I was really touched by the very powerful piece I just read in today’s New York Times that detailed the last day in the life of President George Walker Bush. It described how in the last week of the President’s life he had stopped eating and was mostly sleeping. His longtime friend and colleague, James Baker visited him frequently in his last days, and was there when he passed away. Baker described how, at the end, he held Mr. Bush’s hand and rubbed his feet. The former President died in his home, surrounded by several friends, members of his family, doctors and a minister. As the end neared on Friday, his son George W. Bush, the former President, who was at his own home in Dallas, was put on speaker phone to say his goodbye. He told his father that he had been a “wonderful dad” and that he loved him. “I love you too” Mr. Bush told his son. And those were his final words. Bush’s doctor described how everyone present knelt around the President and placed their hands on him and prayed for him. It was a very graceful, gentle death, accompanied by loved ones who gathered in the intimacy of his home in Houston.
For more than three years I have been privileged to visit nursing homes, assisted living facilities and private homes to sing and play music for people in hospice under the title “Chords of Comfort.” I also make visitations as a hospice chaplain. On some days my patients are alert and able to converse with me. On others, they lie in bed unable to communicate and sometimes sleep. On those occasions I sit by their bedside and just keep them company. Sometimes a family member or two is present when I visit.
Several years ago when I arrived to visit a certain patient I was surprised to find members of her family singing and playing guitar while the patient, who could not speak, moved her head rhythmically back and forth. One of her youngest grandchildren had flown all the way from San Francisco to New Jersey just to be with her great grandmother. It was obvious that the singing and playing brought great comfort and pleasure to the patient. When the family asked me to join in with my guitar it became clear to me that we all were all feeling spiritually uplifted by the beautiful music we created together.
There is a rabbi who directs a Jewish-End-of-Life Care/Hospice Volunteer program. As part of his training program, the rabbi asks the volunteers to reflect on a moment when they were in need of someone to be present for them. One man related the story of his bicycle accident when a stranger sat silently with him on the curb until the ambulance arrived. Another volunteer described how her grandmother sat knitting in the corner of the hospital’s delivery room throughout her three-day-long labor. What both these stories have in common is the power of someone simply being present for another person.
The word “companion” is derived from the Latin “com” (“with”) and “panis” (bread). It literally means someone with whom you share bread. The Hebrew word for this concept is “levaya” (accompaniment). This concept is so central to how we think about death and dying in Judaism that we use the same Hebrew word (levaya) for “funeral.” In Jewish tradition, we don’t bury our dead. We accompany them. And before burial the custom is that once members of the Holy Burial Society (Chevra Kaddisha) have prepared the deceased for burial they then remain present and then “accompany” the deceased through the night by sitting with the body and reading from the Book of Psalms.
Chaplaincy—spiritual care — is all about accompanying another person while being fully present. It is all about trying to ensure that there will be times during the day when a patient is not left alone and has someone by their side. Even when someone’s life is waning, healing of spirit is possible until their very last breath. It is especially at these times when our very presence can raise their spirits, which not only benefits them, but also us.
Being present and ensuring that no one is left alone is an incredible act of kindness and a supreme act of holiness. It’s considered a mitzvah, a religious obligation. Judaism imbues the act of “accompaniment” with such importance that the rabbis elevated it among those very few mitzvot for which a person not only enjoys benefits in this world, but also receives their principal reward in the world-to-come.
At this time when the days are growing shorter and darker let us all commit ourselves to reducing isolation and providing others with “accompaniment.” Let us find ways to be fully present for members of our family and for those in the wider community who will benefit from our companionship and just “being there for them.”
During this holiday season and moving into the secular new year, let us each commit to ONE specific act of accompaniment that will lift the heart and brighten the spirit of someone else – and probably do the same for us!
I wish you a bright and light festive holiday season with less isolation and more “accompaniment”.