For anyone who has spent time learning to be a hospital chaplain, the experience is at once exhausting and enlivening, defeating and exhilarating. One is forced to face the deepest sufferings of the human condition while also witnessing great acts of hope and courage. Yet, it’s the inner work that makes getting a unit of clinical pastoral education (CPE) so grueling, for you cannot help another navigate their own darkness unless you have probed your own first. In Reaching for Comfort: What I Saw, What I Learned, and How I Blew it Training as a Pastoral Counselor, Sherri Mandell has written an honest and deeply personal account of that journey as she learned how to use her own past pains to help her walk beside her patients in their suffering.
Sherri Mandel has written widely about loss. Years ago, her son Koby was murdered while living in Israel. Throughout the book, Mandel constantly confronts that loss again and again in the faces of grieving mothers and the patients whose world has crumbled around them as sickness has overtaken them. The book is written in short vignettes with a large cast of briefly sketched characters, though a few key personalities span the book. These minor characters are richly drawn and act as a catalyst for Mandel’s personal and spiritual insights that punctuate the book. In one moving chapter, Mandel speaks about how she helped bring an estranged daughter to her mother’s bedside in her final days. Reflecting on this, she writes, “Later I learned that sometimes the role of the pastoral counselor is to take a risk, to help expose the difficult places and deepen the pain, so that it can be shared. And I came to understand that deepening that pain can be a comfort.”
The book is split into two sections. In the first, Mandel recounts her pastoral education as she learns how to talk to patients, help them tell their stories, and how to take up the correct amount of space in a conversation. The second half of the memoir details her first job working at a different hospital in Jerusalem as a pastoral counselor after that education ends. In this section, we have the most vivid picture of a patient in the character of Esther, an older woman holding vigil beside her husband Abe. Through this encounter, Mandel cares for Esther while leaning on her to help her navigate her own journey to come to terms with her son’s death.
As the book draws to a close, Mandel the caregiver becomes Mandel the patient as she struggles with her own health issues and is forced to go into the hospital for care. In that moment, she realizes she has misunderstood her patient’s experiences, writing, “And then I realized how clueless I had been…I didn’t really comprehend what the patients I’d worked with in the hospitals and their families endured. It was not until I was hospitalized that I realized how awful it was to be here.” This final epiphany is perhaps her greatest insight; she would forever fail as a pastoral caregiver if she did not understand what her patients were going through.
In the end, Mandel’s book can best be summarized by another one of her insights. Comfort is “made up of small moments of care and connection — small stitches of love.” It is a testament to Mandel that one leaves the book with similar insight. Nothing she did with any patient was extraordinary; she simply was present and listened. But in the aggregate, one walks away from the book with a real appreciation for her craft. Her many short chapters, taken together, help the reader appreciate the great impact that pastoral care can have on a hospital community.
Rabbi Marc Katz is the Rabbi at Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, NJ. He is author of the book The Heart of Loneliness: How Jewish Wisdom Can Help You Cope and Find Comfort (Turner Publishing), which was chosen as a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award.