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December 1st, 2013
09:37 AM ET

The real-life angels of mercy

Opinion by Kerry Egan, special to CNN

(CNN)– I got pulled over on my way to work recently. I was late and I was speeding, but when the officer saw the hospice ID around my neck, with the word "chaplain" all in capital letters, she gave me just a warning.

"You're an angel," she said. "Anybody who takes care of the dying must be an angel."

Because I'm a hospice chaplain, I hear that pretty frequently. I can guarantee you I'm not an angel. I'm a flawed and struggling human, and I deserved that ticket. I also don't take care of the dying, not really.

Because I have many patients, I usually only get to visit each patient twice a month, maybe once a week. In rare cases, I'll visit daily, but only for an hour or so. It's the dying person's family that truly takes care of him or her.

While hospice aides, nurses, social workers, and chaplains go into the homes of patients to offer support, education, and help, they cannot be there 24 hours a day, and they don't do the bulk of the caregiving.

More than 65 million Americans are caregivers for dying, sick, and disabled family members, according to the National Alliance for Caregiving, and about 1.6 million people are cared for by hospice programs each year.

While I always think it's nice that people call hospice workers like me “angels,” in some ways that lessens what caring for the dying actually means. I've seen what that caregiving work is like when I've been in patients' homes.

Let's be truly honest here - it can be exhausting, heartbreaking, and bone-crushing, especially if the disease process lasts for years.

I've watched those hospice families spoon food into mouths, and clean it up when it's spit out. I've seen them hold cups of water to flaking, yellow lips.

I've watched them turn their mothers or husbands in bed, the patients' heavy flesh rolling through their exertions and sweat. I've sat with them when they come out of the bedroom, after having cleaned the diarrhea off their fathers' or wives' backs.

I've seen them stooped over, back in a spasm from having lifted someone too heavy to lift alone.

To be the caregiver to someone who is dying is probably the most difficult work in the world.

But if we believe that the work we are called to do on this earth is to give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned, then the families who care for the chronically ill and dying have done that with an intensity - an all-encompassing, daily, hourly, by-the-minute intensity - that is like nothing else.

For what else is the work of caring for the dying other than feeding, giving drink, bathing and clothing, and comforting the sick?

My Faith: What people talk about before they die

And if we believe that whatsoever we do, for even the least of people, we do for God, then the work that caregivers do is the most sacred work. More so, I think, than any missionary in a far-off place, more than a preacher in a pulpit, more than a theologian in a library, and, I can tell you with absolute certainty, more than a hospice chaplain.

That it is holy work doesn't make it lovely, or easy.

Being a caregiver might be the hardest work in the world, but the world doesn't seem to know it. Families caring for their sick are not held up as heroes. They don't get out of speeding tickets because of their job title.

People say that those who work with the dying must be angels. I think they mean that they can't imagine that they could do such physically, emotionally, and spiritually demanding work.

They think it must take the strength of angels to do such work, knowing that it ends in grief. It really does seem almost superhuman sometimes.

Ultimately, the problem with calling caregivers angels is that it implies that they don't need help. If they don't need help, we don't have to step up and offer it.

A patient's husband once told me that the old friends of his wife, a woman who had been bed-bound for eight years, stop him in the grocery store and post office all the time. They squeeze his hands and murmur softly to tell him that they are praying for her and that they love her.

"That's a cop-out! They pray because it's easy!" he shouted as tears slid down his cheeks and his body shook with grief and anger and abandonment. "She doesn't need your prayers. She needs you to come visit her!"

Too often, the dying and their caregivers are left alone and isolated, forgotten by the world that goes on with its business. Sometimes love is action. Sometimes love is the diaper change, the crushed pills in applesauce, the sponge bath. Sometimes love is taking care of someone when we hate it all.

If you've been a caregiver, you may have regrets. You may think, "If only I had done it differently." "If only I had noticed sooner." "If only I had been more patient." You may have been tired, and you may have been resentful. You may have been angry. You may have lost your faith. You may have been relieved when your loved one died, and then felt terrible guilt over that relief.

