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.
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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.
I skimmed over this article as I do many of them trying to get the highlights then moving on. But then I started reading some of the comments and had to go back and read this story closer to find out why all the rage towards religion as this story does not bring it up other than mentioning missionary work. This story is about caregivers for those who are not able to care for themselves due to their illness and debilitating illnesses. Shame on you all who use this story to bash others and or religions, I have taken care of my mother the best I could for three years in the best possible ways that I could and came out of the entire a changed person. Have to feel sorry for you people who use the comments for their own personnel anger towards all of humanity working to improve someones living conditions at the end of their lives.
I applaud what you do but not what the cop did. Favoritism is not a good trait for someone in law enforcement.
You're a sad specimen. ALL police officers have the power to use discretion when necessary. That's their whole job–using discretion and applying common sense to every individual situation. You'll be glad they use discretion when they let you off with a warning sometime–then maybe you'll take that stick out of your a.s.s.
Haha, you're a funny guy!
Here's funny for ya... My wife was pulled over for doing 45 in a 25. When the cop saw her hospital badge, he let her off with a warning. He said he never pulls anyone over in that 25 mph zone unless they're going more than 40 and he NEVER tickets anyone from the hospital.
As for me, I was doing 62 in a 55 on my 21st birthday and got pulled over. Think that cop gave me a break?? NO WAY. I didn't have the right genitalia nor was I a member of his privileged group.
This is not the only instance of favoritism I have witnessed and because of this, I have very little respect for law enforcement. Grow a brain and see what is actually going on in the world.
I've always admired and been an awe of those who care for the sick and dying... because I fail so miserably at it, because I'm paralyzed by pain and despair, because I'm so damn useless around the sick and dying. This year my mother was diagnosed with dementia. In my agony and fear of what I know is coming, I beg God to take her before she looks at me and doesn't know who I am, before she can't recognize her own face in a mirror.... Thank you for the angels who walk among us..... but please don't let her suffer...
I'm not a person who typically puts out a post after reading an article but in this case I was truly inspired to do so. I will ignore all the nay-sayers and other's who felt it necessary to diminish the value of this article with their negativity and just plain stupidity.
I am a 51 year old man who takes care of his elderly parents. While they are not immobile they may as well be. I have cleaned them after they defecate on themselves, washed their floors, fed them, etc. While I do have help from aides I am left with all the other tasks that you can't always hire someone to do. My wife doesn't "get it". Doesn't understand why I have to do it all (I'm an only child). Their my parents and it's the RIGHT THING TO DO!!! that's why.
When I sat down to read this article I didn't know what to expect. I then found myself in tears when I saw myself in her words. Amazing article. And BTW before any of you "intelligent" people post about a grown man crying you should know that I ride a Harley, work with my hands, shave my head and am in better shape than most 25 year olds out there. So let's not get on the "he's not a real man because he cries" bandwagon!
AG–good for you. A couple of questions for you.
I don't know if you're a believer or not, but let's just say there was no God–would this stop you from being caring and compassionate, and taking care of them?
Also, do you do this with an expectation of a reward of Heaven when you die, or that if you don't you will be punished by God? Or do these thoughts not even enter into it?
Whether I am a believer or not is irrelevant (I am but in my own way). I do it because they are my parents. Not due to obligation but love, compassion and being good to another human being. Heaven? There may or not be one. Who am we to say.
This is really about doing what's right. What is difficult but is done nonetheless. It's not about religion, self-righteousness or wanting praise. At least in my opinion.
AG, I asked because all too many believers are constantly making the claim that we could not be moral without God, and he is necessary for morality to be objective, and that without God everyone would go around raping and murdering, and that people would not do anything good.
I think it's all nonsense, and every time people do self-sacrificing actions, thinking of rewards in Heaven is the furthest thing from their mind. They are NOT motivated by the threat of punishment in Hell, or the enticement of rewards in Heaven. I find that they usually do not think about whether a god is watching over their shoulder. People are motivated by humanistic considerations. This is part of what makes us human, and we do it because the people we help are fellow human beings, and we know innately that it is the right thing to do. Otherwise, we would never have made it this far as a species. Thanks for replying.
