Rabbinical Student Reflects On CPE Internship

Fourth-year rabbinical student, JTS

One day, I went to visit a hospice patient of mine. This patient, a Hispanic woman in her early sixties, had a lot of frustration about her dependence on others. Unable to even turn over in bed by herself, she had to wait for an aid for the most basic of functions— to change her, to adjust her position, to bring her food or water. Today she felt even more isolated than usual because her daughter had taken away her new smartphone. She had never become comfortable enough with the touch screen to be able to use it, but not having it at all made her feel more dependent on others even for conversation.

During previous visits, this patient had openly cried with me, and it was a crying that often seemed to bring relief. She shared her frustrations with her daughter, her desire to go home, and her fear of dying. Today, she once again brought up her death, but today felt different. She was getting worse, she told me. She knew she was going to die, and she wasn’t ready. I asked her what she meant by that. I listened to her tell me what she wished she had had time to accomplish in life, and what she wanted to tell her children. I suggested to her that maybe she didn’t need to feel guilty about wanting to live longer, that there is no “should” when it comes to how to die. Before I left, we prayed together, a heartfelt prayer that she might find inner peace. She was noticeably calmer by the end of our conversation and told me she hoped she would see me again the following week.

This conversation was on a Friday. I returned from my weekend to find out that she had died the next day. The news took me by surprise, and I was sad and moved. I had gotten to know her over the previous two months and really cared for her. Beyond that, I had seen so many long and drawn-out deaths that I was shocked at the suddenness of it, that one day we were talking and the next she was gone.

Despite my grief, there was something redemptive for me about this experience. This patient was one of the first I had met in my placement. I learned from her what it looks like to really give someone space to feel her own emotions, and the immense relief that that expression alone can bring. Although she died too soon, and with unaccomplished dreams, she showed me that the work I was doing mattered, and that in some small way, that work has the possibility to ease at least some amount of spiritual and emotional pain.