I have heard these things dozens of times over.

But remember that you did this work, not with the strength of angels, not with the unending energy of the supernatural, but with the limitations and weakness of a human being.

Maybe that's why the instructions are so simple, really. We don't need to take expensive mission trips around the world. We don't need to plan for months. We don't need special training. That bed-bound patient and her husband didn't need angels. They needed people.

When I was driving home from college with my mother and very ill father, we got a flat tire as darkness fell in the mountains in Virginia.

Seemingly out of nowhere, an elderly man in a tow truck showed up and changed the tire, accepting no payment or thanks.

At the time I thought he must be an angel. I couldn't imagine, straight out of college at 22 years old, that any person could be so willing to help another, with no reward or benefit to himself. And, because I thought he was an angel, I didn't see what he was doing as the kind of thing I should or could do myself.

But now I know better.

The hospice families, who cared for and loved and then let go of the ones they loved, have taught me that the human heart can be as big as the ocean, and that the work that God calls us to - to take care of each other - happens every moment in every place. We do not need to be angels to do it.

Kerry Egan is a hospice chaplain in South Carolina and author of "Fumbling: A Pilgrimage Tale of Love, Grief, and Spiritual Renewal on the Camino de Santiago." The views expressed in this column belong to Egan. 

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Christianity • Death • Ethics • Faith • Heaven • Opinion

soundoff (340 Responses)
  1. Zezzers

    Woman are not supposed to be Chaplains, hun. I guess you would know this if you actually read the Bible.

    December 1, 2013 at 1:11 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      But they are allowed to do much of the work others won't. Gotta love christianity – not!

      December 3, 2013 at 7:23 pm |
  2. Libbo

    Even she really felt that she "deserved" that ticket then she should have insisted on paying it. This article is a joke.

    December 1, 2013 at 1:07 pm |
  3. Stacey

    I have lived this with my father. What a beautifully-written and accurate article.

    December 1, 2013 at 1:06 pm |
  4. Puckles

    What a ridiculous article. This writer is incredibly full of herself.

    December 1, 2013 at 1:05 pm |
  5. Mike

    Miss Egan:
    Thank you for your informative piece. Having been the sole caregiver for my wife of forty four years for several years now, I can testify to the physical, emotional and spiritual drain that is care-giving. While I appreciate the prayers, I really appreciate the help. Thanks again for the recognition and I hope readers take your opinion to heart.

    December 1, 2013 at 12:56 pm |
  6. Lionly Lamb

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ce4u3F4PQk&w=640&h=360]

    December 1, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
  7. ME II

    A good article. Thanks.

    Although, I can't understand the inclusion of the video. The video claims belief in angels; the article doesn't even touch on the existence of real angels, just people called angels.

    December 1, 2013 at 12:49 pm |
  8. Maddy

    Glad you were amused.

    December 1, 2013 at 12:32 pm |
  9. A daughter

    I want to save this article in my favorite tab so I can read it whenever I need to. I recently lost my dad and I went through all those things that the author said. On his last day (I did not know it was his last day), I was on my way to his Chinese men's club to ask some of his friends to visit him in the hospital when I was called suddenly to the hospital. I now know it would not have made a difference because none of the club members showed up for his funeral. I did spend the last few months caring for him, and whenever I felt tired, I think how much more difficult it was for him going through it. He was the hero. I am at peace though because I know I did almost everything I could for him.

    December 1, 2013 at 12:31 pm |
  10. Figure it out, people

    Articles like this crack me up.

    "Oh, everyone says that I'm an angel and the bestest thing ever...but really I'm not an angel. I have everything super hard and I work 10 times harder than you ever could. That's because I do Gods work and help everyone out regardless of my own suffering. Just needed to point that out so you could understand my plight and see the extent of my incredible martyrdom. So see? I'm not an angel because I'm a human on earth that has to deal with things. But I AM still the bestest thing ever!"

