After a few days of working in the oncology unit as a nurse I was thrown out. ‘You still haven’t worked through your mother’s death,’ I was told. ‘That’s why you’re having trouble helping these people. Take some time to work it through and then you can come back to us.’ That’s when I started to explore different ways to heal myself. I had to see what forgiveness and understanding really meant.”
In fact, Shira Chernoble’s almost half a century of supporting others through life and death was as much about looking within herself as it was about professional training.
Many of us are hesitant about going to console a friend or loved one who is sitting shivah because it makes us uncomfortable. The subject matter alone causes us to squirm; the thought of our own mortality or that of those we care about is something we’d rather not consider. The gravity of the situation can also make anything we say seem trivial, as there is nothing we can do to alleviate the pain of the mourner. And yet, human contact is crucial for the aveil.
One woman has made it her mission to ensure that no one need suffer in solitude. Shira Chernoble of Tekoa, Gush Etzion, has spent the last 45 years working as a pastoral counselor. I recently sat down with her to discuss her holy work: its challenges, its elements of fulfillment, as well as the truths she has discovered along the way about matters of life and death.
As part of her work, she helps grieving family members come to terms with the death of a loved one. She also works with terminally ill patients in their final stage of life. As she describes it, her work is multi-faceted because people are multi-faceted. “I am a pastoral counselor but I am also a massage aromatherapist. I use both modalities to help people who have come to me after a loss or because of their own illness or physical pain.”
When she mentions massage, I ask her how it is helpful other than just making someone feel good. She gives me an example. “I am currently working with a woman who lost a child to cancer four months ago. She came to me just to talk, but I eventually suggested massage as well. After the death of her child she developed heart and breathing difficulties. Through massage, I helped her discover that her heart and lungs were the places where she stored her grief. The massage takes away the pain in her heart and helps her breathe and function better.”
I ask her to explain how the mind-body dynamic works, and she patiently obliges. “It often happens that people in extreme emotional pain also develop physical conditions or illnesses. One way to explain it is that the person who is grieving stores a lot of tension and stress in the body. The physical effects of stress have been well documented for many years. A lot of diseases have been proven to be directly stress-related, such as ulcers, high blood pressure and heart conditions. When the tension gets released, not only does it heal the body but it also affects the way the person’s grief is processed. It’s a cycle that works in both directions.”