In the Service of the Good

Posted on August 30, 2012 by


Far from the fiery six-winged beings crying holy, holy, holy with their flaming swords held high, angels today have come to represent benevolent, compassionate, sentimental presences that shine with new age light. People often called us angels when we arrived on their doorsteps but it was our strangeness with death as much as our familiarity with it that allowed us to help in whatever ways we could. Angels we were not.

 “Estrangement is at the root of suffering,” writes Rabbi Dayle Friedman in Jewish Pastoral Care. Caregivers must find the stranger in themselves to understand what it might be like for the dying who are becoming estranged from all that is known.

 According to hospice counsellor, Michelle Dale, who calls upon her Jewish faith in the work she does, there is a notion that Jews should be kind to strangers because they were strangers in a strange land. “I was excited by the connection to strangers,” she told me “because it disrupted the favoured metaphors of angels and ‘special people’ doing ‘special work.’” The truth of it, she says, is that this work is best done by people who have hovered on the outside edges of comfort, by choice or circumstance of temperament. People, a little rough around the edges, who have seen a few things. In a society that encourages us to shy away from death, we had to learn how to walk towards it. To open the door and make ourselves at home.

 Last Friday, Michelle recently wrote to me, I went into a patient’s room. I had heard, during the morning report from her nurse, that this woman was terrified. She had been distressed all night, struggling and frightened. Many drugs were given. I went in to offer presence to the patient and her two daughters. I had never met any of them before that morning. When I entered the room the patient was unconscious; her daughters were teary, but calm, aware that death was near, hoping that death was near. I hung out, asked questions, sat on the pull-out bed with one of the daughters. I heard about how their mom had already told them that she wanted egg salad sandwiches at her funeral.

 They mentioned going to Catholic school as girls. I asked them if their mom was still connected to the Church and if she might want prayers? They paused and looked at one another, paused for a bit longer and finally they said, “Well, really, she identified more with Judaism in recent years; her paternal grandmother was Jewish…she went to the Synagogue downtown but we don’t know much about that.

 I asked if I could sing the “Shema” for their mom – the shema is traditionally sung by the dying person or by someone who cares for them. They said yes. I went and stood by her head, the dying woman, and I took her hand and told her my name. She did not respond; however, as soon as I sang the first word, she gasped and opened her eyes and her energy fluttered. I sang “Shema Yisrael, adonei, eloheinu, adonei ehad” two or three times. Her breathing settled. I paused and told them a little more and sang a few more times. Her breathing slowed. She died. The whole thing, from the first sung word to her last breath might have lasted two minutes. No more.

 The wonder is not that Michelle knew what to do and did it well; rather, the wonder is in the randomness of it all. Not the “sacredness” of the story which so easily dips into the precious. The wonder is that she walked into that room at that time without any notion of what might be helpful and was used in the service of the good. That’s the thing. To be used in the service of the good.


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