    December 1, 2013 at 12:29 pm |
    • ME II

      Did you read the same article?
      The one I read had the author saying that he didn't have it hard, or not nearly as hard as others did. She was specifically claiming that she was not an angel and further more even those who were more deserving of the ti.tle still were only human.

      December 1, 2013 at 12:46 pm |
    • The Flamingo Kid

      This woman who wrote the article came across as extremely self-righteous indeed.

      December 1, 2013 at 1:02 pm |
    • Oh my B

      @Figure it out, people
      What the heck is wrong with you?

      December 1, 2013 at 1:12 pm |
      • Tron

        There is nothing wrong with this person. He/She is telling it how it is – unlike the rest of the sheep reading this article.

        December 1, 2013 at 1:19 pm |
    • steve

      Difficult to imagine the insecurity you must have to be so offended by such an honest, accurate and compassionate article. Good luck when it's your turn.

      December 1, 2013 at 1:21 pm |
  11. Lionly Lamb

    Who among us can in all honesty truly believe death is the end all to Life..? Where is your proof for such a stance..? No one knows with sureness that death's door is the ending or a means toward a new Life beginning... All anyone can do is remain ever hopeful for there being Life after one dies... My dreams for another Life after I am deceased gives me hope... God or not, Life is...

    When I die, I hope to die alone with no gawkers by my side...

    December 1, 2013 at 12:17 pm |
    • boredofceleb

      I am assuming you are not referring to loved ones as "gawkers".

      December 1, 2013 at 7:40 pm |
  12. Jacob

    "To be the caregiver to someone who is dying is probably the most difficult work in the world."

    i think this line is awful and the author does not deserve her position, taking care of someone who is dying is probably the most easy, natural job one could have. all they must do is love and the "labor" becomes null. this is a BS article

    December 1, 2013 at 12:17 pm |
    • Maddy

      You have to be absolutely amoral not to have been moved by this article, and worse, to think it's BS.
      You have obviously never been in such a position.
      I pity you for your lack of empathy.

      December 1, 2013 at 12:27 pm |
    • truthprevails1

      I disagree! Watching someone die is never pleasant regardless of who you are or what your purpose in the persons life is.

      December 1, 2013 at 12:28 pm |
      • Libbo

        Serial Killers and Psycopaths love it. Actually, most people in the U.S love to watch people die this is the reason for all the death-filled movies and video games.

        December 1, 2013 at 1:08 pm |
    • The Flamingo Kid

      You hit the nail on the head. This woman is so self-righteous it is unreal.

      December 1, 2013 at 1:03 pm |
  13. Tim Shinn

    Kerry – You're a hero because you are there to show these caregivers what to do. While that helps the sick and the dying, it also helps the living. Those burdened with caring for their loved ones need someone to show them the way, to help them be strong and accept their pain and grief. Devoting ones life to such a noble cause illustrates a rare and significant contribution to humanity. God be with you.

    December 1, 2013 at 12:17 pm |
  14. Olga

    I am a caregiver to my mother and I am glad I read this article. To see that some people do get what is like, and no to be so guilty of those weak moments. I do feel abandoned by my siblings, relatives and friends. financially I was not prepare to stop working way before I could receive a retirement income so we struggle. I sometimes feel like a prisoner because I could not even attend my son's law school graduation and then I feel guilty because at least I can walk and my mother can't, she is a prisoner of her bed. But I am not a hero, I am a human and our humanity makes is do what we think is impossible with the help of other humans like yourself, who fill in the blanks left by families and friends.

    December 1, 2013 at 12:13 pm |
    • DN3

      I still think that people who do such work for their loved ones are heroes. You could have looked the other way like your other family but you did not. In my humble opinion, the guilt should not be with you. It should be with others who don't do more to help.

      December 1, 2013 at 12:55 pm |
    • Laurie J

      I agree with DN3. You have nothing to feeling guilty about but those who have left you feeling abandoned should feel guilty. Your acts are totally selfless. You're caring for the person who gave you life and in the end, you will have no regrets because you did all you could, and did it out of love. Sending positive thoughts your way.

