Setting: A Torah study group at a long-term senior residence in Cincinnati.
Harriet: I wish more people joined us today. But people forget we’re meeting. People here forget everything. There are so many people who are forgetting their memories.
Me: That sounds really hard.
Shirley: People forget things, but there are so many people here with interesting stories. I just try to learn about people’s stories and make the best of it.
Harriet: Well, I think it’s really hard to live here. I don’t have the same outlook.
Me: It seems like each of you has different feelings about living here.
Shirley: Well, I guess that’s true. It’s okay for us to have different feelings.
Setting: In a hospital room, with a man in his thirties who had accidentally overdosed on medication.
Paul: I don’t have a problem with addiction. I need these meds, but I accidentally took too much because I wasn’t watching how much time had passed. I need this medicine to do my job. I have a wife and four kids. I have to support them.
Me: There’s a lot in your life that you are responsible for.
Paul: I’m responsible for so much. I don’t want to let my family down. And I don’t want them to think I’ve given up either.
Me: It doesn’t sound to me like you’ve given up. It sounds like you are fighting hard to get better and to take care of your family. I bet they want to help take care of you, too.
Paul: They do. It’s hard for me to ask for help, but I know they want to help me as much I want to support them.
These are two snippets of conversations that I have remembered among the many conversations I have had a student chaplain in a Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) program (names and some details have been changed to protect the identity of individuals). I work as a student chaplain in a hospital and at a long-term senior residence. Each week, six colleagues and I spend time processing our work with patients and residents with our supervisor, Rabbi Julie Schwartz. We share our successes and our struggles. We work together to learn from each other and our experiences. My work as a student chaplain and as a participant in CPE has shaped the way I think about being a pastoral presence as a rabbi.
If you had asked me before I began what would be the hardest part of participating in CPE, I would have guessed that the long hours or being with families in some of their worst moments would be the toughest part of this experience. What I’ve learned in the last several months is that both long hours and sitting with families in grief and pain are sacred work. The biggest challenge for me has been learning how to resist the temptation to try to fix people’s problems. So much of my time is spent with people who are hurting and want their pain to go away. When we talk, people often ask me (both implicitly and explicitly) how they can fix their problem. So often, our inclination is to offer solutions—Have you tried this? Have you done that? What about this other idea? What I’ve learned in my work and study as a student chaplain is that we cannot fix away pain and hurt. We cannot fix away grief and sadness.
As a chaplain, I have become more comfortable sitting in the discomfort of not being able to find solutions. Though I may not be able to solve someone’s loneliness of living in a senior residence, I can honor their life by listening to their stories and asking about their experiences. I cannot take away someone’s cancer, but I can sit with them, acknowledge their pain, and offer a shoulder to cry on. CPE has taught me that being a pastoral presence means not shying away from people’s hardest moments but rather learning how to sit with people in those moments and hold space for whatever they are feeling. When we can do this, our community members are seen, and we are truly creating sacred relationships.
Deborah Goldberg is a fourth-year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is currently completing her first unit of Clinical Pastoral Education. She also serves as the rabbinic intern at Congregation Beth Tikvah in Worthington, Ohio.