Jeannie Blaustein, What Matters volunteer at B'nai Jeshurun synagogue where she often facilitates conversations about end-of-life care.

It may be one of the most important conversations you ever have. And the most difficult.

Yet talking to someone and expressing your wishes for end-of-life care can help you identify what you really want — and give a road map to loved ones responsible for carrying out your wishes.

Jeannie Blaustein has seen firsthand the power of these discussions in her role as a volunteer facilitator for What Matters: Caring Conversations About End of Life.

What Matters elevates advance care planning for the New York Jewish community by training teams of volunteers to facilitate conversations about end-of-life issues in a safe and supportive manner, guided by Jewish values. Facilitators discuss issues including advance directives, health care proxies, and ethical wills.

“I’ve learned that many people think they know what they want to do as they near the end of their life but, as they talk about it out loud, they discover things about themselves they didn’t realize and also feel a sense of relief,” Jeannie says. “We help people articulate what’s behind their feelings, what fears they have, what legacy they want to leave.”

The initiative is a collaboration between the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan, The New Jewish Home, and the Jewish Theological Seminary, and made possible by Plaza Jewish Community Chapel and support from UJA-Federation. UJA became involved not only to help pave a path toward understanding advance care planning as a natural part of life, but also to encourage conversations about death, a topic that remains stigmatized in our community. What Matters conversations take place at 12 sites, including synagogues, a community center, nursing home, rabbinical seminary, and Jewish communal organization.

Volunteer facilitators like Jeannie help people determine health care wishes and complete paperwork for their directives, should they be unable to speak for themselves when health issues arise. Volunteers also help people communicate these wishes to their family members, physician, or lawyer so their desires can be known and honored.

“I met with a man initially to discuss his wishes and, at a later session, his brother joined us,” Jeannie says. “As the brother listened to the conversation, he said, ‘I would have done what you wanted because you asked me to, but now I understand why these choices matter to you, and that will make it so much easier for me to carry them out.’”

As a What Matters facilitator, Jeannie often notices that when someone understands what lies beneath a loved one’s decision, they experience less guilt, confusion, and ambivalence and feel supported to carry out the directive.

“They feel a sense of tremendous responsibility,” Jeannie says. “They also feel empowered to act with love, honor, and compassion.”

For more information, contact Sally Kaplan, founding director of What Matters, at skaplan@jccmanhattan.org.

Note: On November 1, 2018, as part of Reimagine End of Life NYC, UJA-Federation’s Roundtable on Aging in the Jewish Community will focus on End of Life, and how to integrate and destigmatize conversations around death into social service settings. Reimagine’s Never the Right Time Exhibition will also be on display.

Jeannie Blaustein is a founding board chair of Reimagine End of Life.