      December 1, 2013 at 3:15 pm |
  15. Reality # 2

    Leave out the references to heaven, angels and god and it is a good article.

    December 1, 2013 at 11:46 am |
    • Al

      It's the "belief" blog. Which means that references to things that haven't been proven by science are probably going to be used.

      December 1, 2013 at 11:59 am |
      • Reality # 2

        Which means that this blog is no longer relevant to the human condition. Evolution rules !!

        December 1, 2013 at 12:26 pm |
    • glauber

      I'm an atheist and even so, your comment doesn't make any sense in the context of this woman's piece.

      December 1, 2013 at 12:25 pm |
      • Reality # 2

        When one invokes god, heaven and angels in her commentary, her premise becomes worthless.

        December 1, 2013 at 12:30 pm |
        • lulany

          That's your opinion. And a pretty narrow minded one at that. The better question is, if you are so secure in your beliefs (or lack of) why feel the need to come to a "Belief" blog to put it down. And by the way, belief and understanding of science and evolution and having faith in a higher power aren't mutually exclusive things. There are many religions and belief systems out there. You might want to educate yourself on the matter.

          December 1, 2013 at 12:38 pm |
        • Reality # 2

          Putting the kibosh on all religion in less than ten seconds: Priceless !!!

          • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Abraham i.e. the foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are non-existent.

          • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Moses i.e the pillars of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have no strength of purpose.

          • There was no Gabriel i.e. Islam fails as a religion. Christianity partially fails.

          • There was no Easter i.e. Christianity completely fails as a religion.

          • There was no Moroni i.e. Mormonism is nothing more than a business cult.

          • Sacred/revered cows, monkey gods, castes, reincarnations and therefore Hinduism fails as a religion.

          • Fat Buddhas here, skinny Buddhas there, reincarnated/reborn Buddhas everywhere makes for a no on Buddhism.

          • A constant cycle of reincarnation until enlightenment is reached and belief that various beings (angels?, tinkerbells? etc) exist that we, as mortals, cannot comprehend makes for a no on Sikhism.

          Added details available upon written request.

          A quick search will put the kibosh on any other groups calling themselves a religion.

          e.g. Taoism

          "The origins of Taoism are unclear. Traditionally, Lao-tzu who lived in the sixth century is regarded as its founder. Its early philosophic foundations and its later beliefs and rituals are two completely different ways of life. Today (1982) Taoism claims 31,286,000 followers.

          Legend says that Lao-tzu was immaculately conceived by a shooting star; carried in his mother's womb for eighty-two years; and born a full grown wise old man. "

          December 1, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
    • lulany

      You are on the "Belief" blog. If the mention of God or Angels bothers you you might want to stick to articles in other areas of this site.

      December 1, 2013 at 12:29 pm |
  16. Apple Bush

    "She doesn't need your prayers. She needs you to come visit her!"

    There it is.

    December 1, 2013 at 11:42 am |
    • Maddy

      Yes. Precisely.

      December 1, 2013 at 1:17 pm |
  17. boredofceleb

    "That's a cop-out! They pray because it's easy!" he shouted as tears slid down his cheeks and his body shook with grief and anger and abandonment. "She doesn't need your prayers. She needs you to come visit her!"
    I am afraid that is all too true. People make trite comments about "praying for someone, or their thoughts are with them" when in reality our presence and help are what they really need and want. Let's remember that and try to reach out more rather than just do lip service.

    December 1, 2013 at 11:09 am |
    • DeAnnR

      Dear Bored of Celeb

      The copout line is so true, but I did not know that until I became a caregiver. Now I do not offer prayer, I ask what can I do to ease your burden. Sometimes its as simple as sitting with their family member so they can take a leisurely bath or a walk, go to their kids school, spend some unhurried time with their mate, or go to church and pray for strength them selves.