You are a REAL man. Real men can cry AND ride a Harley (although Honda is better). REAL men take care of their parents and understand why. I applaud and salute you. You are a hero and a REAL man, and you can cry all you want.
Thanks. Never thought I needed support. You know, the tough guy thing. But I'll tell you it's great to know other people understand.
When I was a relgious fanatic, I believed all priests were good guys. Since converting to buddhatheism, I have seen the light. My swammies of cool teach us that all catholics are child abusers and all priests are worse
Buddaatheism is for confused idiots. Your "swammies" are judgmental morons and your "faith" is a joke.
put 'em on an ice flow.
Kerry, your article moved and inspired me. I stopped making excuses and signed up for a volunteer group that works with shut-ins of my community. A small step. Thank you for your graceful and well-crafted words.
" I've sat with them when they come out of the bedroom, after having cleaned the diarrhea off their fathers' or wives' backs."
–Earthly angels!!! A shout out to all the angels!
its amazing to see the bitter people on this board take out their own self-loathing on this kind lady. articles like this are kind of like a mirror, and when readers don't like what they see of themselves, they project it on the author.
just looked through the posts. the vast majority are positive. a couple have been mean, but not many. and honest criticisms aren't mean. for instance, i very much agree with her about how hard care-giving is, but not so much with her assertions about God in the article. should i not be able to disagree with her? sounds like you are just looking for something to complain about as 90% of the posts under this article have been complimentary.
If faith is a medium through which people are inspired or motivated to help others, then so be it. i'm not religious myself, but i'm surrounded by a lot of evangelizing "do as i say not as i do" Christians in my community, so in the midst of that negativity, its good to read about this lady.
i was mostly responding to posts that kept berating the author for coming across as putting herself on a pedestal when it was evident from the first few lines of the piece that that's not what she was doing at all.
What are you rambling about? Can you not think of one good thing to say about this very nice lady?
a touching story. my wife is a care-giver for an 85 year old woman that's had a series of strokes and a quadriplegic 28 year old man. it's some of the hardest work in the world.
"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"
do it for god? that's such disgusting cult-think. my wife and i are atheists. care for your fellow human beings because they are your brothers and sisters - not for a non-existent deity. you don't need god to be a good person.
it's too bad people don't have more faith in people.
I agree. I want the world to be a place where I can live in peace, and in order to make any such moral claim I must go first and give peace. And justice and truth and you get the idea. No religious faith in that, just good math. But it is a code of conduct, so yes it is moral. Blessings anyway, if I might use the term, on all of you. Maybe special ones for the caregivers.
it's about as "sacred" of work as you can get, agreed. but do it for the person you're helping, not because you think it'll please a deity. do it because it's the right thing to do.
fyi: it's ethical, not moral.
modern ethics > biblical morals
Look up ethical in several dictionaries, try to find an entry that doesn't relate ethics to morals. FYI: you're obnoxious.
Why bring up morals in a biblical sense anyways? Do you mean modern ethics is greater than all moral creed/code beforehand or are you just targeting the Abrahamic religions? Seems to me you have a bone to pick towards either Christianity or Judaism. Let it go, man!
Bootyfunk–what links people together for you to call us brothers and sisters? You are more than willing to assert there is no God but if there isn't a spiritual parent linking us, then we are not brothers and sisters. We are just members of the same species on this Petri dish of an Earth. We over reproduce/consume, live hedonistic lives, and make the same mistakes over and over again. For the human race to be better there has to be something to be inspired to. If some people make that a heavenly father then so be it, but please don't call all humans brothers and sisters unless you think there is a deeper link than just similar DNA. Don't use your supposed atheistic status to go on a rant against what you don't believe in anyways. You are just spreading more hate.
