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The Bond of Life

C. Gourgey, Ph.D.


Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
Matthew 18:18

There is nothing more painful than the inability to atone for an offense after it is too late.

In my previous life I worked as a hospice music therapist. There is a pastoral dimension to hospice music therapy. One tries to be with people during the most difficult times of their lives. Often the caregivers’ needs are greater than the patient’s. Therefore the ministry of hospice does not end with the death of the patient; it addresses the family’s bereavement as well.

Even at its least complicated, grief can be excruciating. It is greatly exacerbated when there are regrets, self-recriminations for having waited too long to say what one really felt about one’s loved one, or for having hurt the person who died before one could make amends. Some people live their whole lives carrying such scars on their souls. But it is still possible to heal a relationship after someone has died.

Hospice honors the transition of a person from this life, making accessible a dimension of life usually obscured in our traditional hospital settings. I saw this in my previous work and even more clearly through my own most recent hospice experience, this time not as a care provider but as a family member.

My mother was an independent woman. At 95 her mind was clear. She cooked for herself, cleaned for herself, did everything for herself, and took daily walks to keep herself healthy. But she was frail. She didn’t eat enough, and looked close to emaciated.

Because of a weakness in her digestive tract she suffered periodic episodes of bleeding. If the hemorrhaging was bad enough, she had to be taken to the emergency room where the bleeding could be stopped. She had a few episodes like this, and came home successfully each time.

One day the bleeding was particularly severe. My sister took her to the emergency room, where they waited long hours for the preparation and surgery to take their course. The medical staff decided that this time an embolization process would be necessary to finally end the bleeding.

She could not come home right away. She was too weak, and spent too much time in bed not using her muscles. We had to find a rehab center where she could recover and regain her mobility. We found a good one, and they were willing to hold the bed until she was ready.

Days went by, but she still could not leave. Something happened we did not expect: She began hallucinating, seeming disoriented, not knowing where she was. She mistook a nurse for my wife, hugged her and said “Karen, I’m so glad to see you - but you look different.” She would make odd gestures in the air, like she was knitting or sewing something, an activity she used to enjoy.

At first we were afraid this could be a stroke, but that was ruled out. It was actually a condition known as hospital delirium, a rapidly developing state of confusion and severe disorientation not uncommon during recovery from surgery, especially in the elderly. She was also showing signs of pneumonia, which they attempted to treat with antibiotics.

A physician who looked in on her was optimistic. This happens; it will pass, he assured us. She will recover and eventually go to rehab as planned. Looking at my mother, I didn’t think so. She looked too much like what I’d seen in many of my hospice patients. I knew then that she wasn’t coming home.

The delirium was not constant. She would go in and out of it. She was actually much better off while delirious and not conscious of her suffering. When she was more alert, she was so depressed that she asked us repeatedly to end her life. The delirium’s return seemed like an act of mercy.

It was clear to me that rehab was now out of the question. I asked her doctor to evaluate her for hospice and start an application. She insisted on waiting, still believing that the antibiotics might prove effective and bring my mother out of her weakened state. I agreed to give it until the middle of the week, and then, barring any sign of improvement, I wanted hospice called in.

Her condition remained the same, and we applied her to hospice. That is when things started to change.

We were fortunate even graced to be able to place her in a hospice residence staffed by knowledgeable and compassionate people. Far from the beeping of monitors, coughing and fussing of roommates even during the night, and frequent interruptions by hospital staff, she was now in a spacious single room where she could rest undisturbed. My sister and I could commune with her in sacred solitude.

She was much weaker now. She spoke only in unintelligible monosyllables. But it was clear that she knew who we were until the end. When I came in and spoke to her, she would open her eyes wide and greet me, but then I would lose her as she slipped back into her struggle. Those first few days in hospice I did not sense peace in her, but sadness. I have seen this before: sometimes one needs to grieve before one can let go.

That was the pattern during those initial hospice days. Her face told both my sister and me that she took pleasure in our presence. But there was a tenseness in her expression, especially around her mouth. She was still fighting.

Until the last day. On my final visit, there was a difference. She spontaneously took my hand - something she resisted doing until now, and which I did not try to force. She held my hand for a very long time. I spoke calm reassurances to her, letting her know we will be OK, that she is OK. The muscles in her face softened. Her formerly tense lips relaxed and came together. She was finding her way to someplace new, whose aura of peace became a presence in the room binding us together and her to a new life. Of this new life we can know absolutely nothing, except that its outer edge is palpable to one who has a connection to the person who is dying. It is the boundary between time and eternity. This closeness to eternity makes itself felt as a peace different in quality and more profound than any we experience in earthly life.

