[By Rabbi Yaakov Dovid Klar - Associate Director, Project CHAI, A program of Chai Lifeline]
It was just another regular day at Project CHAI. Calls were fielded as soon as they came in, information was given, and questions were answered. The humdrum quality of this ordinary day was punctured when Mr. M. called in to discuss his wife’s precarious condition.
Rivky M., a 28-year-old mother of four, had fallen ill a few short weeks ago. From one day to the next, this vibrant young mother whose eldest is but ten-years-old, became a critically-ill patient.
This Tuesday morning, her condition rapidly deteriorated. The doctors shook their heads helplessly and informed Mr. M. that her end was near.
I listened to the broken voice of a man at the brink of loss. He was lost in pain, confusion and deep-rooted fear. He was worried about his children. How would they take the news? How could he prepare them for the inevitable?
I assured Mr. M. that help was on the way, instructing him to remain with his wife while I arranged a visit for his two eldest children. The two boys, ages ten and eight respectively, accompanied me without question. As soon as I told them that I would be taking them to visit their mother, their faces lit up with joy.
That hour of time was heart-wrenching. I had to prepare these two innocent children for a meeting that was essentially a ‘farewell’. We sat down together in the lobby of the Manhattan hospital and I started conversing with them about their mother.
“This Shavuos, Mommy was very weak,” the older one said gravely. “She coughed the whole time and she could barely walk.”
“That’s why your Mommy is here, in this big hospital,” I told him. “There are many top doctors here who are giving her the best care possible. Tatty is with her all the time, making sure that everything is being done so that she could get better.”
The boys nodded in understanding and began to describe their mother to me. I learned about the mother who sang and played with them, who laughed at their jokes and worried about their tears, prepared lunches and snacks, who served them meals and taught them about baking.
I explained that their mother was weak and floating in and out of consciousness. With words, I drew a picture of what she would look like.
“Your Mommy loves you,” I assured them. “She may be sleeping the entire time when you’re there. She is very weak and she might not have the strength to talk to you or even look at you, but she loves you more than you can ever imagine.”
After that, I gently described to them the many machines they would encounter in their mother’s room and what their functions were. I didn’t want the children to be overwhelmed and frightened by the beeping machinery instead of focusing on the precious moments they would always treasure.
“You said that Mommy had a hard time breathing on Yom Tov, right?”
The boys nodded.
“That’s why she is connected to a machine with a tube in her nose and her mouth. It’s helping her breathe better. Tatty is there with her all the time to make sure she is getting the best care possible.”
After our lengthy discussion, I felt that the boys were sufficiently prepared for the visit. Together, we headed to the elevator. The boys were silent, digesting what they had heard and preparing themselves for the actual visit. When we entered their mother’s room, they didn’t flinch. At that point they were prepared to the best of their understanding. They glanced at the beeping machines and flashing monitors, and then focused their gaze on their beloved mother.
She was aware that they had entered the room and she made a supreme effort to remain conscious. However, the severity of her condition caused her to float in and out of consciousness. The boys started talking to her; I had told them for a moment to pretend to be ordinary children discussing the day’s events with their mother.
“Tell Mommy about your day,” I urged them. “What did you do this morning? What did you eat for supper last night?”
And the boys talked. They spoke to Mommy. It was obvious that she was struggling to open her eyes, to focus on her children.
“Kinderlach, tell Mommy how much you love her. Sing to her,” I gently suggested.
The boys started singing to their mother. Their sweet voices were raised in song, expressing all the love and fear and hope that lay concealed in their tender hearts. Standing near them, I felt the enormity of the moment. It was a warm family moment, and a moment that could never be repeated in their young lives.
The ten-year-old, a mature and precocious child, turned to his mother and said, “Mommy, I want to ask for one favor. Please, give me just one smile. Mommy, just one smile.”
We held our breath as Mrs. M. struggled mightily to overcome her weakness. At last, she managed to bestow a smile upon her beloved eldest.
“Thank you, Mommy,” he said tearfully. “I love you.”
The boys bent over their mother’s bed and kissed her.
At that point, it was obvious that the children were emotionally spent. They had merited this final visit with their mother, which would serve as a warm memory for the coming days.
When we reached the lobby, I sat down with the children and started preparing them for what was to come. We spoke about what was and what wouldn’t be again. We discussed the pain, the hurt.
“But I still need my Mommy,” the ten-year-old cried.
For nearly an hour, we spoke and cried. We discussed their feelings and their fears. I gave them tips to release their emotions.
“You can write it all down, draw pictures or discuss it with me or with Tatty,” I said. “Tatty is staying here with you. No matter what happens, you will stay together with Tatty. You will always be a family. You will still go to the same school and have the same friends. We’ll be with you at every step of the way.”
At last, the ten-year-old said that he wanted to go to cheder.
As the day progressed, Rivky’s condition steadily worsened. That night, Hashem took her neshama back to Shamayim. The four children were already sleeping at the time, and I counseled Mr. M. to leave them be. There was no need to awaken them; tomorrow would be soon enough for them to discover what had happened.
Throughout that long, painful night, I was in constant contact with Mr. M. We discussed what to tell each child, how to break the news that Mommy was now in a different place.
And the following morning, a Project CHAI volunteer sat with the M. children and gently steered them along the path to acceptance.
The eldest child turned to his father and remarked, “Rabbi Klar told us that you will always be with us. You will make sure that we are alright.”
Mr. M., swallowing his tears, assured him, “Yes, mein kind. I know that you will miss Mommy – we all will. But I’ll be here with you to help you along.”
I spoke to the children on the phone, preparing them for the levaya, for the recital of Kaddish. It will be a long road for these innocent orphans, but they have taken the first steps with confidence.
For more information or to request immediate assistance in time of tragedy, trauma or crisis, call 855 3-CRISIS or email CRISIS@CHAILIFELINE.ORG.
Rabbi Yaakov Dovid Klar is the Associate Director, Project CHAI, A program of Chai Lifeline
Project CHAI offers immediate assistance when crisis, tragedy, trauma or untimely death shatters the equilibrium of families and communities. Established in 2000, it is the largest and oldest full-service crisis and trauma intervention service dedicated to serving the Jewish community.
(YWN World Headquarters – NYC)