I have been quite fortunate to work in pastoral care for the majority of the past 20 years or so. Of course it is quite challenging on many levels, requiring a delicate blend of empathy, sympathy, professionalism and more than a little common sense. If I were to pinpoint my goal in each visit, I’d say that I try to make it positive and, whenever possible, encouraging. Sometimes it means more listening than speaking on my part, just being a presence so the other person can vent. But sometimes it makes me stretch my intellectual ability to attempt to find the appropriate thing to say, in order to make a difference.
The following is a case in point that recently occurred; I changed the names to protect people’s privacy.
As I was doing my rounds at a facility in Central New Jersey, I was asked by a few senior staff to visit with Marvin who shared a room with his “significant other,” Mary. I had already learned that Marvin was suffering from serious depression and this affected both his emotional and physical well-being and Mary’s. Both were each in their mid 80s. I was advised to speak with each of them separately, if possible.
Upon entering the room, I saw that Mary was still sleeping on her side of the curtain, so I spoke with Marvin. He and I had gotten to know each other reasonably well over the course of the past few years, having shared many conversations. He often smiled when I visited him, would talk openly about his life and told me jokes. I enjoyed our visits.
On this day I found Marvin unrobed from the waist up, feet hanging off the side of the bed, and visibly upset. He began to share a myriad of complaints, commencing with his displeasure about the facility’s recreational activities, then “This place is an old-age home. I never thought I would get old. I am coughing up colored phlegm every day from my lung cancer. I have no energy, I have almost no money in the bank, I can’t remember a word I said when I spoke with the CEO yesterday!”
He continued: “I do not enjoy helping out in the library anymore, I do not want to die hitting balls around in the recreation area, I have no children, nothing to look forward to but eating, and death. That is my future, which I have to face. Maybe I should not say this, but God, please just take me today! I have nothing to live for, just please God, take me today!”
Trying to find a way to keep the conversation going, as well as perhaps help him come to a more positive emotional place, I acknowledged his frustrations. I asked him, if it were possible, what changes he would like to make in the facility that would make him happier. Rather than answer that question, he proceeded by sharing with me many setbacks in his personal history. These tales were intermingled with accounts of episodes with his family that resulted in decades of estrangement from some of his relatives, in addition to his never having a wife or children. He repeated his plea: “God, please just take me today! I have nothing to live for, just please God, take me today!”
As he seemed to be drowning in his depression and melancholy, as this virtual dirge progressed I was beginning to feel like he was pulling me along into this ocean with invisible iron chains. As a chaplain, I am certainly not a stranger to listening to desperation or similar emotions, but that does not make me immune to feeling for the one struggling and, of course, wondering, what can I do for this person?
I was contemplating: “Is there something I can say not just to show empathy but bring a ray of sunlight, even for a moment, into this gloomy abyss?” At that moment, as he started getting teary, Marvin mentioned that, if he were to die, “I know Mary would miss me,” referring to his roommate on the other side of the curtain. I looked straight at him and said “Marvin, you mentioned that, if you die, your roommate would miss you. I must tell you, so would I, because I have always enjoyed talking with you.”
For the first time since I entered the room, he broke into a smile, extended his hand to shake mine and, in a much happier tone, said “Thank you, Rabbi.” What a relief for me as well, as this had been one intense visit! Prior to leaving, I shared my insights with the senior staff, so they could follow up.
Later, I thanked Hashem for helping me find an appropriate thing to say. Maybe it was not fancy, but it was effective, sending Marvin a message that I had not only understood and validated his feelings, but also valued him and he knew that he made a positive difference in my journey as well.
A few nights later, as I looked around my Shabbos table and reflected on this very draining and insightful experience, I felt a tremendously enhanced appreciation of my wife, Ruchie, and our children. I made sure that I told them so.