When Prayer is Not Enough by Rabbi Janet Madden
Dying as Part of Life
In How We Die, surgeon and author Sherwin Nuland wrote: “We die so that the world may continue to live. We have been given the miracle of life because trillions upon trillions of living things have prepared the way for us and then have died—in a sense for us. We die, in turn, so that others may live. The tragedy of a single individual becomes, in the balance of natural things, the triumph of ongoing life.”
One of Nuland’s aims was to disabuse his readers of the notion of death with dignity; he wanted to point out that in fact death is messily undignified. But as a rabbi who has worked as a hospice chaplain and who is currently working as a hospital chaplain, I find these words and thoughts beautiful, even inspirational. Although I am a well-schooled layperson in terms of the dying process and its toll on the body, the blessing of my work is that I am not confined to care only for the body.
I have attended three deaths in the past three days, and I’ve been pondering Nuland’s words as I encounter the mysterious and mystically liminal moments of life’s sacred portals: birth and death. I know and accept the facts: everything that lives, has ever lived and will ever live will die. This reality unfurls like a news crawl in the back of my brain while I am offering prayers and blessings for newborns and their parents; these words come always to the forefront of my mind as I attend a death.
The Personal Impact
But for a woman who is sobbing petitionary prayers in a hallway outside an ICU room as a rapid response team attempts to revive her husband or for a man who seems to physically shrink day by day as he sits at the bedside of his wife, clinging to hope that a test result that will lead to a miraculous reversal of her decline, the truth that life ends holds no beauty and is not assuaged by a sense of the universal.
The learning curve for those who put their faith in the human body (“He’s always been a fighter,” “She’s so incredibly strong”) or medical knowledge (“There must be something else you can do—another test—something?”) is excruciatingly steep. Even for those who accept that life is ending and for those who find comfort in prayer and ritual, there is profound shock in coming to the moment when the veils between the worlds thin and the irrevocable divide between life and death manifests.
In addition to the death itself, there are the after-shocks. Before the bereaved become mourners, in the first moments and hours when they are confronting the painful reality of loss, they are plunged into the business of death. The newly-bereaved must sign a release form for the body, observe a time limit that dictates how long they can stay with the body in the hospital room, make decisions about the disposition of the body, notify family and friends and answer questions about when and how death occurred and begin to make plans what comes next both for the deceased and for themselves. If the newly-bereaved are particularly unfortunate, they must also deal with learning that someone has posted the news of the death on facebook within minutes of being informed of the death, thus making public what has not yet had a chance to be communicated within the family.
Prayer is not enough
In these moments, prayer–no matter how beautiful, how sublimely profound, how potentially comforting–is not enough. Those of us who midwife the souls of the dying must transition to the things of olam ha zeh–this world. We must tend to the psycho-spiritual-emotional and physical needs of the living. It is not good enough to finish a Viddui, the final confession, and express our condolences. It is not good enough to ask the newly-bereaved “What can I do for you?” or “What do you need?” Shock and grief are paralytics. This is another liminality– the “sinking-in” time, the moments when families begin to grasp how this death has forever changed their lives. The time just after a death parallels the midrashic moment at the Sea of Reeds when G-d tells Moshe that there is a time for prayer and a time for action. The liminality of this time demands that clergy must wade into the swirling murkiness of shock and grief and position ourselves as comforters and guides, sometimes reassuring families that yes, their family member really is dead, sometimes simply standing by to bear witness to the tears, anger, endearments and reassurances that emerge.
The Role of Chaplain
Clergy cannot shelter behind prayerful words. What we can best offer is our calm and consistent presence, both spiritual and physical. Unless families request that we leave, we should stay with them until they and we discern that it is time for us to leave. Whether we are educating the family about the after-death care of their family member or listening to stories about the deceased or calling the mortuary on the family’s behalf or fetching tea or a blanket or waiting with the family until the mortuary transportation arrives or making sure that their parking is validated, what the newly-bereaved most need is to be cared for, to be reassured that for those of us who routinely deal with death and dying, the death of their family member is not commonplace. No matter the specific configurations and complications of their relationships, death changes things. Whether families self-identify as observant, religious, spiritual but not religious, or non-believers, they want and need to see the death of their family members as something more than a biological inevitability.
I have the same need. For me, attending deaths and tending to the needs of families offer uniquely sacred opportunities to connect with other humans, to witness the rawness that is unleashed from broken hearts, to come tantalizingly close to being as fully human as I am able to be, to be in awe again and again.
