Rabbi Daniel Coleman, Staff Chaplain, North Shore University Hospital, June 2007

Recently I visited a patient at North Shore University Hospital who had been admitted with severe emphysema.  Though she had trouble breathing, she got right to the point:  A former alcoholic and still a heavy smoker, she said she felt guilty about killing herself.  “I’m dying for a cigarette,” she admitted.

But she had more than medical problems on her mind.  She said she had been estranged from her family for a long time and had only one friend.  That’s when I began a life review with her.

Only in her 50’s, this patient told me she had been an elementary school teacher for decades, so I reflected back to her that she must have touched many people’s lives over the years.  That was the opening she needed.  She talked about her family, regretting that she couldn’t be there for them when she was drinking.  She felt it was too late for reconciliation, but wished they could know that she had tried her best to straighten out her life and was sorry she had let them down.

Before I left that Wednesday, she asked me to bring her a set of electric Sabbath candles at my next visit.  Though our conversation hadn’t touched on religion, I happily agreed.

Unfortunately, the next time I saw this patient, she was in intensive care.  Comatose, she wasn’t aware that members of her family, including her son, daughter-in-law, and two brothers, were at her bedside.  They were in shock, because they hadn’t known how seriously ill she was.  They also expressed anger that she had abandoned them.

As we talked, the family voiced their appreciation for the time I had spent with their relative.  They were amazed that she had been so open with me.  “She was never able to tell us what she was going through.  Thank you for being there for her.”

They were even more surprised that she had asked for Sabbath candles since she hadn’t been religious, but they gladly accepted them from me.  

I learned later that the patient’s family had lit the candles for her that Friday, and that she had taken her last breath shortly afterward.  I was so comforted that she had light to accompany her on her journey to a place of peace.  Of course that’s the wonderful promise at the end of Psalm 18, Verse 28:  “For thou wilt light my candle:  the Lord my God will enlighten my darkness.”