July 22, 2024
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July 22, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Esther was an 82-year-old woman with a pale face and graying hair, staring at the bare white wall opposite her. I entered her dimly lit room in the cardiac unit of the hospital. After my brief introduction, Esther informed me that although she might be listed as “Jewish” on my census, she is not a believer in God and has not been for many years. I purposely did not question, because I was confident that, once she felt comfortable with me, her reason would naturally unfold in the conversation. Without hesitation, Esther proceeded to tell me why she was in the hospital and expressed her anxiety and fears for her pending heart surgery.

After several minutes of her speaking and my listening with a non-judgmental and compassionate ear, Esther paused. With a bewildered look on her face, she asked:

“Chaplain, don’t you want to know why I don’t believe in God anymore???”

“If you feel like discussing this, I would be glad to listen,” I replied, knowing that now the timing was appropriate.

And so her story began…

“I grew up in a religious home. I married Martin and though he was not an observant Jew, we were raising our three children to believe in a loving, all-merciful and caring God who loves all of his children. When my adorable, youngest daughter was 12, my husband and I realized that something was not right with her. After many hours of doctor visits, she received a diagnosis of bipolar disease. We loved her so much, but did not feel like we knew how to care for her. Her outbursts were uncontrollable and her behavior was impacting me, my marriage and my other children. My husband and I questioned God, but held onto our faith. We decided to place her in a special home temporarily, one that could address her needs properly. As absolutely heartbroken as we were to do this, we felt confident that we were making the right decision. My daughter was angry, so angry with us. She could not understand how we could send her away. But we did it because we loved her so much and only wanted what was best for her. After all, we are her parents! Why would we do anything intentionally to hurt her? It took many years for my daughter to comprehend how all of the help she received was truly for her benefit.”

I listened carefully to every word Esther said. The pain was evident in her tone and facial expressions. Esther paused. It seemed like there was much more that she wanted to share. She took a sip of water and continued.

“Well, God was not finished with me. Twenty years ago, David, my only son, dropped dead.” She paused. “He was only 42. No warning. Healthy, exercised every day. Such a good boy. Always doing good for others. I had no time to say goodbye. I had to bury my only son.” Esther began to sob. I gently touched her arm. There was nothing to say. After several seconds, she regained her composure and continued, “Parents are not supposed to bury a child. It was not fair. I don’t understand why this happened to my son and what kind of God would do this! Ever since then, 20 years ago, I lost my belief in God. I had already questioned God from my trials with my daughter and then came the death of my son. It was enough.

“So now you understand my life. And now, Chaplain, I am sick. I am scared and feel alone. I have not shared my feelings with anyone throughout all of these years. You are the first. I want so desperately to believe in God. I think the faith which I once had could really help me now. Please help me,” she said with an imploring tone.

Esther reached out for my hand and began to cry again. A cry that was so deep that it was painful for me to hear. It was a cry stemming from deep pain, loneliness, longing to reconnect with God, and now finally a release from unburdening a heavy load. A load that Esther had carried alone for more than 20 years. I held her hand and let her tears flow uninterrupted.

“Please,” she cried out once again. “Help me understand! Why? Why?”

In that very brief moment, I silently prayed to God to please help me find the appropriate words to help Esther. Then, it occurred to me that Esther, in recounting her own story, had provided herself with a perhaps all too obvious insight…

“Esther, no one can ever fully understand the terrible pain you went through 20 years ago and continue to go through with the loss of your only son. Unfortunately, I cannot answer why it happened. Only God knows.”

I saw Esther’s face immediately relax. Knowing that I empathized with her and realizing that I too could not make sense of it all, brought her some comfort. I continued…

“Esther, you told me that you once believed in a God that was like a father, loving and protecting his children. He does what is best for them.

“You also mentioned to me that your own child was angry with you for years. You expressed your confidence that you did the right thing by sending her to live elsewhere, even though it took your child years to understand.

“Esther, right now you are like the child, similar to how your daughter reacted. Not understanding, angry, confused and struggling to find a rationale. You have every reason to feel that way! But a parent loves a child and does what is best. Your daughter understands only now what you did and why it needed to be done. Esther, you might begin to understand the ‘why’s’ of our Father today, tomorrow, in months or maybe years from now. Maybe you will never understand His ways in this world. But God is your father, your parent, and loves you. In a way that I cannot ever begin to understand or explain to you, somehow, God, has your best interests in mind, just as you had for your own child.”

Esther just stared at me. There was silence for a few seconds. She nodded her head, seeing the parallel that she unwittingly had conveyed. “I think you are right. Thank you so much. You really gave me something to think about.”

As I left the room, I thanked God for helping me be the support that Esther needed in that moment.

Of course, as I was speaking to Esther, I was also speaking to myself. So often in our daily prayers and, more prominently, throughout Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we refer to God as “Our Father.” Perhaps Esther’s story illustrates to us that we should believe, as the saying goes, that “Father knows best.”

By Debby Pfeiffer

 Debby Pfeiffer is a board-certified chaplain working at Morristown Medical Center through its affiliation with the Jewish Federation of Greater Metrowest NJ. She resides in Bergenfield with her husband and children. She can be reached at [email protected].



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