Dying with Dignity, Strength, Gratitude and Love: A Lesson for Us All

My friend and congregant Lisa is passionate about hearts.

She finds them in the clouds, she sees hearts in the pattern in the cracks on the sidewalk, she has the uncanny ability to find the one beautiful autumn leaf that is formed into the most perfectly shaped heart.

Lisa radiates love and light. The heart as a symbol of love, life and hope perfectly represents Lisa’s upbeat and positive approach to daily living.

“Find Your Heart” – Artwork and Book by Pedie Wolfond

And as a way to help others understand her approach, Lisa has started to collect hearts, post inspirational sayings on Facebook expressing her philosophy and sharing her writings.

Perhaps the most important and precious heart Lisa has ever found, she discovered over 25 years ago. Lisa connected with the one true heart that would ever root itself within her own heart and make its permanent home there: she met her soon-be-husband Doug while she was teaching at a small private pre-school in Commack.

Immediately, Lisa and Doug each knew that their relationship was special and that their two hearts were meant to be together. Thus began a 25+ year love affair which many of us can only hope to achieve: they share the same values and core beliefs, they have raised two beautiful and wonderful boys and share the same parenting goals. They encourage each other to grow and learn as individuals, enriching their marriage and their family in the process. They celebrate each other’s achievements and support each other every step of the way.

Truly, Doug, Lisa, and their sons, Evan and Jordan – have hearts that “beat in sync” and even in harmony.

So a few months ago, when Doug was diagnosed with metastatic colon cancer the family was initially devastated. However, their strong family bonds, Lisa’s deep spirituality and positive attitude, enabled the family to be together in powerful and meaningful ways. The nurturing heart embraced them all.

Lisa also believes it’s important for the greater community to be part of the healing process. We’re told in our Jewish tradition, that when you visit the sick, “you take away 1/60th of their pain.” We know from studies, that there is great power in reciting prayers for healing for those who are ill – even if they are not aware they are being recited. So Lisa reached out to every resource available: the Jewish community, her own friends and family.

Every day, she would post positive messages and quotes on Facebook, she would surround Doug with symbols of healing and other positive images. The family was able to share wonderful bonding experiences together over the summer.

At the same time, Evan and Jordan were still able to experience the summer as teenagers, having fun with their friends and girlfriends. Doug started chemotherapy treatment not too long ago and things seemed to be moving forward toward a better future.

At the end of last week, Doug took a turn for the worse. And then two nights ago, everything came crashing down. They were told that the cancer had further metastasized and basically, there was nothing more that could be done. Doug’s situation is very serious.

Doug did not want to be poked and prodded. He wants his remaining time to be comfortable. The family made the decision for Doug to enter hospice care two nights ago.

When I went to visit yesterday, I wasn’t sure what I would find. The family had been so full of hope for Doug’s recovery. Doug, Lisa and the boys are young. The future still has so much in store for all of them. Were they ready to accept that Doug was now on a new journey, one where his physical body would die sometime in the near future?

My visit yesterday with Lisa, with Doug and the boys was extremely powerful and moving.

How do you prepare those around you for the fact that you are now on the final journey of your life and that death is imminent?

How do you prepare yourself for this final journey when you know you will be leaving this earthly world?

How does one prepare to say “goodbye” to our loved one who is making this final journey?

She and I sat talking outside in the healing garden while Doug slept.

Waterfall in the healing garden at Good Shepherd Hospice
Waterfall in the healing garden at Good Shepherd Hospice

I was in awe of Lisa’s tremendous strength at this most difficult and painful time.

Doug’s heart is so deeply embedded within Lisa, and she and Doug have spent so much time speaking about what is taking place now, that Lisa has been preparing herself for this moment. She knows this will not be an easy time. She knows that she cannot possibly know what she will feel when “the time comes.” However, she knows that she will always feel Doug’s beautiful heart with her always. 

I was able to spend time alone with Doug. Obviously, this is not where Doug hoped his illness would lead, but he also knows that he cannot change things. Doug’s heart is so open and full, full of love and gratitude: he expressed love and gratitude for all the blessings he had in his life: his beautiful family, gratitude for his wonderful supportive congregation and me, for his co-workers, for everything in his life. We spoke of ways to make this part of the journey meaningful for him and his family, to say “goodbye” and “I love you”. We spoke of what it might mean when he’s physically gone, but we hope his beautiful heart and spirit will still be felt by those close to him. We spoke of these things and so much more.

