By Rabbi Fred Grossman, Special to JTNews
That’s the question I’m always coming up against in my work as a hospice chaplain. It’s my job to help people get ready to die. But the trouble with this, as you can imagine, is that people don’t want to die. In fact, people don’t want to die so badly that they spend their lives not thinking about death. They do this even when loved ones die and a natural moment to think about death presents itself. They do this even as they age and the inevitable moment draws closer.
In the face of this level of denial and discomfort, what can I, as a chaplain, do to help?
My work is to strengthen the spiritual resources people already have. Many of us, for instance, are part of a faith tradition. Since I’ve come to Seattle, I’ve been told countless times that this is one of America’s most secular cities. In my work, it is certainly typical for people not to be involved with any religious group. But at the same time, very few people reject the idea of spirituality, which is, in its most basic terms, that there is something active in the universe besides purely physical forces. What’s more, many people have never really rejected their faith traditions, so much as they have lost interest in them. Or, they’ve had bad experiences with religion as it is practiced — going to services, accepting dogma, etc.
Whatever the case, the end of life is when faith and spirit are called on for their hardest work. Some people, often guided by faith, have elaborate beliefs, visions of paradise or the reuniting with long-lost loved ones. Others have much more amorphous beliefs about the spiritual powers of the universe and our coming communion with them. Still others — and this may include non-theists — focus on the impact we have had in the world, the people whose lives we have touched. Now, as death nears, is the time to think about these beliefs, to concretize them, to accentuate their positives, to be frank with ourselves about our fears and doubts.
Very often this is done through prayer. While many people think of prayer as something very formal and proscribed (and if you are Jewish, in another language), the praying I do with my patients is usually very different. After talking with patients and families, getting to know their life stories, the story of their illness, their hopes and fears, I take their hand and speak directly to the Higher Power. All that they have told me, I offer up to Him, and implore Him above all for knowing, knowing that He is with them, that he will be with them, and that whatever else may change, that fact won’t.
One of the hardest things we do in life is die. This is especially true for a life cut short, of wonderful things left undone. But I think it is true as well even for the very old, who look back on a life full of accomplishments, success, children and grandchildren. Even these people say goodbye to existence as they know it, to much that they love and that is beautiful. Yet everyone must walk down this road and everyone must do it, in the end, alone. In the words of the old spiritual, “No one can go there for you.”
But the message of hope I bring is that people do get there. It may be incredibly hard, it may be painful, it may be done mostly in private where people like me, or even loved ones, have little idea of what’s going on. And yet I have been privileged to see incredible scenes of people, nearing the end of life, far from cowering and despairing, positively radiating peace and happiness. I have been truly struck by the impression of being in the presence of someone existing nearly on another plane, of this person, in this moment, functioning as a rare meeting place between the seen and the unseen.
We’ve come full circle to the clichÃ© that death is a part of life. But the meaning behind this, I think, is that death, when faced honestly, can enrich our lives and make us better people. To face our fear, even to a small extent, is to imbue our lives with greater soul, courage, and meaning.
Fred Grossman is a rabbi working as a chaplain at Providence Hospice of Seattle. He lives with his family in Seattle’s Seward Park neighborhood and is a member of Bikur Cholim Machzikay Hadath.