“We often refer to aggressive high-tech treatments as ‘heroic’ measures, but the real heroics take place in the living room of a ranch house or the bedroom of a small apartment, when a family tends to the care and comfort of a dying loved one . . . . I talked with many people who mourned the loss of a parent, sibling, spouse, or dear friend, but felt grateful for and transformed by the experience of helping the person pass.”
Fran Smith and Sheila Himmel, Changing the Way We Die: Compassionate End-of-Life Care and the Hospice Movement
This model of family caring for the dying is embodied powerfully in this week’s parashah. Jacob, aware that he is dying, speaks plain words to his sons: “I am about to die” (Gen. 48:21) . . . “I am about to be gathered to my kin” (49:29). By giving voice to the reality that his life is ending, Jacob opens up sacred opportunities with his family. He creates moments to put his blessings into words and communicates his wishes for what will happen to his body: that he be buried with his family in the family cave so that he can be gathered to his kin in all ways. The naming of this truth enables closure and peace.
As a chaplain, I have accompanied many people and their families as they’ve journeyed toward death. It is a holy process, and I feel honored to be part of it each time. In my personal life, I’ve entered into this process with my brother-in-law, Peter Cicchino, who died at 39, and my father, James Springer, who died at 89. Peter lived out Jacob’s model with inspiring intentionality. He sent word to all his family and friends, “Come for a blessing.” I sat with people who were waiting for their time alone with Peter, nervous about what they would find. And with those who had received his blessing, overcome with the gift of his kindness and wisdom. Peter was able to imagine their futures even as he embraced the knowledge that his time on earth was coming to an end. And then I had my moment. I do not remember the content so specifically, just the experience of abundant love that we shared. And that love stays with me and guides me in my life.
When it was time for my father to die, 12 years later, Peter’s blessings were still palpable. My dad had Alzheimer’s and could not articulate eloquent blessings. But his very presence was a blessing. So was the opportunity to be with him until the end, when, like Jacob “he drew his feet into the bed and, breathing his last, he was gathered to his people” (49:33).