A Jewish Chaplain

Sometimes the chaplain is the only one who can mourn.

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Mourning With The Family

I visited other patients. A couple of hours later I returned to Selma’s floor. As soon as I got off the elevator I saw her family at the door to her room. They stood at the entrance, but did not enter the room. The key player was clearly the short, attractive middle-aged woman in the center; both the young man on her left and the middle aged man on her right had their arms around her and were rubbing her back soothingly.

I had to wonder why these people made no move to enter the room. I had enough experience by this time to realize that some people have difficulty with illness and death. They’re probably squeamish about getting too close to a dying relative, I thought.

I went up to them. “Hello, I’m Margaret Goldstein, the Jewish chaplain- intern here.” “Oh, hello, I’m glad you came,” said the middle-aged man. “This is Doris, Selma’s daughter, I’m Doris’ husband Ted, and this is our son Arthur. We were just going to lunch, but Doris says she’s not hungry. Maybe you can stay with her?” “Of course,” I said. Doris continued to stand at the doorway as her husband and son left. “Why don’t we sit?” I suggested, and quickly dragged chairs to the doorway. “Okay, that would be good, but could we just sit out here?” Doris asked, as I was about to position the chairs an inch into the room.

So we sat, in the hall right outside Selma’s room, and talked. Doris told me about her husband, an engineer, and her son who was finishing college with honors. They lived in upstate New York. Her mother, she said, lived in a nursing home in Queens and had become sick only recently.

The doctor had advised that her mother was going to die soon and they decided to take his advice and extubate her. “This must be very difficult for you,” I said. “Yes. Well, yes and no.” “I can’t imagine what you’ve been going through,” I said. “No, I guess you can’t.” “Tell me about it.” Doris sighed.

Empathizing with Painful Stories

Tears appeared in her eyes and she slumped forward slightly. “No one outside my family knows anything about this.” I thought, she’s referring to the extubation. She must be ambivalent about her decision. “You haven’t told anyone,” I said. “No.” Doris sighed again, and now began to weep. “I’m not crying because she’s dying. I’m crying because of what she’s done to me.”

And to my great surprise Doris told me that her mother was an embittered, angry woman. She poured out stories of cruelty and abuse inflicted on her over the years by her mother. Selma’s husband ran away from her when Doris and her brother were still very young. He died shortly thereafter, so that there was no longer anyone to protect the children from Selma.

“Every time my mother got mad at me, she’d say she wished she’d had an abortion so she wouldn’t have to deal with me. And she was mad at me all the time. She beat me, she called me names. I don’t know how I got through it. But the one thing I cannot forgive her for is what she did to my brother. He did not get through it. She was even worse to him than she was to me--and he committed suicide because of her. So I’m not crying because she’s dying. I’m crying because of what she did to me, and what she did to him.”

“It sounds as if she was a very, very sick woman,” I said. And, though my heart was in my throat, “I want to pray for you, and for your family, if that’s all right?” “Okay.” “Keil maleh rahamim, I am here with Doris, whose life has been filled with suffering since she was a child. She lost her father, she lost her brother. Thank you, God, for giving Doris a loving husband and son. Please let them continue to give her comfort and joy. Let the next days be the start of a happier life for Doris, a life of nachas, joy from her son, and peace, and calm. Thank you.”

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Margaret Frenkel Goldstein completed CPE in 2004, and earned an MS in Jewish Studies from Spertus College in Chicago. She is a community chaplain in Queens, NY for eight months a year. The rest of the year she works in Jerusalem as a volunteer at Shaarei Zedek Hospital.