At the End of Life

Many of us who work in the senior care industry go to a lot of funerals. It’s an occupational hazard, I guess. We become close to residents and their families and we go to express our own sense of loss. Even when the person who has passed away is not someone we know well, we often go as a sign of respect. It’s just what we do and I think it is an important way to show how much we value, and how deeply we understand, the human connection.

I have been to funeral services that were so heartfelt and powerful that, even though I was not family, my eyes were filled with tears. And I have been at others where it was clear that the person officiating had never met the deceased and made no attempt to hide it. As well, I have been to more than a few funeral services where a well-meaning family member spoke, but, sadly, spoke only about themselves.

Having been in the unenviable position of having had to give eulogies at two close family funerals in recent years, both traumatic and untimely losses, I know how painful it is to come up with these words, much less deliver them. It is almost overwhelming to think that you have to summarize a life and its impact in a few pages or paragraphs, that you have to find words to honor them, to express your own feelings, to try and comfort others, to leave a message that won’t soon be forgotten.

Regardless of the service itself, funerals often bring together families in ways that rarely happen otherwise. Lifecycle events like weddings and Bar and Bar Mitzvahs are wonderful celebrations and the conversations between family members tend to be brief and cursory. But in those days before and after a funeral, the time with family is different, the memories pour out and you hear stories you have never heard and stories you have heard a thousand times.

What do we do with all of those words? What do we do with all of those memories? Those anecdotes we share or hear from others; the stories that are told during a funeral that make us think “Wow, I didn’t know that” or “I wish I had known that” or, sometimes, “Oh, I am so sorry I didn’t know that until now.”

It seems to me that there are lost opportunities here in so many ways. We often don’t take the time to listen to the stories our loved ones tell, maybe we’ve heard them before or we are just too busy to stop and listen. We share the stories when someone has died but we don’t save them, they slide through our memories like water through a sieve. We listen at funerals, we are sometimes astonished by what we didn’t know and then it is over and we move on, sharing maybe a fragment with others or maybe just letting it go in its entirety.

Those stories are our history, they are the fabric of our lives, of the lives of our family. We owe it to ourselves and to the memories of those who have left us, to capture them, to preserve them, to keep them for generations to come. These, as much as anything else, are our legacy.

About the Author
Carol Silver Elliott is President and CEO of The Jewish Home Family, which runs NJ's Jewish Home at Rockleigh, Jewish Home Assisted Living, Jewish Home Foundation and Jewish Home at Home. She joined The Jewish Home Family in 2014. Previously, she served as President and CEO of Cedar Village Retirement Community in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is chair-elect of LeadingAge and past chair of the Association of Jewish Aging Services.
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