Shabbat Sh’mini 5780 – Rabbi Miriam Berger

FRS Sermon 18 April 2020

There’s always a victim who doesn’t just capture the public’s heart but actually changes government policy. We saw it starkly with the body of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi washed up on the sand. His untimely death ultimately saved the lives of other Syrian refugees as attitudes softened and compassion took over. Yet I have grave reservations that the government think that they are responding to the death of 13-year-old Ismail Mohamed Abdulwahab with kindness and compassion and yet I think they are letting emotion and public opinion lead them down a dangerous route.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who is himself the father of a 13-year-old child, said hearing that Ismail died without a parent at his bedside made him weep. Of course, he cried. We would all cry thinking of our child in such a vulnerable state. An animal-like, protective instinct dominates our response to all our interactions with our loved ones and leads us to make emotional decisions and not necessarily right decisions.
Mr Hancock, it is devastating for Ismail’s mother not to have been at her son’s bedside that day and yet thank God she wasn’t made to make the potentially brutal decision which could have had even more fatal consequences.

This week due to the changes in guidance the scene would have been very different. It wouldn’t have made Mr Hancock weep, but it could cause so much more grief. You see if Ismail was lying in his hospital bed this week rather than last, coming to the end of his life now that Mr Hancock has changed the rules, Mr and Mrs Abdulwahab would be offered the chance to go and say goodbye to their son. With no tests done to know if these parents were also carrying the same virus that their son had before he left the family home, they enter the hospital. They steady their nerves by buying a hot drink at the vending machine, touching buttons as they go. They walk into the public toilets touching door handles and taps. Plastic gloves, a pathetic apron and a face mask already in short supply, they sit by their son. Can they really manage not to give him one last cuddle, feel their lips on their boy’s skin just one last time – would anyone blame them in their grief if they weren’t as cautious as perhaps their rational minds would urge them to be?

After being comforted by nurses, gentle arms around their shoulders and hearing the explanations of doctors, up close to talk to them in the respectful and compassionate way our doctors are trained to talk to grieving parents, they return home. Grief stricken parents who have potentially taken infection into parts of the hospital not yet infected or healthy grief-stricken parents now back out of the hospital newly infected. What do they do but return straight to their house to throw their arms around their daughter and comfort her after the death of her brother? Or do they take comfort from their ageing parents who envelop them in an embrace and suddenly because Mr Hancock doesn’t want to be the person that said Ismail’s parents couldn’t be by his bedside, he’s potentially spread more infection around the hospital and brought it right back into the Abdulwahab’s home subjecting Ismail’s grandparents to the same fate as their grandson and now 2 or 3 generations of the family have to battle the same destiny.

Compassion is not always the best leadership. Not giving people impossible choices is sometimes much fairer. Don’t make a spouse in their 80s make the choice as to whether they come to the hospital to say goodbye. Don’t make the 50-year-old son choose to say goodbye to his mother and then isolate from his family so he is left to mourn alone. Don’t make people choose whether to be honest about if they think they may pose a risk in the hospital or the crematorium. Too many of us we will choose wrongly, we will go and say goodbye, letting emotion take over in those heart breaking moments, and in the compassion of giving us choice you give us a Hobson’s choice. Reassure us that our hospital staff are being the compassionate accompanying angels we want to believe they have time to be, but don’t encourage us into those hospitals making us a threat to our NHS work force or making our final goodbye to our loved one the moment that infects us too.

Many hospitals are ignoring Hancock and maintaining a no-visitor policy but if you or someone you now finds themselves given this terrible choice please please prioritise yourselves and all those living and know that a life time of kisses, handholding and kind wise words will always be more powerful than any final ones can be.

This shabbat is Parashat Shemini when we hear Aaron’s silence following the death of his sons. We cannot be silent in our grief. We have to mourn as a society at large. It’s not about who is at the bedside in the final moment; it’s about how we give our dying dignity and our mourners support.

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