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Hamilton, Chaplaincy, and Confronting Loss

July 11, 2016

“We push away what we can never understand. We push away the unimaginable.”

Angelica Schuyler, “Hamilton: An American Musical.”

Their father is dying.

His wife needs a lung but is unlikely to get one in time.

She lost her husband, sister, and father over the last six months, and her health has taken a turn for the worse. After caring for her loved ones, she is left with no one to care for her.

He has been in a hospital bed for over a month and just wants to go outside. He cannot believe that he is sick.

Each of these people is going through the unimaginable. I cannot tell their stories. Even the little I shared is a shade of the truth, darkened enough to hide an identity. I cannot erase their suffering, nor can I heal their bodies or those of their loved ones. I cannot assure them of the existence of God or heaven or karmic balance. I can only take their hands, listen to them, welcome their tears, and walk through the unimaginable beside them. At my best, for a fraction of time, I can help them feel less alone. Is it enough? I don’t know. But I am a rabbinical student learning how to be a hospital chaplain, and so it is what I can offer.

Every morning, I wake up to “Dear Theodosia,” a song from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s masterpiece, “Hamilton: An American Musical.” The Revolutionary War has ended, and Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr are at their respective homes, marveling at their young children: Philip Hamilton and Theodosia Burr. Despite Hamilton and Burr’s marked differences, they share love for the new generation. The song is a beacon of hope in a story teeming with loss. Every morning, I am reminded of the best in all of us.

Like so many, I find “Hamilton” to be a transformational work, worthy of the praise it has received. I also find its end to be devastating and, usually, I avoid listening to it. Listening to the second half of the second act means following characters I adore into their sufferings. Philip, barely grown, dies in a duel defending his father’s honor. Hamilton follows, perishing on July 12, 1804, after a duel with Burr. It has been 212 years, but every time I listen, my heart grows heavy as though the tragedy were happening in real time. For me, the anniversary of Hamilton’s death calls to mind the reality that, every day, people mark the anniversaries of those they have lost. I am reminded of the tragedy in all of us.

In the Trauma I hospital where I am doing chaplaincy training, it is easy to find tragedy. “Stay Alive,” loved ones say to the patient when devastating diagnoses rain down. “Stay Alive,” patients say to their bodies when they imagine not being around for their children. And then there are patients whose bodies are so pained and whose minds are so gone that staying alive is no longer the objective.

Struck by Burr’s bullet, Hamilton finds himself to be one of those patients, caught between life and death. He no longer seeks to stay alive. “Teach me how to say goodbye,” Hamilton calls to friends and family who died before him.  “My love, take your time,” he calls to his wife Eliza, who outlived him by half a century. It is so easy to find tears.

Last week, I left the hospital in tears. Their father had died. His wife was no closer to getting a lung. She was still left with no one to care for her. He was still stuck in a hospital bed. I dug my headphones out of my purse and put my music on shuffle, wanting something in my ears, too upset to decide what to play.

A gentle, rocking piano brought me to the time just after Philip’s death through “It’s Quiet Uptown,” a song from the second half of the second act. I let it play. “There are moments that the words don’t reach. There is suffering too terrible to name,” Angelica Schuyler, Hamilton’s sister-in-law, sang. I took in a breath of eucalyptus-scented air. “Look at where we are. Look at where we started,” Hamilton pled. I remembered that the world is terrible and miraculous at once. “They are trying to do the unimaginable,” the whole company murmured. My job, as a chaplain and rabbi-in-training, is not to make the world better. My job is to stay there by their sides. “That would be enough.”

Emily Cohen is a student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Suburban Philadelphia currently completing her first unit of Clinical Pastoral Education at Stanford Hospital in Palo Alto, California. She is the co-author of the Hamilton Hagaddah, a viral Passover parody of the Broadway musical.




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