Should we pray for healing when death is imminent?


(JTA) — Someone I know died today. Although I didn’t know him well, and haven’t seen him in over 20 years, I remember him. In our years at summer camp and at our small Jewish day school, where he was a couple of grades ahead of me, he struck me as simultaneously cool and kind — the sort of kid who was well-liked both by other kids and by their parents.

I’ve been thinking about him and his family a lot over the past few months, ever since I learned that he had terminal brain cancer and was receiving hospice care. The last time I attended Shabbat services and the rabbi paused during the “mi shebeirach” a prayer said for those in need of healing — to ask for the names of the ill, I thought about saying his name, but stopped myself. The words of the blessing, which at my congregation we sing together, didn’t seem right:

“Bless those in need of healing with ‘refuah shleima’: The renewal of body, the renewal of spirit and let us say, Amen.”

Praying for the “renewal” of someone close to death didn’t make sense to me. It seemed too rosy, the liturgical equivalent of wishing the dying person a “speedy recovery!” In Parashat Nitzavim, the Torah portion we recite on Yom Kippur, Moses commands the Israelites to “choose life.” But does this decree require that we deny death, even when it is at our doorstep?

Not necessarily. When I spoke about it with my rabbi, he suggested that I could interpret the words of the “mi shebeirach” to match my feelings more closely. The word “shleima” in the phrase “refuah shleima” means “whole,” and is related to “shalom,” the word for peace. It is fitting, he argued, to wish a dying person a sense of wholeness and peace before he dies. He also pointed out that in the blessing, we ask not only for the renewal of body, but also the renewal of spirit.

In other words, we’re hoping for a physical recovery, if possible, but if not, then a spiritual one. As we were talking, I realized, too, that hospice care for a terminally ill patient does seek physical renewal — if not complete recovery — by aiming to make the person as comfortable and pain-free as possible.

READ: At the end of life, Oliver Sacks craved gefilte fish, and Judaism 

Still, I wondered if there was a prayer that confronted death directly. I suffered my own loss 15 years ago when my mother died. Because her death was sudden, I couldn’t prepare for it beforehand. But in the aftermath, I tried to deal with it as directly as I could manage. Reciting the mourner’s kaddish helped a bit, not so much because I derived meaning from the words — they sing God’s praises and don’t even mention the deceased — but because I took comfort in the ritual.

But I needed more. I needed to talk about my mother and my grief with close friends and family, with the members of my bereavement group, and with a therapist. I needed to write about it, and I still do. I need to confront death — both the idea and the actuality of it — in order to live with it. Words help me do that.

My rabbi told me about the “vidui,” or final confessional, a prayer that addresses death directly:

“I acknowledge, Eternal One,
my God and God of my ancestors,
that both my healing and my death are in Your hands.
May it be that you send me a complete healing,
but if my death is now Your inevitable will,
may I accept it in love.
If I have offended or hurt anyone,
I beg their forgiveness.
May my death be an atonement for all the sins, iniquities and transgressions
I have committed against You.
Grant me the abounding happiness
that is treasured up for the righteous. Make known to me the path of life;
in Your presence is the fullness of joy,
at Your right hand is eternal bliss.
You who are the father of orphans
and guardian of widows,
protect my dear ones
with whose souls my own soul is bound up. Into Your hand I entrust my spirit;
You have redeemed me, Eternal One, God of Truth.

Writer Jennifer Richler. (Courtesy of the author)

Jennifer Richler (Courtesy of Richler)

I like that this prayer openly acknowledges the possibility of death instead of simply seeking recovery. And I appreciate the wish for protection of loved ones. It is those close to the dying person, after all, who are most affected by that person’s death, and they deserve to be considered. My rabbi told me that when he recites this prayer on behalf of a dying person, family members in the room often tell him how comforting it is.

I will file this one away for the future.  But what about right now? It’s too late for the “mi sheberach” this time. Maybe next time I know someone who is terminally ill, I will overcome my tendency to interpret prayers in the most literal way possible.

But for now, I will offer my own blessing. It came to me after reading Atul Gawande’s 2014 book, “Being Mortal,” in which he writes, “Endings matter, not just for the person but, perhaps even more, for the ones left behind.”

Gawande raises the possibility of a good ending, something we rarely hear about, at least not in prayer. What that means is different for different people, he says, but often includes being with loved ones and being as physically comfortable as possible. Above all, it means living out the last days of your life on your own terms, something my mother didn’t get to do.

I hope Matthew did. And I hope it was a peaceful ending for the ones he left behind.

(Jennifer Richler is a freelance writer living in Bloomington, Ind.)

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