It’s 9:50 a.m. I just arrived at the residence. As I step out of the elevator, I am informed that one of our patients passed away 40 minutes earlier in Room 1. The niece is in there with the body. I should pay a visit.
I quickly gulp a cup of iced water, put down my bag and head in, equipped with my book of Psalms in my right hand. “Which is the correct one to read? Number 23, 121, 91?”
I enter and start talking with the niece. I offer prayer, but she hesitates. The body is five feet away from us; the odor of death is slowly filling the room. I am not sure what to do.
“Would you like to lead the prayer for your aunt?” She lights up, nodding, quickly positioning herself on the left of her aunt with me on the right. Her aunt is in-between us now — still, straight, eyes opened, staring up blankly at the ceiling.
Her niece, with closed eyes, prays for two minutes about peace, resurrection, reunion, strength and protection. “Are you a minister?” I ask. Her prayers are so well-articulated, almost rehearsed.
“No, I am a Jehovah’s Witness” she says. “We don’t believe in the immortality of the soul. Our prayers are for the dead to return, for my Auntie to come back to our world, to Paradise.”
We forged a connection. A half-hour later, she flags me down in the hallway: “Rabbi, take this. It’s a Jehovah’s Witness guide to death and the afterlife.”
I compose myself, head to the office area, and begin to recline in my swivel chair. Instantly, an aide pops in: “Rabbi, Room 9 is asking for a priest.”
We both look at each other for a moment, humorously acknowledging the obvious — my yarmulke and beard blowing my cover — but she persists, nonetheless.
“Well, the patient’s brother wants to pray with a chaplain. In the absence of the Father, he asked for you.” Before I know it, I am standing at the bedside of a patient with late stage Glioblastoma, an aggressive brain tumor, clasping, in a triangular formation, his hand and that of his brother.
The shades are drawn. The room is stuffy and dingy. I am reading about the “valley overshadowed by death” (Psalms 23, 4), praying with them for comfort and peace in these tough times.
In the thick of my prayer, the brother turns to me and asks: “Could you grant him absolution, you know, forgiveness?”
Pause. I gently lean into the patient as he locks in on me: “Are you sorry for anything? What would you like to confess?” Fatigued and a bit disoriented, his body guarded, but his deep, brown eyes now begging for help: “There’s too much, Rabbi, too much.”
“What is too much?” No answer. “You hold a lot of regret.” Nod, now looking sadder. Some more silence. I pray for forgiveness and bless the brother and patient. Our hands are now gripped even tighter.
Is he absolved? I am not sure.
Patient number three. A non-responsive Muslim man who suffers from schizophrenia and brain cancer. For 25 minutes, I sit silently next to him in his bare room as he lies partially propped up and facing me, breathing heavily in and out of his mouth, seemingly speaking to me through his eyes without moving or mouthing a word.
I pray, witness him, offering warmth, touch and pastoral presence. On my way out, his social worker glances toward my direction.
“You know what’s going on over there?” “No.” “He has four wives. Which one is his legal guardian? No one knows. One wants access to his bank account, another wants to take him for a stroll outside in park. Who knows if she’ll bring him back. … And I have to sort this all out!”
A Jehovah’s Witness’ prayer for paradise, absolution, four wives. Death has a way, sadly, of bringing together people from different walks of life. This has been my experience this summer as a chaplain intern in the hospice unit. Fear, anger, and pain on one hand; unity, connection and barrier-breaking on the other.
A patient of mine passed away this past Saturday. After my chat with the social worker about the third patient and his wives, I locate her daughter’s number and make a call.
“Hello, I just wanted to offer my condolences. I am so sorry for your loss.”
We have entered into a relationship over the past few weeks as her whole family camped out at the bedside of their matriarch — up until her final breath. “Rabbi, thank you so much. Please come to the memorial service next week. The Father will be leading it. Maybe you can recite a blessing?”
I proceed to my final patient: a 102-year-old Episcopalian woman who was admitted to the hospice unit after enduring a massive stroke.
“How is your day going?”
I see her shoulders shift back and her head slouch down as she sits on her bed. I am seated only a few inches away and can smell her parched breath as she dispiritedly responds. “I am ready to die. It’s just too hard. It’s going on too long.”
We pray together. She opens her heart to me. We sing and listen to music. Her granddaughter walks in as we are singing. Then, turning to her granddaughter, she says, “This is the rabbi. I want him to be at my funeral. Will you come to my funeral?”
As I leave the residence, I am filled with questions. What role can I play as an Orthodox rabbi at the memorial service, at the non-Jewish funeral? From my experience, Jews don’t do absolution. We repent sincerely and directly petition God for forgiveness.
One thing is clear, though: this was a day of connection.
Walking all summer long through the valley overshadowed by death, and sometimes straight into death’s grip, has taken its emotional toll. Some days I can’t move, paralyzed by pain, sadness, and fear. But today, I am reminded of what I have found, over and over, in this valley. Life. Love. And connection. Why do we have to lose so much in order to ultimately find each other?
“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” (Psalms 23, 1) God, please shepherd us. Help us love each other. We need one another. “And I will dwell in the house of the Lord for the length of days.” (Psalms 23, 6) Without blurring our differences, convictions, or religious limitations, with all of our fears and questions in tact — let us learn how to dwell together in Your presence.
As we walk through the valley, we fear no evil.
Because You are with us.
Rabbi Eli Yoggev teaches Beth Tfiloh’s Judaism for Beginner’s course Monday nights through Feb. 11. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rabbi Eli Yoggev joins us at facebook.com/jmoreliving on Dec. 21 at 12:30 p.m. to discuss his Judaism for Beginners class. Tune in to ask him whatever’s on your mind.