His attitude, his dignity, his approach, his tremendous sense of love, gratitude and acceptance brought me to tears. I felt as if he was the one leading the way for all of us. He was showing us that everything was going to be ok. He would be the one in the driver’s seat, and then he would hand the steering wheel to someone else at the designated time, when it was time for him to “go off into the sunset.”

As Lisa, Evan, Jordan and Lisa’s mother came into the room, we spoke of these things for a bit longer.

Lisa, Evan, Jordan and Doug held hands – and I took a photo.

The Walters' Family Hands
The Walters’ Family Hands

Lisa has always loved my blogs. I had asked if I could write something about Doug’s and her tremendous strength during this time (without using their names) and her reply was: “Please – use our names.” And Doug gave his permission as well. They both feel if they can help someone else going through something similar, that it is so important and worthwhile to do so.

I asked everyone to hold hands and make a circle of love. I sang two different mi sheberach prayers – prayers of healing. I asked for healing of mind, body and spirit for all of them. I asked for them to find the strength for this journey with the love, support and nurturing embrace of each other.

El na r’fa na la – God please heal her now,
R’fu-at ha-nefesh, r’fu-at ha-guf, r-fu-ah shleimah – healing of the soul, healing of the body, complete healing.
Heal us now.

Doug and Lisa, Evan and Jordan – we wish you comfort and strength on this journey. Know that we are here for you however you need us, whenever you need us. Doug, you are going to a place where we cannot accompany you. We wish you peace and smooth sailing. We will take care of your family. Your heart will live within all of us, beating strong and loud, lighting the way toward the future. Inspiring us to live as you would want us to live.

L’chi lach – to a place that I will show you.
Lech l’cha – to a place you do not know.
L’chi lach – to a place that I will show you,
And you shall be a blessing, And you shall be a blessing, And you shall be a blessing,
L’chi lach.
(Debbie Friedman, based on Genesis 12:1-2)

In Praise of Nurses…Unsung Heroes

We have a lot of Registered Nurses in my family (and a few physicians as well).

My mother was an RN. My sister-in-law Marilyn, is an RN (and is certified in Palliative Care nursing). My cousin Lynn is an RN (and is a Nurse Practitioner as well). My Aunt Libby is an RN.

All of these women have multiple degrees and a great deal of theoretical and practical training. They are all highly skilled in their fields and take courses every year to maintain their licenses and keep up with the latest in medicine.

RN_symbol_webMore than that, however, they are all extremely nurturing, compassionate and responsive individuals. They know how to be fully present for their patients.

I know we think that all nurses are supposed to behave in such a way, and physicians as well. However, in my work as a rabbi and pastoral caregiver, I observe many instances when some health-care workers are so busy that they are harried, insensitive or seemingly uncaring.

Sometimes they forget that the “Leukemia in Bed #2” is not an illness, but a living, breathing human being, with thoughts, feelings and emotions. That person has an entire life that exists BEYOND the hospital and is much larger than his or her illness.

And when someone is ill and in the hospital, it affects their family as well. Treating the patient includes bringing their family into the process.

Our Jewish tradition places high value on the mitzvah (commandment) of g’mi’lut hasadim – doing acts of lovingkindness. We are taught that the act of caring for others is fundamental to how we live out our relationship with others in our lives, both personally and professionally.

Therefore, if someone is sick in the hospital, it’s incumbent upon both the medical professionals, as well as the rest of us, to care for that person and their family physically, spiritually and emotionally.

Nurses are generally “on the front lines” of care for those in the hospital. They are the ones who provide most of the patient care and don’t receive enough credit for their hard work and efforts. Additionally, they often get the jobs that are not always pleasant and they are not always thanked for their efforts.

A few nights ago, I sat with my congregant at the hospital as her mother was in the final hours of her life. The nursing staff could not have been more incredible. They were so completely compassionate, sensitive and caring.

The nurses facilitated an end-of-life experience that was as life-affirming, merciful and tender-hearted as was possible. They helped take a difficult and painful experience and made it less so, by their actions, deeds, words and their very presence.

Truly these nurses are a great gift to this hospital, the patients and their families. We are so blessed to have them in our midst.

