Erica Brown

Denial: Not A River In Egypt

The Nile has come up a few times in the past 10 days: floating infants, bloody waters, frogs popping up out of nowhere. It’s the season.

But the season of denial is also upon us because holiday periods often present us with the sadness of what is called in the literature a “ceremonial finish line.” Across multiple cultures, people tend to die around significant days. In America, for example, people are most likely to die around four special days: Christmas, New Year, Thanksgiving or a birthday. For Jews, it is the High Holy Day period and Passover.

The loss of a friend or relative around a holiday can dampen the spirit of that day on a family’s calendar for what can seem like forever. The full holiday table has a notable absence, an empty chair or a missing ritual associated with that person. It’s painful. But what can be more painful is what happens when we don’t prepare ourselves for the likelihood of a loss at these times by celebrating “last suppers.”

A friend told me that when his father was in the last weeks of cancer, he came out to join the family at a gathering despite being weak and frail. He spoke to each of his sons and his wife. He died not long after. Only after his family buried him did they realize that he was, in some way, saying goodbye and blessing them at this last dinner together.

I thought of this recently. I was teaching a class, and the woman who introduced me mentioned that I had just written a book on dying better called “Happier Endings.” After the talk, a petite woman with a gentle voice approached me and said, “I must buy your new book.” Her aging father, instead of confronting his death and discussing it openly or even fighting against his illness, was just plain angry. He wondered why no one was making him better. His daughter was a devoted but struggling caretaker. “When he has a good day, I am OK. When he has a bad day, I take it all home with me.”

A woman standing within our circle chimed in: “My mother actually taught me how to die. She’s my role model. When she was diagnosed, she made a point of getting up each day and saying, ‘What can I still do?’ Even when she went into hospice, she kept up that attitude.” These two women’s attitudes and relationships will be shaped by their last years and days with the monumental figures in their lives. One parent taught an adult child how not to die. One parent taught an adult child how to die better.

In reality, this woman will probably not buy the book. I don’t take it personally. It shares some remarkable stories about beautiful endings and how we can die better, but most of us take the Woody Allen approach to death — “I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens” — instead of the Mark Twain approach: “The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”

I had this experience once before. In the wake of the Madoff scandal, I wrote a book on the subject of scandal within the Jewish community. “Confronting Scandal” was a terribly painful book to write, but I tried my best to tackle some of the ethical issues involved and offer some recommendations. I traveled to 19 American cites across the country — from Richmond to San Diego to Albuquerque — to talk about the dilemma.

People in the audience were gracious. They nodded their heads in recognition. One woman in Houston came up to me and thanked me for taking care of the problem. Hardly a person bought a book. My previous book on the Three Weeks leading up to Tisha b’Av sold double the numbers of copies in half the time. How to explain this?

Maybe “Confronting Scandal” was an awful book. Every honest writer has to take that possibility into consideration. Or maybe, just maybe, it was a subject we thought would go away if we didn’t mention it. It hasn’t.

And as long as we’re being honest, we’re all going to die. Many Jews harbor the superstition that if you talk about dying, you’ll prompt an earlier visit from the Angel of Death. He or she will indeed be coming to a location near you. It may be sooner. It may be later. Instead of postponing the inevitable guest, why don’t we prepare for the visit a little better and give those we care about the gift of our love and hard-earned wisdom while we still can? 

Erica Brown, is scholar-in-residence at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Her column appears the first week of the month.

About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks–Herenstein Center. Her latest book is Ecclesiastes and the Search for Meaning (Maggid Books).