When You Can’t Tell Your Doctors if You Want to Live (or Die)

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IV setup in a hospital patient
02 Aug 2012

A man must pray for Divine mercy even until the very last shovelful has been poured upon his grave peacefully….

-folk-saying quoted by the Talmud Berachot, 8a

I couldn’t believe this was happening to me, especially after the special closeness I’d developed with Dad during the last years of his life. But it was happening, and I couldn’t bear it.  Not now.

Gary had become very angry 15 years ago when I started becoming religious. He’d told his friends that his sister had gone off the deep end in Israel. But in the years since, our relationship had mended a great deal and he had come to accept, and even respect, Torah observance. Or so I thought.

But now he was livid and adamant. He insisted that he had had a long conversation about this years ago with Dad and that under no circumstances did my father want any life-prolonging measures. “He doesn’t want to live that way! He doesn’t believe in your religious ‘soul stuff’!” he yelled into the receiver from his home in Beverly Hills. I tried to explain to him that there was a lot that could still be done, and that Dad could enjoy seeing his grandchildren for months, if not years, to come. But it was no use. Now Dad, incapable of making decisions in his present condition, needed a surgical procedure and Gary was going to block it. What’s worse, in his angry ranting he’d mentioned something about cremation when the time would come. Dad had told me specifically he no longer thought that way.

Gary had been living far from Dad for ten years now, whereas Chaim and I were with him in New York, and were able to visit him with our kids regularly. Over the years, I had sensitively broached certain religious subjects with him. Dad had reacted well. He had started going to services on the High Holy Days and only brought kosher meats into the house.

But if only I had had the courage to bring up the end-of-life discussion…I’m sure he would have agreed to whatever I would have suggested.

But now, I had no proof, and certainly nothing in writing from him.

Never have I regretted not dotting my “i”s more than in this matter. Gary remained technically authorized to decide for Dad, and the lawyer I spoke to said it would be an uphill battle to try to intervene.

This situation and many like it are very familiar to rabbis and outreach professionals.  Additionally, with recent attitude-trends in the medical community, even when there is a uniform position from the patient’s family, there is still great risk that the doctor or hospital will not follow their  direction, especially if a legal Healthcare Proxy was not signed. Aside from patient care, post-mortem decisions are often a source of family strife.

This can all be avoided with the “EMES Card” of the National Association of Chevra Kadisha (NASCK).

The EMES (Emergency Medical Education and Signup) Campaign by the National Association of Chevra Kadisha (NASCK) is an initiative to get Jews all across the country to protect themselves and their loved ones by signing a Health Care Proxy/Halachic Living Will,  registering it at the US Living Will registry and carrying the EMES Card.

Read the OU’s information and directions regarding executing a living will.

Contact NASCK and find out more about the EMES Campaign.

Numerous shuls (synagogues) have already brought NASCK’s educational program about this card to their communities. Contact NASCK to bring this program to your Shul. This is a very serious matter and deserves all of our attention.

A major national EMES Campaign will be launched this year  beginning the week of Selichot (week before Rosh Hashana 5773). Please consider joining this timely initiative.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.