Just about six years ago, I wrote an op-ed piece for the Jewish Week titled “What Have You Learned, Rabbi?” Actually, it was just about at this time of year. I had recently been released from the hospital after struggling with a severe infection. During the earlier years of my rabbinate, when congregants had experienced similar episodes, I was prone to ask them what they had learned from their life-threatening experiences. Now they were turning the tables on me, asking whether I had learned anything significant from my brush with serious illness. What I wrote was that I had learned what an impossible question that was to answer.
As I now experience what so many others have when the end stage of a loved one’s life stretches out over a long period of time, I find myself engaged in a similar process of reflection. I wouldn’t say “what have I learned,” because the process is not over. My mother is still, as of this writing, very much alive. More like, what am I learning? And the answer is that, as a rabbi, I’m learning a lot about what actually helps at a time like this, and what makes you want to put your hands over your ears and turn away.
The truth- as only those who have gone through this will know- is that very little actually helps in a real sense. Platitudes certainly don’t. They grate on the ears. Theology lessons don’t. They grate even more offensively. I don’t find exhortations for false hope to be particularly useful either, and no one needs to understand this better than rabbis. We like to think of ourselves as dispensers of the wisdom of the ages, and that somehow, the things that we are saying actually bring healing to those who are hurting. I sort of doubt that.
What I’m coming to understand better than I did before is that it is the consistent, steady, loving (and often silent) presence of someone important to you that can ease the steadily encroaching pain of loss. For some, that presence may indeed be a rabbi (i.e., where we really can make a difference… just by quietly being there!), or a spouse or child, or a very close family member or friend. It doesn’t matter who it is, as long as that person won’t relentlessly try to “make you feel better,” or frame what’s happening in some insultingly simplistic or unrealistic way. It has to be someone who will never make you feel less than normal, or too self-absorbed, for being less than OK.
That’s asking a lot, I know. Being there for someone who is in extremis is not a job for everyone, no matter how well intentioned. It requires the ability to suffer being around someone who is suffering- play on words intended. As was the case when I recovered from my illness six years ago, I emerged a better rabbi, and pastor, than I was before I was ill. And I have no doubt that, when this particular chapter of my life is over, I’ll understand the limitations of my job as a rabbi better than I did before, and also its potential and how to realize it.
It will be a lesson learned the hard way.