God Squad: Kin keeps deadly cancer secret

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God Squad Rabbi Marc Gellman

Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.

My cousin has confided in me that she has terminal cancer, but she hasn't told her family (three children and their spouses and grandchildren). She says she doesn't want "suggestions" from the family. I feel she's wrong to keep her family out of this. Any advice?

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-- N., Palm Beach

Your cousin has most likely embraced secrecy about her health because she doesn't want her family to "suggest" heroic measures at the end of her life that offer only the prospect of pain, not therapy. She is dying, and if she wants to die a good death and not a tormented one, she has every right -- both spiritually and morally -- to do so.

Judaism and Christianity do not endorse or condone refusing clinically proven therapeutic procedures, but your cousin, if your description of her condition is accurate, is beyond therapy and has the right to die while preserving all the quality of life available to her in her last days.

I would, however, encourage you to try again to convince her to share news of her condition with her family. Tell her she has the right to direct her own care and that her family cannot contravene her wishes if she has a health care proxy and advance directives in place. Telling the family allows them and her to say goodbye to each other. It allows family members to set aside extra time to spend with her.

Death, after all, is not a failure or betrayal. Death is a marking point in our soul's continuing journey beyond the grave to life everlasting with God. We do not live alone and we ought not die alone. My suspicion and my experience are that as your cousin's condition worsens, everyone she loves will know the end is near. Words will not be needed, only hugs and kisses and prayers and the love that has knit you all together as a family, filled now with both gratitude and grief.

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Many thanks to the readers who've shared with me popular songs that feel to them like modern Psalms:

--B. listens to "Build Me Up Buttercup" when she feels down.

--For J., "Daybreak," by Barry Manilow, reminds her of Easter morning, and "Follow Me," by Paul McCartney, reminds her of Christ carrying His cross.

C. loves Celine Dion's song "Because You Loved Me" and the verse: "You were my strength when I was weak. You were my voice when I couldn't speak. You were my eyes when I couldn't see. You saw the best there was in me . . . I'm everything I am because you loved me."

--S., of Shoreham, sent me a lovely tribute to Father. Charles Matoni, her priest for many years (now retired), who was a professor of music and art at St. John's University: "Father Charlie often sang to the congregation to reinforce the message of God's great love for us all. For example, on Father's Day he sang, 'Sunrise, Sunset.' My favorite was when Father Charlie would sing Billy Joel's 'I Love You Just the Way You Are,' asking us to picture God singing it to us, and especially the line 'Ahhhh, what will it take 'til you believe in me the way that I believe in you.' "

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I recently had the honor of speaking to the Fellowship of Christians and Jews in Palm Beach, Fla. Father Tom Hartman, my former partner on this column, and I spoke before this wonderful organization some years ago when Tommy was well. I lift up their work for praise because they do interfaith dialogue the way we tried to do it -- from the ground up rather than the top down.

There are many occasions where the leaders of big religious organizations speak to the leaders of other big religious organizations, but the real progress in learning to live together comes when, as Tommy used to say it, "you look across the fence in your own back yard and say hello to your own neighbor, who might be another color or another religion, and get to know him or her." We must build a better, more compassionate, more tolerant world one unlikely friendship at a time. The Fellowship has done that. Please share with me any unlikely friendships that have changed and deepened your life.

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