It is an incredible and humbling privilege to sit with people who are dying.
Communication tends to be very different—colored by the awareness of life’s ebbing and often constrained (though sometimes eased, or deepened) by the dying person’s limited capacity for verbal expression or wakeful energy. Family members and caregivers who are present often experience heightened anxiety about saying or doing the right thing and about the sudden importance of minute gestures and decisions. Visitors, whether well or dying, may feel particularly vulnerable, helpless, or disoriented in unfamiliar spiritual terrain and may naturally choke up when trying to acknowledge the profound and poignant losses everyone is feeling or facing.
In that context, it can be calming, consoling, and healing to silently hold someone’s life-worn hands, look into their eyes, or freely speak words of love and caring.
I find the structure of viduiLit. Confession. A litany of one's sins that is traditionally recited on Yom Kippur, prior to one’s wedding, and on one's deathbed. (acknowledgement or forgiveness) liturgy to be helpful in permitting and encouraging people to express pent-up fears, yearnings, and heartfelt prayers.
From the nightly bedtime shemaThe most central prayer in Jewish liturgy, the Shema states: "Hear O Israel, the Lord Our God, the Lord is One." These words are written inside mezuzot and t'fillin. It is traditionally said during all major services and when waking and going to sleep. to the extended Yom KippurThe holiest day of the Jewish year and the culmination of a season of self-reflection. Jews fast, abstain from other worldly pleasures, and gather in prayers that last throughout the day. Following Ne'ilah, the final prayers, during which Jews envision the Gates of Repentance closing, the shofar is sounded in one long blast to conclude the holy day. It is customary to begin building one's sukkah as soon as the day ends. confessional and the various versions of vidui addressing life threatening illness or mortality, most forms of the liturgy include pleas for forgiveness and shalom, as well as humble acknowledgements of our wrongdoing and mortality.
When guiding people through these passages, I usually pause between sections and invite everyone present to use the different themes as prompts for their own heartfelt words of forgiveness, gratitude, blessing or well-wishing for one another. We often form circles, holding hands, pouring out love aloud and silently—even when the dying person is apparently unconscious or unresponsive.
A vidui ritual can open channels of communication on multiple levels, and can help transform moments of anxiety and concern into moments of comfort and connection. Examples of vidui prayers can be found on Ritualwell and elsewhere on the internet. A rabbi or professional chaplain can be a helpful resource in introducing, framing, or guiding one through a vidui ritual.
Read a vidui used by the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center.
Natan Fenner is a Reconstructionist rabbi and a Board Certified Chaplain at the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center in San Francisco. He provides spiritual care to those facing illness and bereavement, and coordinates BAJHC’s Torah Reflections series.