Reach­ing for Com­fort: What I Saw, What I Learned, and How I Blew it Train­ing as a Pas­toral Counselor

  • Review
By – July 19, 2021

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.

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