I spoke with a man who’s sitting shiva for his 6-year-old daughter. I’ll call her N. I first met N. and her family two years ago when she was just diagnosed with cancer. She had a unique sweetness and elegance that she held onto throughout her illness. A shyness that kept her dignified even when she was suffering countless humiliations. We knew from the beginning that her diagnosis was bad. Still, during the good periods, it was tempting to believe that she’d just keep on living–with a shadow over her forever, but keep on living. A year and a half ago she visited the hospital during Hanukkah and we lit the Hanukkiah together–so poignant to speak of miracles then and now and to pray for another one. She was so alive that day–back to herself after a long stretch of misery. And that, despite the tube that remained in her throat, making speech a serious effort. But her smile and laugh were contagious. Somehow that day stands out for me above all others. Sparkling N.
When I called her father the conversation was painstaking. What is there to say? N. is gone and the pain is overwhelming. The challenge was not to run away from the pain. And it was a challenge. Who wouldn’t want to run away? And what a luxury to be able to run away. For her family this will be reality for the rest of their lives. How pompous for me to desire to have comfort to bestow.
N. died at home and I hadn’t seen her in a while. I’d been thinking of her and her family, but I didn’t call. Each day I had found a reason why it was not the right day. Today was the day when I knew I had to. In so many ways the call was more for me than for him. I needed to say goodbye. I needed to acknowledge that a little girl who had captured my heart was no longer alive.
Later in the day, I worked with some rabbinical students who had come to the hospital to learn about pastoral care. They are just starting out–trying to wrap their minds around this strange art. A couple of them were concerned that they might cry when they were visiting patients. We discussed the fears and talked about paradigms for staying connected without gratifying our own needs at the expense of the patient. Then I told them about N. and I began to cry. I hadn’t planned to cry–but as I began to cry I realized that that was why I had shared the story. It was a relief to share my grief with them. The telling of the story helped me to feel my own sadness and loss. It’s strange how often I need to relearn what I know. By listening they comforted me. It seems so simple, but so often people have no one who will listen to them.