One of the meditative readings that has been part of our Reform liturgy for decades reads, “grief is a great teacher, when it sends us back to serve and bless the living.” We all have many teachers. When it comes to assisting families facing death and loss, Rabbinical school trained me on the technicalities. Years of practical professional experience enabled me to prepare a booklet that we make available to our members. But as is true for many of us, life continues to be the best teacher. As I near the conclusion of the sheloshim mourning period and in truth what has been four months of intense dealing with the coming of death and then the reality, let me share what I have learned that can perhaps be helpful to you, cognizant that each situation is different.
I recognize that I have been blessed. Both my father and my mother lived into their 10th decades of life. During their earlier years, they were somewhat superstitious, never celebrating a birthday before its date. More recently, Mom shifted her focus and after her 96th birthday described herself as being in her 97th year, realizing that one must accept the clock winding down.
Though my brother, sister and I live hundreds of miles apart, we remained close and united in our concern for our parents and especially for Mom after my father died in 2008. We divided responsibilities. My brother Joe was overseer for all of Mom’s financial matters. Sister Susan was the organizer and focused on health concerns. Being the furthest away, I was the spiritual advisor. Cooperation was a key to coping.
All of us, including Mom, were realistic about what was to come. No one lives forever and making preparations for the realities of life does not hasten death. We knew Mom’s medical wishes and all three of us had medical power of attorney, to put those wishes into effect if needed. We each had a copy of her DNR- “do not resuscitate” form.
And we discussed her funeral wishes, which serve as guidelines, but not as absolutes. I do not believe that one has to wholly follow someone’s last wishes, since the Jewish funeral rites are not only to honor the deceased, but also to comfort the mourners. For example, Mom initially wanted a graveside service. I knew that there would be a large crowd of people who would want to attend and on Long Island cemeteries are not necessarily close. I also know from my experience that during a hot time period, I don’t want to be standing at a graveside for a long period of time. Each family has to balance the needs of the deceased with those of the mourners. I should add that my siblings and I made funeral arrangements months before we thought we would need them, so as not to have to be involved in business when all we would want to do is grieve.
No one ever knows when death will come, so it only makes sense to take advantage of the time that you have with loved ones. In truth this applies to each and every moment of each and every day, since we all know of situations where one dies suddenly. Many often debate the relative preference of dying quickly and the inability to say goodbyes versus experiencing some form of lingering illness, but having time to share. It’s really one of those pointless arguments, since we do not have choice as to what will come.
Our situation worked well for us. Like any 96 year old, Mom was aging and her level of activity diminished in recent years, but overall her health was good. We knew she would not be with us forever, but we enjoyed her presence and activity for as long as we could. In mid June she was hospitalized briefly, and we could see that this might be the beginning of the end. Though her body was failing, her mind was clear. She had been living in her own apartment on Long Island with a full time caregiver for the past two years, maintaining an amazingly active lifestyle, but now it was time for her to live with my sister, who devoted herself to her.
We all knew that these were her final days. As opposed to wallowing in sadness, the entire family seized the time as an opportunity. From the moment that she took ill until her death, she was connected with all of her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, either with personal visits, multiple phone calls and regular skyping. She was even entrusted with the secret that her 8th great grandchild was on the way, something I only learned later. We shared our “I love yous” many times over, along with stories and review of family history. Mom didn’t have lots of possessions, and she had already given away many of her precious items earlier, but she specifically designated what remained. That was the same day when she made it very clear as to which outfit she wanted to wear for burial, the one she wore to her youngest great grandchild’s baby naming.
Perhaps one of the most significant lessons I can teach is the simple importance and power of being there with a loved one, when you have the opportunity. It was beshert that this was my sabbatical summer, when I had blocked out two months for a variety of activities. Plans changed, but that was fine. I was able to be with Mom, handle some of the care-giving responsibilities with my sister who shouldered the most. I recall one day. Mom was weak, but still enjoyed going out. So we spent a few hours one afternoon just sitting on a bench at a pond watching nature. Just breathing fresh air gave her pleasure.
In truth we did not anticipate that she would decline as rapidly as she did. By the middle of August hospice care began. I have a great deal of respect for what the men and women of hospice programs do. In Jewish tradition when it seems that death is inevitable, we are called upon to remove obstacles. Whatever would make her comfortable was what we wanted and we truly believe that she did not suffer. Consistent with hospice care we continued to let Mom know of our love for her, our pledge to continue to be a strong family, but also our willingness to let go, giving permission for her to do the same when she was ready. They say it makes a difference. Who knows for sure? Medically, people die when organs fail; spiritually when God is ready to be with them in whatever comes next.
On Friday afternoon September 9th I received the call from my siblings that the end was near. I debated whether or not to go. I had services that night, B’nai Mitzvah Club in the morning, the first day of Religious School on Sunday. I had said my goodbyes. I’m so glad that I decided to hop on a plane the next morning. One never knows for sure if she was waiting for us all to be together, but knowing her, we had the sense that she was. If nothing else it made us feel better to be together. When I arrived she was in a constant sleep state, perhaps what one would describe as a coma. She had not been responsive in over 24 hours. Still, I thought I perceived a flicker of an eye when she heard my voice for the first time.
We sat in the room with her surrounded by pictures of the multiple generations of her family. As I have shared, Mom was a spiritual woman. For her sake and my own I recited the traditional prayers that are to be said for the gravely ill. They derive from Yom Kippur worship. First comes a confession of sin, asking forgiveness of those who we have wronged in life, but also expressing hope that we accomplished enough good to be worthy of God’s ultimate protection and care. Then we recite the same words that we will pronounce in a little while at the conclusion of Neilah- the Shma and Adonai Hu haelohim- Adonai is our God. That was a particularly poignant moment for me. Later that day, listening to labored breathing I found myself reciting the El Male Rachamim prayer, which is our request of God to watch over our loved ones who have died. In this case I simply changed the sense to encourage God to take her. Clearly she was ready, but at the time we could imagine that she might linger much longer. We did not want that for her or selfishly for us. It’s OK to be honest with our feelings. Within a few hours of that prayer, early on the morning of September 11, the difficult but sweet moment arrived as she simply breathed her last.
At this hour of Yizkor, I stand before you and with you. Each of us has a story
to tell. I hope that my sharing with you will be helpful. No two situations are precisely the same, yet they are all essentially the same. We live with our grief, hopefully not as a burden. Rather let our treasure trove of memories inspire us. Let us use the lessons learned to serve and bless the living.