Posted by Rebecca Kotkin
I am a social work student, in the second year of the three-year extended masters program at Simmons College. The JF&CS Guardianship Program was my first field placement. I had only known Allison* for a few months. She was a challenging client to work with; sometimes warm and affectionate, at other times angry and abusive. But I cared for her and in our work we tried to ease her burdens. She had no family or friends and now she was at the end of her life. Despite her illness, I thought she'd outlive my placement; that she had too much fire in her to succumb to the cancer. When I got the phone call that she had died, I was surprised when the tears sprang to my eyes.
I had seen her two days earlier and was struck by how matter-of-fact her nurses were about the situation. So clinical – not really cold but just dry. I was being clinical about it too – asking about the medicine, noticing the breathing. But I was sad. I was sad that Allison was dying. I was sad that she was dying and all the people in her life were being clinical about it. Shouldn't someone mourn her when she dies? I think I could handle all the nurses and the doctor and us being all dry and detached if there was someone out there who was going to miss her in his or her life. I was sad that she would die and her death would barely leave a mark. I felt so sorry for her: her framing of her life reflected so much disappointment. Maybe I was most sad that there was no chance for her to have changed her perspective. Up until then, however vague, distant and remote a possibility it was, there had always been the chance that she could find some peace or joy. Now, the book was closed and this was the measure of her life.
My internship supervisor, Pam, and I went to the funeral although, initially, I wasn't sure why I decided to go. Not because I was afraid of the emotions or that I didn't want to engage them but because I struggled with where to place the boundaries in my working relationships. If I went, would I be blurring a line? If I didn't go, would I be staying too engaged? Who would I be going for? For Allison? For me? For Pam? It was my first client death and I didn't know where to put it. In the end, I went for Allison – to lay her to rest – and for me – to say goodbye.
My father always said it is the greatest mitzvah to bury someone because it is the one time you are doing something for someone else without expecting anything in return. It's just a kindness, a gift to someone. There was something inspiring about that to me at the funeral for Allison. We really did a kindness to Allison. In the end, she was laid to rest by people who knew her. Finally, she can know (if she were there and could understand) that there were people who did something for her without asking anything in return.
The Rabbi spoke to us as though we were the mourners. I think back to other funerals and why I've gone and what I've felt. Sometimes, I want to say goodbye and express my own sorrow at the loss that I feel. Other times, I am going to support a friend and my sorrow is in part empathetic, in part sympathetic. That day, I felt more like I was honoring Allison and her life here. That I was there to bear witness to her life and would feel her absence. That someone saw what she struggled with in life, was there for her as she left this life and wanted to say goodbye – if only to say that her death left a mark. That I will remember her – as someone I cared for, supported, and was there for, albeit briefly, in the end.
*Name changed to protect privacy.
Rebecca Kotkin is an MSW student at Simmons College. She has been working in the JF&CS Guardianship Program this year as her first year field placement.