Several years ago, as part of a corporate walking challenge for hospital employees, I invited a Buddhist monk, Bhante Sujatha, to lead a group in a meditation walk at a beautiful nature preserve labyrinth. The labyrinth is circular in shape with winding paths that draw you back and forth until eventually you reach the center. It is said that the back and forth motion engage both sides of the brain and create a sense of calm, somewhat like rocking a child in a cradle or gliding through space on a swing. Because so many of us were making our way through and we all began at the same time, we regularly needed to move aside, as people passed us on the way back from the center.
Soon after I started working full time in hospice care as a chaplain, I made an initial visit to a patient and her daughter. Little did I know that after 144 visits, four Christmas celebrations, four birthday parties and countless other “just because” fiestas, I would pray the final words of commendation at her graveside with tears in my eyes. As a chaplain I don’t have favorite patients, but there are those that attach to the heart in special ways... especially after five years of visits, laughs, cups of tea and tears.
Early on in my hospice career, I was taught a beautiful lesson: healing does not mean cure. I had a 36 year old patient who was terminally ill with sinus cancer. He had endured several painful and unsuccessful facial reconstruction surgeries which had left his face scarred and bloated. He was married with a teenaged son.
Yizkor, which means remembrance in Hebrew, is Judaism's memorial prayer. It is customary for Jews in mourning to recite this prayer throughout the year.
As part of our Jewish Care Services team, we help host an annual Yizkor Service that is open to any of our Jewish families who have lost a loved one over the past year. Our Yizkor Service provides a safe environment for families to honor their loved ones and the sadness and grief that accompany their loss. The service is led by our Jewish Care Services team, our rabbis, as well as a member of the Bereavement Team.
I have been a chaplain for Midwest CareCenter for almost fourteen years and before that I was a volunteer for ten years. My children have grown from toddlers to graduate school and along the way my colleagues have listened to stories as my family grew. In the process, they have become part of my extended family.
As the Coordinator of Jewish Care Services, I have been proud of my ability to help educate our staff about the Holocaust, and caring for aging Survivors as they come to our service. I have developed curriculums to teach children, adults in Nursing Facilities, and our palliative and hospice staff. I believe it is important to keep talking about this time in history and how events in the world currently have brought fears of another Holocaust to the forefront. Imagine how those Survivors still with us must feel? The fears they are likely living with? I go to many events that support Survivors or give me opportunities to hear their stories. For that reason, I was drawn to the Names, Not Numbers program when it was described to me by a Jewish Care Services ambassador who is a parent of students at Hillel Torah North Suburban Day School in Skokie, Ill., which is sponsoring the project.
My late husband, Tom, and I were both raised Catholic but, over time, we quit practicing our religion and became fallen-away Catholics. That didn't mean that my core beliefs changed – I still prayed, did volunteer work, etc., but we didn't belong to a church.
One of my most memorable chaplain visits was to visit the wife of a patient who was not assigned to me, and whom I had never met before. We had a task to accomplish, and while working on that we started talking. I was a High-Church Episcopalian and she was Jewish "not-religious" I learned, but this made no difference I soon realized. As we sat together at their kitchen table, coffee in hand we talked. She shared about how she had met her husband, the children they had together. The good times and the hard times they shared together in their 70 years of marriage. With a twinkle in her eye she spoke of their granddaughter who had just graduated from college, she was so proud. We talked about the difficulty of her husband's illness and how she tried to keep a positive attitude about it all. As I sat there listening to her talk I soon realized that she was probably giving me more encouragement than I to her. But then, most often as a chaplain, I listen...I listen to stories about life, about faith, about family and friends...this visit was no different.