With full hearts

When my husband was on a cardiopulmonary bypass machine this October, I didn’t worry about what I’d be making for supper the following Thursday night.

Nor did I concern myself with what we would be doing for entertainment during his recovery in the hospital. I didn’t think about washing the kitchen floors or buying my oldest daughter new Shabbos clothing. I didn’t think about making my house cheery and inviting with “Get Well Soon!” balloons, flowers, baskets of fruit, or other goodies. I didn’t worry about coordinating my husband’s trip to shul via wheelchair in the coming weekends. And I certainly didn’t stress about reading material during his recuperation at home.

No, as my husband was undergoing open-heart surgery for a genetic condition discovered only a few short months prior, my only concern was that he make it through the next couple of hours alive.

Waiting in a hospital during a loved one’s surgery is a nerve-wracking experience, wherein a person is forced to admit helplessness and sit there doing nothing while submitting to the grace and will of the surgeon and/or God. Okay, I didn’t do nothing. I said tehillim and then went down the block to pick up a large 2,000-calorie chocolate milkshake from Baskin Robbins — two acts that were equally helpful in their own rights. I read Facebook messages from friends and family who made challah, said tehillim, and sent well wishes for a successful surgery. I responded to texts and calls about any progress. I tried to coax my mother-in-law, who was with me in the waiting room, to drink half of my milkshake. And I was successfully distracted for a couple of hours when one of my closest friends came to visit during the long wait.

By the grace of God and the skill of the NYU surgical team, the procedure was successful, and my husband was sent home after four days in the hospital. The recovery period both in the hospital as well as at home was fairly smooth, but I felt completely overwhelmed, not by all the emotional chaos and upheaval that this medical episode caused, but by the unbelievable show of love and support that my family received from relatives, friends, co-workers, and our surrounding Teaneck community.

Words can never truly express the appreciation that my husband and I have felt for the people in our lives. To all those who visited, called, sent get well messages, prayed, baked challah, made meals, sent baskets and balloons, cleaned our house, helped take care of the kids, inquired about our well-being, and offered help in any way: Thank you. At risk of diluting the meaning behind those two words, I’ll leave it at that. Thank you.

I am also fully aware that people experience illness and recovery differently. The other week I was talking with a relative who had left her synagogue the previous year. She had been a regular, active member, attending services every weekend, until she had to bow out for a few months when her elderly father fell ill. She was disappointed, to say the least, that not one person from her synagogue, including the rabbi, reached out in regard to her absence to see if things were okay. She ended up finding and switching to a warmer synagogue community, but the whole episode left her with a bad taste in her mouth.

I’m glad that she found a welcome alternative, but it frustrated me to hear her story, such a stark contrast to my own. I wonder if part of the difference in our encounters had to do with the fact that my husband and I were open and forthright with information about his upcoming surgery, so that our community knew the situation and therefore were more likely to respond to it. Maybe it’s simply a matter of visibility. Not everyone is vocal about such matters, though, even when it concerns a medical matter that isn’t necessarily dubbed “personal” or “taboo” (as in, say, miscarriage or mental illness). Some people are accustomed to being quieter about events in their lives than others, and I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to go about sharing that kind of information. I do think, however, that there’s a right or wrong way for a community to respond when its own members potentially are struggling.

The week after hearing my relative’s story, I went away for Shabbos Chanukah. At morning services, when it was time to say the “Mi Sheberach” — the Prayer for the Sick — the rabbi told the congregation to look around at the seats near them and notice if there was anyone they haven’t seen in a while, who might be absent due to illness. Think about them, the rabbi said, during the following prayer. People did look around as instructed, and during the pause to insert the names of the ill, people took turns from where they stood in the sanctuary and called out the Hebrew names of individuals in need of prayers.

I found the experience to be incredibly meaningful, especially in light of the recent story I heard from my relative as well as my own encounter. I think it would be a great and meaningful service to communities everywhere if the Prayer for the Sick had such a simple, true preface every time it is spoken, followed by this kind of personal community member involvement. Just a couple of sentences before a blessing can put people participating in services in the appropriate frame of mind not just for the blessing itself, but for, in a more general sense, thinking about other community members they otherwise may not notice.

So, I urge the rabbis and members of our communities to keep these words in mind, especially during the winter months, when we might naturally see other community members less frequently due to the colder weather. It’s important to ask ourselves: Is it really the (eventual) snow and frost that is keeping so-and-so away on Shabbos, or might it possibly be due to something else, mental or physical, personal or otherwise?

And even if it is personal, I would encourage people to reach out. There are ways to phrase a question; a simple inquiry into someone else’s well-being will be appreciated by even the most private of people. Even if the person in question is, in fact, doing well, this gesture can make a profound difference in how welcome and included one feels in the community.

Wishes to all for a complete healing — a healing of the soul and a healing of the body.

About the Author
Dena Croog is a writer and editor in Teaneck, New Jersey, whose work has focused primarily on psychiatry, mental health, and the book publishing industry. She is the founder of Refa’enu, a nonprofit organization dedicated to mood disorder awareness and support. More information about the organization and its support groups can be found at www.refaenu.org. You also can email dena@refaenu.org with any questions or comments.