      December 1, 2013 at 11:46 am |
  18. CitizenJP

    I like how this article emphasizes on "walk the walk" than "talk the talk". In the holy Bhagavad Gita, the Lord says, one who sees Me in every being and every thing, and sees all beings and things in Me, I am never lost to him nor is he ever lost to Me.

    December 1, 2013 at 10:17 am |
    • random er dr

      Thank the creator someone still reads good books!

      December 1, 2013 at 10:42 am |
  19. WhoRay

    This article sums up nobility of character. The power of love is seen in its proper light when sacrifice is required. There is a world of difference between lust and love. Lust is driven by insatiable greed, love is driven by respect, honor and courage. I think it is wonderful and inspiring when we honor a military hero with the medal of honor and it is most distressing that we do not honor or exalt those who show the same heroism at home or in the home. Thank you Kerry for being the angel you are.

    December 1, 2013 at 10:13 am |
  20. JW

    Is death the end of everything?

    The Bible often compares death to sleep. (Psalm 13:3; John 11:11-14; Acts 7:60) A person who is fast asleep is unaware of what is happening around him. Likewise, the dead are not conscious of anything. Yet, the Bible teaches that God can awaken the dead as if from sleep and give them life again. (Job 14:13-15) For those whom God resurrects, death is not the end of everything.

    December 1, 2013 at 10:04 am |
    • truthprevails1

      No-one has ever been resurrected!

      December 1, 2013 at 10:21 am |
      • Bob

        Since you cannot prove that would you please save your anti-religious hate for another place.

        December 1, 2013 at 10:32 am |
        • cptdondo

          So have you ever seen anyone wake from the dead? Not just read a story, but actually seen it?

          You can't prove a negative, but I can point to millions and millions of people, none of whom have ever seen a resurrection. Ever. In fact, AFAIK, no one alive today has seen a recurrection.

          So prove to me that resurrection is real. Show me.

          December 1, 2013 at 10:43 am |
        • edward

          Well, the claim is God resurrects people. I'm guessing that its this claim that needs proof. We see daily that people are not resurrected by God, especially not three days later.

          December 1, 2013 at 10:48 am |
        • JW

          The bible gives 9 accounts of resurrections. Many people witnessed it... But of course you would need some faith as well.
          Just as to believe in a Big Bang, and the ape man...

          December 1, 2013 at 10:51 am |
        • Bill

          Since you cannot prove there is a God, perhaps you should stop the pro-religious babbling as well.

          December 1, 2013 at 10:55 am |
        • truthprevails1

          There is no scientific evidence for a resurrection....people die and do not come back to life after 3 days. Are you able to provide evidence otherwise (without using the bible or something that points back to it)?
          This is a belief blog, anyone is free to post here....so thank you for your advice but it won't be taken.

          December 1, 2013 at 10:57 am |
        • JW

          Bill n truth- we haven't seen resurrections today, but the fact that billions of people call themselves Christians, is more then enough proof to believe that Jesus resurrected to heavens, and therefore, the resurrections of the bible like Lazarus really happens!
          Billions of people believing in God and Jesus cannot be just a random thing... If there were probably hundreds I would probably dought as well!

          December 1, 2013 at 11:11 am |
        • Cee

          That comment may be anti-religious, but it's hardly hate. The religious and faithful need to grow a thicker skin, especially since prayer has also never been shown to be even a little beneficial except to relieve the guilt of the praying person. Everywhere I turn I have religion shoved in my face and this is the reaction to someone mentioning there is no proof anyone has ever been resurrected. Hatred is calling the religious disgusting, judgmental hypocrites who contribute the most to the suffering of humankind, whose falsehoods and lies should be wiped clean from all societies, and who keep company with the corrupt, the pedophiles and the delusional.

          December 1, 2013 at 11:34 am |
        • truthprevails1

          JW: That is total hogwash!!! The total christians in the world equals approximately 2.8 billion, leaving an approximately 5 billion more who don't believe in the god of the bible. The fact that so many believe does not make the story true, it merely means that those believing the story seriously don't care if there is evidence to support it, they merely accept it on faith (belief without evidence).

