by Rabbi Ron Isaacs
In recent months, I read a very powerful piece in The New York Times that detailed the last day in the life of President George H. W. 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 Bush’s hand and rubbed his feet.
The former president died in his home, surrounded by several friends, family members, doctors and a minister. As the end neared, his son George W. Bush, also a former president, who was at his own home in Dallas, Texas, was put on speaker phone to say goodbye.
He told his father that he had been a “wonderful dad” and that he loved him. “I love you too,” 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 and gentle death, accompanied by loved ones who gathered in the intimacy of his home in Houston.
For almost four years now, 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 of my role as “Chords of Comfort.” I also make visits 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 speak and sometimes sleep.
On such 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, Calif. to New Jersey just to sing for her great grandmother. It was obvious that the singing and playing brought great comfort and pleasure to her.
When the family asked me to join in with my guitar, it became clear to me that we all were feeling spiritually uplifted by the beautiful music that 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 of these stories have in common is the power of someone simply being present for another person.
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 transitioning, healing of spirit is possible until the 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. In the Jewish faith, it is considered a “mitzvah,” a religious obligation.
I hope that you will consider ways that you can help reduce isolation for those who are alone and provide them with “accompaniment.” Let us continue to find ways to be fully present for members of our own family and for those in the wider community who will benefit from our companionship and just “being there for them.”
Perhaps you may wish to consider committing to one specific act of accompaniment each month that will lift the heart and brighten the spirit of someone else – and probably do the same for us.
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