These nurses – and so many others – exemplify the Jewish concept of g’m’lut hasadim – doing acts of lovingkindness.

To all of you, I say: Todah rabbah – Thank you so very much!


Accompanying Others on Their Sacred Journeys-The Life of a Rabbi

Birth is a beginning, 

And death a destination;

But life is a journey,

A going – a growing

From stage to stage. (by Alvin Fine)

“Death is a destination….” My text message ‘pinged’ at 2:30 am: “I just received a call from hospice that mother has passed.” I quickly woke up. If my friend and congregant was sending me a text at 2:30 am, it was ok to phone her back right away.

J’s mother was 97 years old. She had lived a long life. J was an only child and now it was up to her and her husband to make all the arrangements. We talked about what she wanted and needed to do. And we made plans to get together the next day.

Hands from a well-lived life.
Hands from a well-lived life.

The funeral was a graveside service with only family and close friends present. But the shiva was filled with family, friends and so many loved ones who came to support J, to share memories, stories and offer condolences. The house was filled to overflowing until almost 1:00 am.

It was truly a cathartic process for J, who felt embraced, strengthened and loved by her community and family.

“Birth is a beginning…” While I was planning the funeral for J’s mother, my good friends were anxiously awaiting the arrival of their baby who was one week overdue. He finally made his appearance as his friends and family rejoiced from around the world!

New mom, new dad and new baby feet. (Photo credit: G. Carimi).
New mom, new dad and new baby feet. (Photo credit: G. Carimi).

I was invited to officiate at his “Naming Ceremony” to be held at his grandparent’s home in Madison, Wisconsin (I am also friends with the baby’s grandparents). The family’s cantor, who officiated at the new dad’s Bar Mitzvah and Confirmation and I – who am the new dad’s first rabbi as an adult – were to co-officiate together. The baby’s aunt participated in the ceremony from Israel via Skype.

One day after the Shiva for J’s mother, I drove to Madison and we welcomed baby A into the Covenant of the Jewish people. His parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and aunt promised to love and nurture him and raise him in the traditions of our people. They wished him a life of Torah (learning), Chuppah (loving relationships) and Ma’asim Tovim (deeds of lovingkindness) as we bestowed upon him his Hebrew name, surrounded by friends, family and community from near and far.

From childhood to maturity

And youth to age.

From innocence to


And ignorance to knowing;

From foolishness to discretion

And then perhaps to wisdom.

From weakness to


Or strength to

weakness –

And, often, back again.

From health to sickness

And back, we pray, to health again. (Alvin Fine)

“From health to sickness…” My text message ‘pinged’ again in the middle of the night at 1:41 am in between the death of J’s mother and the birth of G’s baby boy. “I have sad news to tell you. My mother-in-law had a stroke and then was quickly diagnosed with leukaemia. That’s not the worst part. She has bleeding in the brain and they don’t know if they can save her.”

 ….”and back, we pray, to health again.” The family didn’t want me to visit, because as she became lucid, they thought it would scare her if she saw me – her rabbi – at the hospital. She didn’t know how bad it was. She has now – thankfully – turned a corner and the worst is over. They are thinking that she will get through the immediate crisis. I am staying in touch several times a day by text and phone. As soon as the family is ready, I will visit. (I also have bronchitis, so a hospital visit at this time is not advisable).

..Life is a journey

A sacred pilgrimage 

Made stage by stage

From birth to death

to life everlasting. (Alvin Fine)

Such is the life of a rabbi. As each of us makes our own journey along the path of life, our Jewish tradition teaches us that it is our obligation to be present for each other on this journey: supporting each other, guiding each other and caring for each other.

My many years of rabbinical experience have taught me that the greatest privilege and weightiest challenges of the rabbinate are multifold: to help every individual find meaning and comfort at times of joy and sadness, to enable people to find a sense of k’dusha ­– the sacred – in the everyday, ordinary acts in which we participate, and finally to work to make our synagogues places of meaning, connection and purpose. It has always been my hope that I can point to the sacred potential in each moment that we experience along our life’s journey.

Whenever I visit a patient in a hospital, help parents welcome a new child into our Jewish tradition, connect with our Jewish youth and engage them in words of Torah, share in the joy of a wedding and hold the hand of someone who has suffered a loss – I am affirming why I chose to become a rabbi.

Life is a journey

A sacred pilgrimage