This time it felt like the lowering of the coffin was taking place in a slow-motion film. When it finally bottomed, the descent seemed deeper than usual too. I have officiated at perhaps over one hundred funerals, so you would think I would know the norms. But this one was for my own father. Intellectually I knew the steepness must have been the same. And others present assured me the coffin was going down at the typical speed. As the funeral went on I was in two places at once: as death professional and as mourner. Would this make my mourning easier or more complex, or both? A few weeks ago, my husband Steve and I co-officiated for my 95-year-old father at this simple gathering that barely topped a minyan (prayer quorum of at least ten adults). I chose to chant the Prayer of Mercy, which came up in the service so soon I whispered to Steve, “I do this already?” It felt like we had skipped part of the service. Well good I thought. My professional role was not crowding out all the effects of grieving: an agonizingly slow lowering, a harrowing depth, and distorted time. As I chanted, I felt like I was fulfilling a once-in-a-lifetime sacred task . How many mourners have the opportunity to ritually sing of God’s “sheltering presence” and “finding refuge in the shadow of the Eternal’s wings” as part of their send-off for a loved one?
During my initial mourning period at home, mulling over the idea of returning to work soon after was nauseating at first. Being a hospice chaplain is not exactly a good distraction from funerals and grieving. But there is the comfort of colleagues, and we certainly have been more on the same page than colleagues of other professions could have been. Also I do not have to bear the stupid or insensitive remarks I have had to endure elsewhere, such as, “It’ll be easier for you. Old people are so hard to take care of anyway.” Yep. A distant relative actually said that to me as the body was being shipped across state lines to its final destination. As for taking care of patients and their families, at first I told myself that other people’s problems were a break from the constant rewind tapes of my own. Maybe I could not concentrate as well as usual, but it sufficed. After the blur of the first day or so, I then pondered how my thoughts and feelings were running more parallel to those of the people I was serving than ever before. I felt more united with family, thinking, “I’ve just been through what you are going through. I’m with you. I can relate.” So the upside of going back to work is that I have not had to pretend and put on a happy face. Most of all, I feel more deeply the sacred power of visiting the sick and accompanying the bereaved. I am honoring my father’s legacy by striving to do compassionate acts in the context of a now tighter bond between myself and those I serve.
This article was reprinted with slight modifications from the blog “Expired and Inspired” in The Jewish Journal, December 28, 2016. The link is http://www.jewishjournal.com/expiredandinspired/item/double_exposure