The book of Psalms is known in Jewish tradition as a companion book. The psalms, in all their familiarity from use in the prayer services and Shabbat songs, are like a good friend to whom we can turn in times of uncertainty or distress. We can return to them and find new images. We can see our suffering and yearnings and daily challenges in their words, and we can enter not exactly into a conversation, but into an ongoing discourse, a community built on human words and the experiences, over generations, of people seeking God. Somehow, the comfort we derive from the psalms seems to come from naming, and then resolving, our grief and pain. Psalm 6 offers an example: The psalmist pleads with God for mercy and healing, describing his groaning and the drenching tears that have lasted through the night because of his grief and the torments inflicted by his enemies. God hears the weeping and receives the prayer, and then sends away the enemies, who are ashamed.
Chaplaincy — spiritual care — is about accompanying another with this same deep listening. Chaplains enter people’s lives when they are facing critical illness and death. And in order to be fully present to others in those moments, chaplains must learn about their own experiences with and internal responses to loss or grief or despair or hope. If they are going to work with people who are facing the end of life, they must push themselves to acknowledge and understand the meaning of their own mortality. For example, if a chaplain asks someone to think about what it means to approach death, then the chaplain must already have struggled personally with this question as well. Only then can we as chaplains give all our attention to our hospice patients and join them where they are — not where we might want them to be in that moment.
Too often, we chaplains can be triggered or stimulated by a patient’s grief or pain. We may then shift the focus from our patient to ourselves, reliving a personal trauma or pushing it away. In such moments, we are reactive, focused more on what we would have wanted or needed if we were in grief or pain. From that perspective, we may try to offer help designed to bring solace to ourselves.
However, chaplains who are more self-aware, who have worked on using their own experiences as a laboratory, and who have grown in their capacity to provide for a patient who is facing grave illness or death, will be fully present for the other person, no matter what that person is facing and feeling.
We see an example of this type of presence in the book of Samuel. There, Hannah, who will give birth to the prophet Samuel, receives a range of responses as she suffers and weeps because she has no children. Her husband Elkanah tries to sooth her sorrow with his intense love. Peninnah, Elkanah’s second wife who has children, actively vexes Hannah. And Eli, the priest at the door of the temple in Shiloh, appears to compound her grief when he sees her silently moving her lips and accuses her of drunkenness. Hannah rebukes Eli, informing him of her suffering and making clear that she has been praying. Eli then offers her a blessing — that God will hear and answer her petition. Eli neither imposes his own ideas on her nor tries to draw from Hannah what she has tried to keep private. Rather, his presence becomes an act of nonjudgmental companionship. In this way, Hannah moves from sorrow and defensiveness to acceptance and peace.
This is the work of the hospice spiritual caregiver, and this is what is taught to hospice volunteers. As chaplains, we strive to be fully present with our patients experiencing critical illness and death. We seek to offer some peace, and, if our patients are feeling isolated, we work to overcome that isolation by meeting them where they are. We do not push away fear, joy, or anger, but we remain present in order to help hold those emotions, and perhaps to offer some words of support or prayer.
In the first lines of Psalm 122, as translated below,* we get a sense of what it is to experience God’s love. As chaplains, we hope to serve as vessels offering a complete hospitality of the soul. The image here of standing together in God’s house, in Jerusalem, is the gift that chaplains endeavor to give and receive every day when caring for people.
“Joy drenched me when you said
Come inside my house
Now our feet stand within your gates,
Planted upon your wholeness Jerusalem,
Place where each is welcome
*translation by Norman Fischer, Opening to You, Zen-Inspired Translations of the Psalms
Rabbi Sara Paasche-Orlow is director of spiritual care at Hebrew SeniorLife in Boston, and co-author, with Rabbi Joel Baron, of DeathbedWisdom of the Hasidic Masters, Jewish Lights, 2016.