The following story illustrates what I have experienced through the eyes, ears and hearts of my patients and their families. Though the names and details have been changed to maintain confidentiality, the powerful emotions and experiences are very real.
I first met Rachel in April. She was a Jewish woman in her 80s, all alone in the emergency room. Her family was not able to be with her due to the pandemic and hospital restrictions. She was feeling confused as to what was wrong with her and was extremely frightened. After being evaluated by several staff members, Rachel was transferred to the hospice floor, which is where my relationship with her and her daughter deepened and became essential.
As a chaplain, I am privy to hearing things that other hospital professionals may not hear. I consider this sharing of intimacies to be an honor. With each of my visits, Rachel would reflect on special memories she had with her deceased husband and her beloved family and friends. Rachel would share with me her fears of dying and various regrets that she had in her life. She would tell me things that she could not discuss with her children. I listened to her. I was a receptacle for her pain. I would empathize with her, validate her and serve as a sounding board for her. I was her only Jewish connection, and so she felt safe to explore spiritual topics and struggles with me, especially then. She expressed her confusion about God and her hopes for her remaining days. She requested a prayer at the end of each of our visits, which provided her with so much solace.
Rachel knew she was deteriorating. “This is not how I thought the end would be,” she sadly said. “I thought I would be surrounded by my family. Thank you for being here. I feel so comforted by your presence.”
For eight days, with a mask on my face, I would visit with Rachel. In some of those visits I was able to FaceTime Rachel with Ann, her daughter. Ann would often reach out to me by phone, needing to unload her jumble of emotions. She was feeling helpless, powerless and frustrated. But I take the time and listen to her as well. I hear about how wonderful her mother is, admired by so many as a matriarch of their family.
“Thank you,” Ann says. “It’s actually because of you that I can sleep tonight. Knowing that my mother, with as little time as she has left, has you in her life and that we have you as a connection to her. A woman I never met is connecting me to my mother!! Blessings to you for your endless gift of love, caring and comfort.”
The hurt I heard in her voice was palpable.
Deep inside, I was hurt, too. Because of the COVID-19 restrictions, I could not hold her mother’s hand, stroke her cheek, or sit alongside her bed, as I normally would. I must maintain my distance and wear my mask. My voice sounded muffled and my facial expressions were blocked. However, my empathy was unmasked. I continued to be an unwavering, consistent, supportive presence.
On Tuesday morning, I went to see Rachel, with iPad in hand, to FaceTime her with her daughter. However, Rachel was no longer able to communicate. Her breathing had changed overnight and the end seemed quite near.
I stood, holding up an iPad, connecting a daughter to the final moments of her dying mother. And although this was where I belonged, I somehow still felt like an intruder in the most intimate of moments.
Ann, knowing this was most likely the last time seeing her mother, tried to hold it all in.
However, she could not. She burst out into tears. It was a scene that I will always replay in my head, with words that will always be echoed in my mind.
“Mommy,” she sobbed, “I hope you can hear me. Mommy, I’m so sorry I can’t be with you now. Thank you for everything you did for me. I will always love you.”
Author’s Note: This article is dedicated to the chaplains in the hospitals and the other healthcare providers who have given their hearts to be present for their patients at a time when no others could be. Additionally, it is dedicated to the many people of all ages who have died during this pandemic. May all of their memories be a blessing.
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, New Jersey, with her husband and children. She can be reached at [email protected]