The Power of Prayer, Ritual and Tradition: Reflections from a Caregiver

Esther Saritzky

On August 1, 1998, I started a diary with the words ‘Today Harvey signed the papers which placed him in hospice…This is my hospice diary. Will I be able to keep it up? Will I be able to help him get through this experience? Can I possibly come out alive on the other end? The answer to all of that is - only God knows...So together, my darling husband of 49 years and I started a journey. A journey which would find each of us in a very different place at the end.

I knew I needed some tools to survive this most difficult and heartbreaking job. And being the organizational woman that I am, I tried to gather them up before I needed them. For him, I needed painkillers, music that he liked (swing), promises from friends and chavura that they would visit often (some did, some didn’t), a review of our estate (done with him – he was very reluctant), a letter to my children asking them to do what I needed from them…[For me, I needed] a promise to myself to care for myself, since my strength would be needed and a long talk with both of my rabbis about text to study, minyanim, plans for the – afterwards…

Generally Psalms hardly touch me. Oh, they are beautiful, but comfort, consolation, help in facing death – not possible. Not possible. And yet, when I took that book in my hands and let it open, something happened. A connected occurred that is rare. I was connected to God. I was connected to all those who face pain and death. I was connected to those who mourn, and those who rejoice, and those who see God’s world, and those who are God’s children. Connection through poetry and prayer…

I remembered an article I had read by a religious therapist. He suggested [reciting] Modeh Ani. The morning prayer one recites upon opening ones eyes…“Modah ani l’fanecha. I am grateful, Creative Source of the Universe that you have protected my soul and renewed it for another day of purpose and compassionate living. I am happy that I can depend at least on this.” I started reciting it. It amazed me and continues to do so. Instead of my brain starting my day with “Oh God, is this the day Harvey will die?” It focused me. That ancient, almost primitive prayer focused me on how to be a compassionate and grateful human being during the rest of those toughest days.

[Prayer] centers you. It brings your whole being and neshamah to attention that for the rest of the day you are to consider those who need your help and kindness. It’s a powerful thing, waking up each day to your soul’s purpose and purity. It is, in hospice, an early morning antidote to sorrow and despair.

…My Jewish faith demands that each day I go on a journey, just like Jacob did. He faced sorrow, fear, pain and knowledge of his own limitations. Our challenge is to remember that God provides us with the resources we need to face life’s challenges. We have to pray, like Jacob did, that we have the perseverance to go the distance of life. And we have to know that God is present and expects us to choose life.