What a beautiful story to read. I was fortunate enough to be raised by wonderful and loving parents who showed me through their own actions how to care for others, regardless of the need. My Father's parents, my Grandparents, did the same. I grew up looking for ways I could help others. I have always been baffled to hear other people make comments like "Why are you doing so much, you don't even know them?" or "That isn't in your job description". And they were right, I didn't know them (on a truly personal or familial way) and it wasn't always part of my job. And sometimes, it was 100% against my job descriptions. It was against company policy to provide CPR to our 'residents' who lived in an Independent Living Facility. I never had to but would in a heartbeat provide life saving CPR.
Why, would I do that? Because I have seen people take care of my Grandparents and others in such a loving manner that it touched soul. Why wouldn't we take care of others in their time of need?
What a beautifully written post. Thank you for all that you do and hope that when needed, I too will step up and do what is needed, because as my Dad has taught me, because that is who I am.
I would prefer to have the option to not be such a burden on my loved ones at the end of my life.
Life is not known for giving us the options we prefer. My mother, when she was younger, saw her mother decline mentally and decided it would be better to decline physically instead. So in true ironic fashion, she got rheumatoid arthritis (physical decline) AND Alzheimer's (mental decline).
you're overlooking the point. obviously if you die immediately from head trauma in a care accident, you don't have to make a choice about life and death - you're just dead. the poster obviously means a situation where you do have a choice.
Then perhaps you misunderstand. Most people fade slowly, becoming less able and perhaps more dependent in increments too small to usually notice. Even if you accept the idea that a person can take end-of-life pills (death with dignity or whatever), it is impossible to stay robust and in your prime.
SkepticalOne said he did not want to to become a burden on his loved ones; I maintain that he does not have that choice, unless he plans to 'off ' himself when he is in perfect health. Further, I think he is utterly wrong in his assessment – if his concern is for them, the he should let them decide. He presumes the burden is a very heavy one, indeed – I see the toll it takes on my father (it is hard to help from 2000 miles away). He would prefer my mother not have either debilitating illness. But given the only real 'choice' – my mother as a burden and alive, versus my mother gone – he would keep her alive and a burden as long as possible. Not because of guilt or obligation or a sense of duty, but because of love.
Even as her mind and body slowly fade, my father still shares time with his wife. When it comes to the harder part, later, when she no longer remembers or can even eat by herself, he will still be there.
I maintain that it is selfish to wish as SkepticalOne wishes. If he wishes to end life because he does not want to suffer, that is his choice. But he should not do it for others, because he probably does not know what they want.
There is a sentence wrong in the middle of what I wrote – please omit the first two words of "he presumes the burden is ..." (they were a thought fragment that did not get written correctly).
As written, the sentence does not say what I intended.
"I maintain that he does not have that choice, unless he plans to 'off ' himself when he is in perfect health. "
+++ you're seeing everything in black and white and missing the huge gray area. you can't imagine someone not in 'perfect health'? someone dying of cancer that's in pain every hour of every day? there's many horribly debilitating diseases out there. the choices aren't dead or perfect health. some people die from old age, some from a bullet - but many languish in agony for a very long time.
"Further, I think he is utterly wrong in his assessment – if his concern is for them, the he should let them decide"
+++ no, family members shouldn't get to decide when you die unless you are incapable of making that decision yourself. that would be silly. it would be like monty python's "bring out yer dead" in the holy grail movie. you've never made a decision because of concern for others?
I have helped take care of physically and mentally ailing grandparents until death. I have a chronic illness that makes suicide very attractive. I and only I can decide when I've had enough. I cannot decide when other people have had enough. I know what it is to take care of someone else and I don't want anyone to ever have to do that for me. It wears people down. Life is for living, not for slowly dying and not for the dead. Until someone has cared for another with a chronic illness, their opinion is lighter in merit and I invite them to dive in and get some experience because we all go with Charon in the end.
