Sacred conversions: Learning to talk about what matters

Jewish Hospital
Rabbi Nadia Siritsky

Rabbi Nadia Siritsky

I am frequently called to a patient’s bedside by the family as they face difficult decisions for their loved one who can no longer speak for themselves – a gut-wrenching task, especially in a society that doesn’t talk enough about life and death, faith and ethics.
Starting a conversation about death and dying isn’t easy. Many people tell me they are afraid of sounding “morbid” or being a “downer.” They don’t know how to start, afraid that that the talk might alarm or depress their loved ones.
As people of faith, we are called to lean into our fears with our faith. Don’t treat the fears as reasons to avoid the talks, see them as open spaces yearning to be filled with faith. Truthfully, this is an opportunity to express our belief in how we live on beyond our bodies, a chance to trust our loved ones to honor our wishes and to be our voices when we cannot.
Likely, we have all recognized that things are not as bad as we feared. It can be helpful to hold on to that memory, letting it fill us with strength and faith. When we can gather our courage to have a difficult conversation, and share our deepest feelings and beliefs, we generally find that those conversations can be most meaningful and connecting.
This is one of the primary drivers of “games” such as The Hello Game or The Conversation Project, which help people begin these conversations. In my experience, while those initial few moments can feel a bit awkward, the conversation can quickly unleash a torrent of emotion and catharsis, and end on a note of gratitude and peace. Indeed, those initial awkward moments are less likely to be a sign that the conversation is unwelcome, and more likely to be a sign that the individual is assessing the emotional safety necessary for that conversation.
Of course, these conversations require knowledge and skill. As such, KentuckyOne Health has joined with other organizations across the city, including Hosparus Health and Before I Die Louisville, to provide education and resources to assist individuals in having these conversations.
In honor of National Health Care Decision Month this April, we are hosting tables in our hospitals, staffed by our chaplains and ethics committee members, to provide information and encourage such conversations.
In addition, we are collaborating to provide an educational session with free CEs for all registered participants, regarding on Advance Care Planning. We also are encouraging community conversations through the arts. Bunbury Theatre Company is presenting a powerful play about end-of-life choices, Grace and Glorie, followed by panel discussions. And a story-telling event entitled “No Regrets” at the Bards Town, will inspire us to share what matters most to us with the people who matter most.
For more information, please see our website at
End-of-life conversations are important expressions of our faith. Indeed, Judaism exhorts us to acknowledge our mortality and recognize that this awareness can inspire us to live more meaningful lives. On Yom Kippur, we dress in shrouds and fast until we are so weakened that our mortality can propel us toward even more comprehensive repentance.
The Talmud Shabbat 153b teaches: “Rabbi Eliezer said: “Repent one day before your death.” So his disciples asked him: “Does a person know which day he will die?” Rabbi Eliezer responded, “Certainly, then, a person should repent today, for perhaps tomorrow he will die, so that all his days he is repenting.”
When we look at life through this lens, we find that life is far more meaningful. Our conversations with our loved ones become more precious; we live life with fewer regrets.
Narrative therapy uses this insight to encourage those who are struggling with difficult decisions to consider how they might feel many years from now when they are on their deathbeds, reflecting upon this pivotal moment. What choice would make them feel proud?
On April 16, Jewish Hospital celebrated the 55th anniversary of its first transplant. Since then, well over 3,000 life-saving and miraculous transplants have taken place at Jewish, transplants that were mostly possible by courageous donors who had difficult, but life-sustaining, conversations with their loved ones about their end-of-life wishes.
During National Health Care Decision Month, may all of us take time to reflect and reach out to our loved ones, to share ourselves. May our courage and compassion lead us to more miracles and celebrations.

(Rabbi Nadia Siritsky is vice president of mission at KentuckyOne Health.)

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