My mother died that night.

If you visit a Jewish gravesite you may find an odd abbreviation consisting of five Hebrew letters, which stand for the words tehi naphshah tserurah b’tsror ha-hayyim, “May her soul be bound in the bond of life.” The words originally come from 1 Samuel 25:29, and have acquired layers of meaning. There is a bond that connects all life, here and in eternity. We are never completely separated. We on earth can touch the eternal, and eternity touches us. But we are not always aware of it. The bond that bridges time and eternity is realized only in love.

Jesus addressed that in these words: “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” In this cryptic phrase he addressed the bond between time and eternity. The two are not separate; what we do “here” does matter “there.” Time rests inside eternity, and eternity nourishes time. And love, being eternal, is not lost. What is wounded in time can be salved in eternity.

Everything that appears disconnected here on earth - the fragments of our past, the unfinished rough edges - is connected in eternity. But we must seek that connection. We can commune with the eternal. We can touch the eternal, because we are a part of it; we belong to it.

My mother and I had no “unfinished business.” I was granted the grace to help shepherd her towards that final peace, and felt myself bound with her in the eternal. I was given the chance to give something back to her, after all she had done for me. There is nothing more for which I could have prayed.

My father died before I ever set foot in a hospice. I had not yet learned what I knew with my mother. As the end approached, my sister and I visited him every day; we kept him company and sang songs to him from our childhood. But I did not understand the dying process (not that anyone understands it, but even the little I’m aware of now), and the resolution it can afford. On the night before his operation, from whose effects he would not recover, I apologized to him for all the times I may not have treated him kindly. In his generous spirit he assured me there was nothing to forgive. But it wasn’t enough for me.

My father was a profoundly kind but deeply troubled man. He barely escaped the Holocaust, and that stayed with him his entire life. I did not really appreciate what it meant to him while he was alive. I didn’t quite grasp the pain it caused him to lose his friends and his cherished life in France before the Nazi occupation. I knew he was struggling - he had lifelong asthma and other problems - and I felt helpless to do anything to make his life easier. He kept the inner core of his experience private.

Only after he died did I begin to comprehend the meaning of what he lived through. While going through his things I found a letter he wrote when he first came to this country at the age of 30, to one of the friends he left behind in Paris. The letter never reached his friend; the post office marked it undeliverable. instead that letter became a time capsule for us. My French was rusty but good enough to translate it. My father had been frustratingly withdrawn with us, but in that letter, he opened his soul and expressed an anguish and sadness he never shared with his family. He described the horror of abandoning his old life, and the anxiety of trying to create a new existence in an alien land. And he kept that letter until the day he died.

Of course it is not my fault that I did not know what he declined to share with us, but that did not ease the pain of the sadness I felt for him. I knew American life wasn’t easy for him. But had I known more, I might have understood him better, and might have shared some of those memories with him and so mitigated their sting.

It still pains me that he carried all that inside him, and that he was left alone with it. As a child I did have just an inkling. I remember once he was going to go see a movie about the life of a young boy in German-occupied France. I wanted to go with him, to be with him. He refused to take me.

Guilt can be deceptive. Often what we experience in bereavement as guilt is not that at all. It is a disguised form of love, an intensified wish that we could have done more for our loved one, even given that person a life without pain; nothing would have been too much. Even if we understand the meaning of these guilt feelings, they can leave us with a lack of resolution.

At such moments it is good to recall that we and our loved ones are still bound in the bond of life. Having shared that eternal moment with my mother, I know that our love is not really lost. I can bring this awareness to my father as well, even years later. My connection to him exists in that same eternal moment. And in that moment his pain is resolved, and the love he gave and received has become his fulfilled reality.

One need not have worked in a hospice to know this. There are many kinds of love. Sometimes love is grasping and needy. But the love that comes from God is not self-interested. There is usually at least an element of that love in our love for those who are close to us. We can dwell on that love, not trying to grasp it with our minds but praying into it, to sense that the connection does not die. Nothing eternal dies.

Do we regret not having shown our loved ones enough love? In the bond of the eternal moment, they know how much we love them. Are there words we are sorry we left unspoken? The love that spans the worlds needs no words.

In this sense prayer becomes a way of knowing. Prayer is the endeavor to enter into the awareness of eternal life. This kind of prayer does not ask for things or tell God what to do. It brings us through the contemplation of love, which is God’s nature, to the place where this life touches what is beyond this life. In this space we can honor the connection, finding healing of relationships past and the fixing of that which is broken. “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death” (Song of Songs 8:6). When through this contemplation we approach the sacred boundary, those whom we have lost become guides for us, and we participate in their new life.

January 2019