Thursday, December 17, 2009

Miracles and Grieving

Just yesterday I was part of a Chanukah service at a hospital, put on by the Jewish chaplain there. It was the first Chanukah at that hospital, which is a Catholic institution, so that was cool. Part of the service involved a speeches by the chaplains and my Rabbi about the origins and meanings of Chanukah.

The Jewish chaplain talked about miracles. The one she highlighted had nothing to do with oil; the story was about a baby that was life flighted to the hospital, her mother, and the chaplain's experience of the whole situation. She talked about spiritually and emotionally supporting the mother, about praying with the mother (who wasn't Jewish), and the joy of the baby's survival. She explained that she felt the miracle wasn't that the baby survived; it was that the doctors did their best. That their best was enough to save the baby was a bonus.

I thought that was a refreshing take on miracles, and a very interesting insight into how a person deals with death and the grieving as a profession. She talked about how Jewish tradition holds that if you save one life, it's as if you saved the whole world. That's a big miracle and a mitzvah. She talked about how important it is to see the small miracles, like the doctors and nurses and the whole medical staff being focused, working together well, and performing at the top of their games. This is also a mitzvah.

She also said that it's important to be surprised by what you encounter in life. If you are shocked at the violence one person can inflict on another, that means you aren't resigned to it, you haven't accepted it, and you can fight against it. If you are surprised when things go well, you can fully appreciate them. She said that she feels you can never be adjusted to what life throws at you; she happily proclaimed that she is the most maladjusted person in the world. I liked hearing that, because I also find that when I'm complacent for a while, it soon follows that I will be unhappy.

I was also very touched by her stories in a more personal way. My Aunt died of cancer just after Thanksgiving. Sometimes it's hard to reconcile seeing how far medical science has come in treating cancer, but still having it not be enough to save a loved one. Some of the fault is her own, because she didn't seek treatment until the very end, but even feel like there should have been more. Don't get me wrong, she defied doctors' expectations twice.

When she went in for an MRI on the Monday before Thanksgiving, they found that the tumors were in bad places near her stomach and had to do emergency surgery; without it she would almost certainly die, and with it there was a pretty good chance she wouldn't wake up, and if she did they expected her to be uncommunicative. Tuesday was a good day for her, though. Her son is in prison, but somehow managed to get out with a 3rd party custodian to pay her a visit and say the goodbyes and all. Wednesday was a bad day; she was depressed about her situation and her physical condition similarly suffered. The doctors thought that she would pass away in her sleep that night.

When I visited her on Thanksgiving, she was entertaining the whole family with her trademark baudy stories and witty quips. She was also eating turkey, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie, which really should have been impossible. Things were similar on Friday, because she was a tough old bird. When I saw her again on Saturday night, she seemed slower. Not as funny, and like she was missing that spark she always had. I got scared that she was going when she started talking about my grandmother, who died 10 years ago. Her breathing was very labored, and she seemed like she was in a lot of pain (this resolved when the nurse refilled her machine). My Aunt passed away at 64 years old the next morning.

Even though it was expected, and probably for the best (you can't have a high-quality life from a hospital bed), it's not easy to deal with during such a family and miracle oriented season. Perspective is everything. I think this is part of the reason why it's a mitzvah to visit the sick; cheering them up is important and valuable, as is caring for them. We also need to see the small miracles that happen around them because death and waiting for a miracle that never came can shake a person's faith, but we need to respect and appreciate life and the miracles that do come.

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