I don't think caring for a loved one is a burden (not saying it couldn't be for some). When it's done out of love and done without a thought, it's not a burden. We may make sacrifices when we care for family members, but to me, that's what family does. You just do it, hoping it makes someone's last days or weeks better. And if they're not actually dying but still need the intensive care, it's just as rewarding. I have a feeling you've not been in a situation where you've had to care for someone you love, someone who's dying, but if that were to occur, I also think you would probably be right there to do it. Then you might feel differently about what it really means to be a burden to someone.
@ Tron and Fred...get a life, Learn some manners and please dont ruin a great story with your nonsensical rude remarks
How could they ruin this story? It was heartfelt, genuine, and full of compassion. It takes more than a few self-absorbed nits to ruin that.
Never could stand Coldplay.
All of us know that saying... "Don't judge until you've walked in their shoes". Caregiving is difficult. It's tiring, it's heartbreaking. I was a caregiver to my husband of thirty years, as he died of cancer. Does anyone remember wedding vows anymore ? In sickness and in health, to love and to honor until death do you part. I just can't phathom so many ridiculous assumptions from people who read this article. I gave my husband his meds, I brought him to appts, I fought the insurance company to get him what he needed just to be comfortable at home while dying, I wiped up excrement, And you know why...because I loved him. Simple as that. You caregive because you have love and compassion for the person dying. Everyone should have to go through being a caregiver. Maybe more people would grow up and be more compassionate individuals. I get so sick of this society and it's whiney childishness and self centered ways. My husband had me actually call people he wanted to see as he was dying at home. And every single one of them came for a visit. They laughed , they talked about old times. My husband apologized to some for things that if he may have done or said to hurt their feelings. So many of us do take the easy way out and avoid someone who is dying... Just remember that some day you'll be the one dying.
Naw ... you're an angel ... and I don't even believe in angels.
I know, because I've been that caregiver (for both my Mom and my Grandfather). I did it because they are my family and I love them and I'd do it again, no questions asked.
Was it painful, devastating work? Of course – but I got to spend more time with a loved one, even if it was a loved one who was dying, even if he or she was cranky, this was going to be my last chance to be with someone who I loved.
Why do YOU do it? You don't know this person... You're not getting paid for it.
What's YOUR excuse?
It's a tough transition for anyone who has to take care of someone at the end of their lives after seeing that person flourish in the past while in their prime. For most of us, we come into this world unable to walk and clean ourselves and leave the same way. As long as you're good in between those two phases, all will be well in the next life.
AMEN...You don't know until you've walked the miles in someone else's shoes.
You do not "take care" of anyone. You get PAID to stand by the side of someone who is dying that you have absolutely no emotional attachment to. Don't give yourself too much credit.
I think the author was saying essentially exactly that, although not in the same terms.
it's still a personal job. it's not sealing envelopes - it's watching another human being die. only the coldest of people wouldn't get emotionally involved. yes, you get a paycheck - but that doesn't mean you don't care about the person you've taken care of for years.
this was the sort of negativity i was responding to. albeit, thankfully, its not the overwhelming response from posters here.
The nurses at my daughter's NICU said the hardest part of the job was the goodbyes. Clearly, being paid – at least for most people – does not turn off their capacity to care.
The moral of the story is: Learn how to change your own tire. Don't rely on a men for everything.
And always let your sick loved ones die unattended?
Fred, honey, when you reach physical and/or mental infirmity, I guarantee no man will be there changing your "tires". Women will be there because typically we are the only ones with enough compassion to take care of others even when they stink and are nasty in other ways. If you have alienated your entire family and end up in a home, better watch your mouth as the women there may punish you if you are a pain to put up with. Have a nice life.
Lol. Well said.
No boots. There's a law. U can't complain or criticize. Sorry.
Agreed. So. So. So. Point being. R u seriously suggesting I'm thinking, so!
Please don't make such an ignorant comment. Any man who loves and sees that compassion is needed or wanted will definitely give it. Problem is men aren't told to love in this society and women are. It is expected in our society that men be stoic and hard while women should be emotional and soft.