          December 1, 2013 at 11:38 am |
        • JW

          Truth- there is no %100 evidence for whatever you believe as well. It's very delicate to tell exactly what happened in the past. If you are an evolutionist I consider you have your faith... As I have my faith!

          December 1, 2013 at 12:34 pm |
        • A Frayed Knot

          JW,
          "Billions of people believing in God and Jesus cannot be just a random thing... If there were probably hundreds I would probably dought as well!"

          Maybe you would care to research how many BILLIONS have believed wholeheartedly in the Hindu gods and their fantasy scenarios over the nearly 7,000 years that those stories have been circulating?!

          December 1, 2013 at 12:42 pm |
        • tallulah13

          If someone could actually cite evidence of resurrection, it would certainly go a long way toward proving your argument. Hearsay from the bible doesn't count because there is no way to substantiate those claims or even the existence of the claimed witnesses. And near-death experiences don't count unless you think doctors are god.

          And JW? Evolution is supported by the fossil record, by the genetic record and can be observed in a lab. There is an overwhelming amount of proof for evolution. The "evidence" for your god consists of special feelings and a really old book. Your denial of evolution sounds like nothing more than a child plugging his ears and shutting his eyes and chanting "LA LA LA" at the top of his lungs.

          December 1, 2013 at 1:12 pm |
      • Muslim

        No one has ever been resurrected yet. According to Islam, the universe will come to an end one day, and every human being from Adam and Eve to the last person who dies when the universe ends will be resurrected on the Judgement Day.

        December 1, 2013 at 11:38 am |
        • truthprevails1

          Good thing the Adam and Eve story is wrong, unless of course you accept that incest is right!

          December 1, 2013 at 11:39 am |
        • JW

          Muslim- do you believe in the prophets, like Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah, etc?

          December 1, 2013 at 12:35 pm |
    • doobzz

      Cool story, bro.

      December 1, 2013 at 10:31 am |
    • Paul

      These beliefs devalue life here on earth. They are not just innocent fairy tales but do true harm.

      December 1, 2013 at 10:43 am |
      • Self-Proclaimed Sane Muslim

        Couldnt agree more. In fact the point of the article is exactly this – do something practical to help out the family of the dying in some practical way. I spent a couple of weeks with my dying father and can relate totally to what the article says. Promising to pray (i.e. put in a word of recommendation on behalf of the dying to an MIA Lord) is a cop-out.

        December 1, 2013 at 11:33 am |
        • lulany

          I couldn't disagree more. I don't need to share in other people's religion or spiritual beliefs to respect them and see how in so many cases it brings them so much strength and peace in times of despair. When someone is dying what could it possibly bring them to try and give them your version of a reality check and take away their hope and means for peace and acceptance. Even if you were to be right and there is nothing on the other side then they will simply never find out so why take away from what's left of their life by making them more anxious and fearful.

          December 1, 2013 at 12:58 pm |
        • Self-Proclaimed Sane Muslim

          lullany: I think the healing powers of belief are highly over-rated. While I have seen no studies done on this, from what I have seen, dying people are more focussed on the kinds of things noted in the article (pain alleviation, cleanliness particularly in light of the huge issue toilet-time becomes) than on whether an afterlife or mere end of consciousness that awaits them. And even for family members, I think religious people are saddened (sometimes to the extent of going into depression) as much as avowed atheist. What bring peace is community support of the kind discussed in this article more than any priestly service and once again the social benefits of religion I think are highly over-rated. Thanks for taking the time to respond to what I wrote, and with best wishes.

          December 1, 2013 at 3:31 pm |
    • boredofceleb

      JW–this article is not about what happens AFTER death, but rather how we as humans need to respond in compassion, love and SERVICE to those who are in the process of dying. A very difficult task apparently for most people.

      December 1, 2013 at 11:12 am |
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About this blog

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.