Summer of Listening: Life as a Chaplain

By: Michal Schechter  |  August 29, 2016

chaplain*Chaplain knocks at the door*

Chaplain:  Hello. My name is Michal and I’m a chaplain on this floor doing rounds. How are you?

Jerry:  Okay, thanks.

Chaplain:  How are you connected to Arlene?

Jerry:  I’m Jerry, her husband. So you’re a chaplain?

Chaplain:  Yes.

Jerry:  Are you Catholic?

I’m visiting a 74 year old patient, Arlene Garafolo, in Room #371 at North Shore University Hospital. This is the first time in my life someone has ever asked me if I’m Catholic!

Chaplain:  No, actually I’m Jewish and an interfaith Chaplain in this hospital.

Jerry:  Oh. Okay.

Chaplain:  How is your wife doing today?

Jerry:  She’s comfortable, ya know. The priest already came by and did the Last Rites. She’s not in any pain right now, so she’s comfortable.

Chaplain:  How long has your wife been sick?

Jerry:  She got the colon cancer two years ago. At first, we all thought it would be one round of chemo and then it would be okay. But she had the one round of chemo and then it came back. It’s been downhill from there. We were so hopeful; we thought it would work. I never actually thought we would be her with her here like this. (He shakes his head). I just can’t believe it.

Chaplain:  How heartbreaking to have your hopes crushed.

Jerry:  Yeah, I mean look at her, this can’t be my wife. Oh my God, she’s a skeleton.

Chaplain:  Yes, it’s hard to see your wife like this. What was she like before she became sick?

Jerry:  Very kind, and intelligent too. She was a loving wife. When I met her, I knew I wanted to marry her.

Chaplain:  How long have you and your wife been married?

Jerry:  51 years. I can’t imagine life without Arlene.

Chaplain:  Have you been thinking about your life after your wife dies?

Jerry:  Yes. It will be different, that’s for sure. I can’t think straight anymore. The doctors did the best they could. She received the best care. The best. But I can’t help thinking of all the times when I could have been a better husband to her.

I can only imagine how terrible it must feel for Jerry, to regret the way he treated his wife as she is dying next to him. I try to resist the urge to comfort him and tell him that he was a good husband.

Chaplain:  What kind of husband were you to your wife that you feel you could have been better?

Jerry:  We were good for each other; we loved each other. We had our ups and downs. She went through a couple of rough times in her life and I wasn’t there enough for her. I was a selfish husband. I wish I could go back and enjoy life more with her.

Chaplain:  That’s a heavy burden for you to carry Jerry.

Jerry:  (Starts to cry) I didn’t think this would end so soon. But, it’s life. This is what happens to people.

Chaplain:  Still, it’s a sad part of life.

Jerry:  It sure is. It sure is. We had a life together…

Chaplain:  And now it’s ending.

We sit together in silence for a few minutes and I try to connect with Jerry over the pain he is feeling for his dying wife.

Chaplain: (Standing up to leave) Jerry, it was nice meeting you. Thank you for sharing with me.

Jerry:  Thanks Michal. Thanks for coming by.

– – –

Often, when people hear that I am a chaplain, their first reaction is to ask me, “So, what does that mean? What do you do?” It’s a good question, and in all honesty, I am still searching for a satisfying response. In general, I view myself as someone who offers emotional and spiritual care to patients and their families. I try to act as an objective non-judgmental third party, and actively listen to what people choose to share with me. The conversation between Arlene’s husband and myself is an example of the talks I have with patients and their families in the hospital.

Conversations of this nature are new for me. As  a pre-medical student, I am used to viewing medicine from the doctor’s perspective. However, though my role as a chaplain intern at North Shore University Hospital this past summer, I had the opportunity to view the hospital experience from the non-medical provider side―namely, the patient’s point of view. The hospital is a difficult place to be in, whether as a patient, family member or friend. During a time when patients often feel that no one else hears them, I listen and try to share in some of their burden.

The challenging task of listening to the people around us, to hear their stories and share in both their pain and their joy, is real. Only after I began working as a chaplain did I realize that I didn’t know how to listen to the people around me. Taking an active interest in other people’s well-being and hearing what they are feeling in their hearts is one of the greatest and most powerful gifts that we can provide, not only to the people around us, but also to ourselves.

As I leave my summer position and prepare for the start of the new year, I carry with me the lesson of listening I learned this summer. In Tractate Rosh Hashana, our Sages discuss the different sounds emitted from the shofar: tekiah, shevarim and teruah. Their discussion on the different sounds and order of the shofar blows centers around the meaning of the blows, and what they might represent―long sighs, short piercing cries, wailing or groaning. When people cry, one must listen carefully in order to discern the cause of the tears. Is it sadness? Regret? Strength? This summer I discovered the power of turning inwards and asking myself if I have the ability to listen, pay attention and give respect to another. When we stand in the synagogue and hear the blow of the shofar, we must look inside ourselves and note where there is room for growth and improvement in our behavior, in particular towards our fellow human beings. Ask yourself: do I listen to the people around me?

*Names have been changed