What Do Successful Conversations Sound Like?
Supporting your congregants as they consider the end-of-life options can be difficult. You will likely be forced to confront your own values about quality and quantity of life. Working alongside the Jewish hospice practitioner, the religious leader can help create a environment where open conversation is encouraged and supported.
As Jewish religious leaders, one of our important responsibilities is to cultivate hope that is so important to a good quality of life. Rabbi Maurice Lamm shares:
Without lying, without pandering, a caregiver must translate that hope into a more realistic one, perhaps a hope to live without pain, a hope that her dreams for her family may well be realized, and surely a hope that God will care for her.
Families may be looking to you to assure them they aren’t “doing the wrong thing.” People who rarely based their decisions on “Jewish tradition” may begin asking “what does Judaism say?” or “does Judaism permit this?” Religious leaders are sometimes tasked with the responsibility to cultivate hope in the face of adversity and to speak on behalf of God. This task may seem daunting or even naïve.
In all cases, one of the most important responsibilities for a religious leader is to support open dialogue and healing conversations within the family system.
Even if you aren’t formally trained in counseling or family systems, you know your congregants. You have seen them through life cycle events, joys and challenges. You can adopt and develop some of these good LISTENING habits:
- Pay Attention – stay engaged and listen actively with mind and body
- Listen for the total meaning – be receptive to both the message and the emotional content
- Respond to feelings – and remember that the emotional content often is far more important than the verbal message
- Note all cues – and keep in mind that the person is offering a fuller picture through nonverbal behavior
- Don’t fake understanding – admit when you lose track and ask the person to explain further
- Do not tell the speaker that you know how they feel – this conversation is not about you and this response can be experienced as patronizing
- Vary your responses – because there is no single ‘right’ response you can paraphrase, remain silent or communicate in your own way that you are paying attention
- Choose the most accurate feeling word – try to be specific in identifying the emotion appropriate to the situation, but be sure to “checkout” whether this resonates with the speaker’s emotional state
- Develop vocal empathy – let the speaker ‘feel’ like they are understood and emotionally supported
- Reflect the speaker’s internal and external resources – try to help them uncover any resources that may help them address the problem
Even if the family has clinical resources with their medical care team, your support affords them the opportunity to explore the spiritual, religious and existential dimensions of their conversation. Listen to the themes that repeat; these words, phrases or concepts may reflect their underlying concern, fears or hopes. You may be able to help them articulate their values.
Repeated within our sacred texts is the creation of Jewish ethical wills. Near the time of his death, Jacob gathers his children and grandchildren at his bedside. He offers his hopes and wishes for how they might live, “as he bade them farewell, addressing to each a parting word appropriate to him.” (Genesis 50.28) Moses shares his prophecy before he ascends Mount Nebo and the Israelites enter Eretz Yisrael. King David, before he dies, prepares Solomon for his ascension to the monarchy and requests he complete David’s unfinished tasks. Rabbinic and medieval Jewish literature share examples of ethical wills left by parents for their children.
Ethical wills often seek to respond to questions, such as: What messages do parents want to leave for their children? What gifts do children wish to offer their parents to show gratitude for their life of blessing? How do spouses want to care for each other in their final days? What remains unfinished? What has given them the greatest pride? As a trusted religious leader, you can pose these questions and explore their responses as they create a vision for how they wish to live their life.
If the patient or family seems open, you may find it appropriate to offer teaching, study or prayer. And be open to the reality that your open, non-judgmental and non-anxious presence may be a prayer in itself.
The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO) has produced valuable resources about planning ahead, caregiving and end-of-life care generally. These brochures offer useful tips on how to initiate conversations and ways to continue supporting discussions when family members disagree.
We especially recommend: Conversations before the Crisis, End-of-Life Caregiving, and Communicating End-of-Life Wishes. They are available for download at the Caring Connections Brochures page.
See our Spiritual Resources for other resources you might find helpful.