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‘Their loved one is dying alone’: a hospice rabbi on how coronavirus is shaping death

Rabbi Charles Rudansky is a hospice chaplain who serves dying patients and their families. He also conducts funerals.

Coronavirus is shaping the experience of all of his patients, and all of their families — both before they die, and afterwards — even though not one of them has died of coronavirus yet.

May their memories be for a blessing. Share your stories about those who have died of Covid-19.

Rudansky 58, is the director of Jewish Services and Spiritual Care at MJHS Hospice in New York. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Their loved one is dying alone

Most of our patients are at home for hospice. That’s what hospice is: it’s home care. But many of our patients are in nursing homes or assisted living places or in inpatient units where the policy right now — they’re not allowing family members to visit. It’s like, unbelievable, but that’s what’s happening. And their loved one is dying alone.

The families are really requesting, “Can you please, please visit my father?” “Can you visit my mother?” “Can you visit my spouse, and tell them that I’m alright?” I’m a messenger for them, and then giving them that information back: Yes, your father’s comfortable. Yes, your mother’s at peace. Your mother’s resting. And they’re hanging on those words, because they’re locked out.

It becomes very intimate and very personal and very soul-to-soul and almost sacred. There’s so much chaos and unprecedented times and anxiousness and nervousness, then coming into a patient and a family’s space, and they’re dying. We push aside all that noise and we’re present. It really becomes almost like a biblical moment.

It becomes so meaningful. Because the patient’s dying and because there’s so much stress. If we can cut through that and just be present and look at each other eye to eye. And help bring their loved one to that final destination in peace and comfort. They really feel that that was an amazing gift they were able to offer their loved ones despite the circumstances. If the crisis grows on the outside, what’s happening on the inside becomes much more meaningful.

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Funerals like the old country

At the funeral service itself, a lot of funeral homes are encouraging only immediate family. What would have been maybe 30 or 40 people at a graveside, now sometimes it’s really just the immediate family. I’m trying my very best to normalize and create a proper, dignified, honorable tribute and refocus the families in terms of trying to not be distracted by the [coronavirus] situation. I try to reassure them and give them that encouragement that the essence of the service is still intact. That’s the key.

What’s the essence of the service? Honoring one’s loved one with the words that are said by those that are closest to them. A lot of times we play numbers games. How many people come to a funeral? We measure the popularity or the goodness or the stature of the individual. We can’t do that now. The real focus is really the essence of the person and how they lived. That’s truly what is helping the soul.

You say, “This is how they used to do it in the old country.” You’re going back in time and it’s very honorable, because we’re going back into tradition.

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