, 2012 at 7:46 pm |
    • Paul

      @HawaiiGuest
      You see your reasoning goes against the most logical reasoning, even the experts see flaws in their reasoning. You see this process does not need to happen just once but many times over. So our learned friend the Professor of Chemistry said that it is so vanishingly small to happen ONCE anywhere in the universe.
      You are trying to tell me that a simple bridge over a river needs a designer and intelligent workers to build it and yet our DNA and RNA has no design or maker? You need far greater faith to believe that than a designer with a purpose. You see these same professors will pick up a stone with an axe type shape and as crude as it is say it was crafted by someone. Yet we look at the most amazing complexities of life and say it just happened?

      March 18, 2012 at 5:42 am |
    • HawaiiGuest

      @Paul

      So the more complex something is, the more certain that it must be created? This is a logical leap that leaves no room for any type of critical thinking or analysis. Complexity does not imply design, it implies complexity. We can pick up something that is shaped like an axe, and determine it created from markings on the axe. Crafting an object leaves traces. To apply the same concept to biological creatures is not a logical argument.

      March 19, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
    • chaz

      How do you verify your claim to reality/truth? The study of Epistemology reveals that all sources of knowledge are flawed – authority, the 5 senses, memory, intuition, and logic (a counter argument for every argument). Ultimately we ALL live by faith, and this is my main point. Don't think you can escape faith. And, on another note, how can you prove the supernatural using the natural? Something within me bears witness with the truth of the Gospels, and Jesus. I have difficulty believing that an impersonal/ non-relational/ unconscious universe can give rise to consciousness and relational/personal beings. Experiencing the infinite/sacred/supernatural transcends human reasoning. All relationships require faith. Can you prove your wife loves you? There may be reasons for your faith that she does, but you cannot prove it. Those who believe in God have reasons though they may not be able to prove it. If you could prove God, then there would be no choice. Relationship requires choice. Never the less we were created to worship, and everyone WILL worship (give/submit themselves to) something. If not God, then the opinions of others, money, resentment, fear, pride, ego, etc. God is love. It makes sense to me to give myself to Him and reality makes more sense to me through eyes of faith in Him.

      March 19, 2012 at 10:12 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      @chaz

      I have never asked someone to prove god. I have never asked someone to provide proof for their faith because I understand the futility of trying to prove something that is supposed to be spiritual. Reality makes more sense to you with your faith. Kudos, good on ya, and other types of terms like that. Please point to a post where I claim to know the truth.

      March 19, 2012 at 10:26 pm |
    • chaz

      Kudos to you too. Sorry, I probably got you confused with Satanluv and ColoradoAthiest.

      March 19, 2012 at 11:10 pm |
  15. L. L.

    "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."

    I believe this to be true, too. I thought this was a wonderful article–thank you so much for sharing it.

    March 11, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
  16. Sue Thom

    Family is not "God". You'd be better off using your experience as proof of the shallowness of the God delusion, and instead exalt the family bonds that deserve respect. Religious fanatics are the source of most evil today, and to use your experiences as some kind of support for worshipping invisible and non-existent deities does a disservice to humanity.

    March 11, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • Dan

      That comment was a disservice to humanity. The section is called Belief, not non-believers come disrespect other people's beliefs for what other people have done. I can understand a distrust with organized religion and being an atheists, but are you not doing the same thing as Christians by saying what you think is real or calling out those that you think are wrong. Try peace next time.

      March 11, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
    • EAPoe

      You offer up the same vitriolic poison as her divinity professor, just poured into a different cup.

      Bless you, Ms. Egan.

      March 11, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
    • Jane

      Why you poor lost soul.

      March 12, 2012 at 12:38 am |
    • rb

      Hey Sue, those who understand what God means, knows that God IS LOVE...that point of this article..Family=love=God. Get a clue. Go with the rest of your miserable atheist friends and wallow in your own sorrows. You obviously have never been around a dying person have you?

      March 14, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • Satanluv

      Sue, why do you use capital g???

      March 15, 2012 at 8:59 pm |
    • Satanluv

      rb ..so glad YOU know what god means....why don't you enlighten the rest of us becuase the bible is full of contradictions...I am going to come here everyday now to see if you can fill me in...but unless you can clear it up for me post haste, I am going to continue to view belief in god as silly and childish which it is and that is how I teach it...I don't say "all of you listen: god doesn't exist." no i just show them how silly it is...laughable really...the same way we knocked back the Bush conservatives...people like John Stewart showed them for the baffoons they were,,,how silly and ridiculous they were...heck I may be teaching your kids tomorrow in the AM

      March 15, 2012 at 9:10 pm |
  17. Religion is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer is delusional.

    March 11, 2012 at 9:23 am |
    • Chris

      Just because you don't know, doesn't mean there is nothing to know. Just because you haven't seen, doesn't mean there is nothing to see. Just because you don't believe, doesn't mean your a bad person either. Keep an open heart, and save the absolutes for love.

      March 13, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
  18. Steven Smith

    Yes, Ms. Egan, you are correct. Family is the place where Love, or lack of it, is defined. When I sat on the bed beside my dying father, he referenced his family members, both those who had passed before him as well as those of us who would remain. Daddy didn't talk much about Love through the years, but he did show Love to all around him. On his deathbed, he did speak of Love, and it re-enforced by belief that God Is Love. When we get close to the other side our focus is directed toward God, and the things of God, yet we are still here, so the connection between this world and the Everlasting becomes clear. And that connection is Love . That's what brought us here, and we examine our relationships through that lens.

    March 11, 2012 at 4:19 am |
  19. Steve the Goat

    They often talk about how they have gas and want some nachos.

    March 11, 2012 at 1:55 am |
  20. Don

    You are Holy and the world is a better place because of you. Your wisdom is a blessing. For all of those you try to comfort, thank you for listening and being there.

    March 11, 2012 at 1:17 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.