Rabbi Janet Madden PhD was ordained by The Academy for Jewish Religion-California. She serves as the rabbi of Temple Havurat Emet and Providence Saint John’s Health Center and has been a student of the Gamliel Institute.
KAVOD v’NICHUM CONFERENCE
Registration for the 15th North American Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference, June 18-20, in San Rafael, California, is still open.
Our conference will have intensive workshops on Introduction to Taharah, Infection Control, Communicating about difficult Taharot, Modifying Taharah, Taharah Stories as well as exploring traditional Taharah liturgy, Navigating Taharah Liturgy – A Play, and Taharah liturgy in Maavar Yabbok.
We’ll have an exciting series of workshops on Jewish cemetery issues, including Green Cemeteries, Cremation, Perpetual Care Fund Investments, Record Keeping and Acquiring New Cemetery Property.
What’s different this year is an evolving theme – expanding the work of the Chevrah Kadisha and the Jewish Cemetery by encouraging conversation about end of life plans with the Conversation Project; end of life decision-making with Dr. Jessica Zitter, and communicating about how we die with Dr. Dawn Gross.
There’s much more – see our preliminary conference program.
Consider a Sunday morning pre-conference field trip to Gan Yarok – an environmentally conscious Jewish Green Cemetery.
Sunday afternoon from 2-5, Sam Salkin, Executive Director of Sinai Memorial Chapel, will facilitate an intensive session on starting & managing a community funeral home. Let us know if you are interested in this session. Attendance is by advance reservation only.
Tuesday afternoon after the conference Sinai Memorial Chapel will facilitate a tour of Gan Shalom Cemetery, a Jewish cemetery with an interfaith section. Again, let us know if you are interested – Attendance by advance reservation only.
And there is an extension to the conference! Gamliel Institute students, and others by approval, can remain for an additional day to participate in the Gamliel Institute Day of Learning. We will have three extraordinary teachers presenting on a variety of texts and concepts that are of interest. This is a fantastic opportunity to study with some of the very best instructors in a small group setting during a twenty-four hour period. Students, contact us to RSVP; if you are not a Gamliel student, contact us to seek approval of the Dean to attend.
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TASTE OF GAMLIEL
In 2017, Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute are again sponsoring a six-part “Taste of Gamliel” webinar series. This year’s topic is From Here to Eternity: Jewish Views on Sickness and Dying.
Each 90 minute session is presented by a different scholar.
The June 25th session is being taught by Dr. Laurie Zoloth, well known author, teacher, and scholar.
Taste of Gamliel Webinars for this year are scheduled on January 22, February 19, March 19, April 23, May 21, and June 25. The instructors this year are: Dr. Dan Fendel, Rabbi Dayle Friedman, Rabbi Sara Paasche-Orlow, Rabbi Richard Address, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, and Dr. Laurie Zoloth.
This series of Webinar sessions is free, with a suggested minimum donation of $36 for all six sessions. These online sessions begin at 5 PM PDST (GMT-7); 8 PM EDST (GMT-4).
Those registered will be sent the information on how to connect to the sessions, and will also receive information on how to access the recordings of all six sessions.
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GAMLIEL INSTITUTE COURSES
LOOKING FORWARD: UPCOMING COURSE
Gamliel Institute will be offering course 2, Chevrah Kadisha: Taharah & Shmirah, online, afternoons/evenings, in the Fall semester starting September 5th, 2017.
The course will meet on twelve Tuesdays (the day will be adjusted in those weeks with Jewish holidays during this course). There will be an orientation session on Monday, September 4th, 2017. Register or contact us for more information.
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SUBMISSIONS ALWAYS WELCOME
If you have an idea for an entry you would like to submit to this blog, please be in touch. Email J.email@example.com. We are always interested in original materials that would be of interest to our readers, relating to the broad topics surrounding the continuum of Jewish preparation, planning, rituals, rites, customs, practices, activities, and celebrations approaching the end of life, at the time of death, during the funeral, in the grief and mourning process, and in comforting those dying and those mourning, as well as the actions and work of those who address those needs, including those serving in Bikkur Cholim, Caring Committees, the Chevrah Kadisha, as Shomrim, funeral providers, in funeral homes and mortuaries, and operators and maintainers of cemeteries.