I talk about death every day. Every day, I get to talk about death. This is not a bad or scary thing. It’s actually a very good thing, in the ways that contemplating our mortality can help us appreciate life. “Choose life,” we’re commanded in the Torah. And yet, at some point in time, usually a time we will not know in advance, no matter how much we do to choose life, we will die. It’s simply one of those facts of life. And because we do not, cannot understand what it feels like to die, it’s easier to avoid the topic rather than confront it. According to Rabbi Abraham Heschel, “What characterizes modern man’s attitude toward death is escapism, disregard of its harsh reality, even a tendency to obliterate grief.”
When we disregard harsh reality, when we avoid talking about hard things, inevitably, it can lead to heartbreak, or worse. Too many families end up in crisis because of our inability to talk about death and dying. These challenges occur in families of every class; even the most well resourced families can end up in a place where they don’t know what mom would have wanted or who to call after she dies.
In nearly every conversation I have about my work, in explaining what I do (talk about death and dying) and how I came to have the privilege of doing this work, the person I am speaking with will allude to or share their own experience of loss, of the death of a loved one or a friend, or a colleague or a neighbor, a death they wish would have been different than how it actually happened. If only we’d known how important it was to talk about what mom would have wanted, if only dad had realized that not burdening us with the details of his financial situation meant that we wouldn’t be able to readily access what he’d been saving to share with us, if only we knew about hospice, if only, if only, if only.
I imagine that you, too, may be thinking now of a loss you’ve suffered, and wondering how it might have been different.
A vital first step in improving end of life experiences is to talk about them before death is imminent, normalizing the discussion of death and dying as part of living. Perhaps then we won’t be saying if only so often.
Jewish wisdom has much to offer in this regard. In his book, Tales of the Hasidim, Martin Buber records the teaching of Rabbi Simcha of Bunim: “Every person should have two pockets. In one pocket should be a piece of paper saying: “I am only dust and ashes.” When one is feeling too proud, reach into this pocket and take out this paper and read it. In the other pocket should be a piece of paper saying: “For my sake was the world created.” When one is feeling disheartened and lowly, reach into this pocket and take this paper out and read it.” It is this regular reminder of both life and death that points us toward living in balance.
It was this realization that too many families end up in crisis around end of life, and that Jewish wisdom has much to offer to support heading off those crises that led to a dream of new ways of approaching death and dying in Jewish communities.
What might it look like in the Jewish world when death and dying are topics regularly on the agenda of Jewish leaders and thinkers? It might lead them to work in new ways in their own work, and in the work of creating the kinds of approaches to living a Jewish life that are relevant in the ever changing modern world. What might we accomplish by weaving a network of Jewish end of life professionals, to help spark innovation around death care and end of life conversations? While we have generations of funeral directors, and of clergy, and decades of nursing home directors and social workers who all spend their days focused on end of life, there is no established cross-disciplinary field of Jewish end of life care, nor communal discussions promoting Jewish educational approaches to planning for death and dying. Organizations providing care and services at or near the end of life tend to be siloed; clients may lack connection to other services. Most organizations working at the intersection of Jewish life and end of life do not have forums for learning and working together.
And yet, “those who work in jobs that encounter death speak of the great sense of purpose they feel every day, their sense of alignment,” recognizes Ari Wallach, author of Longpath: Becoming the Great Ancestors Our Future Needs. How might we support the professionals and committed volunteers who work at the intersection of Jewish life and end of life, and expand the ways individuals and families talk about, prepare for, and receive end of life care in Jewish communities?
Through convening, we can ground ourselves in the Jewish wisdom that supports our holy work, connect to others with the potential for future collaborations and remind ourselves that we are part of something bigger— the collective vision of a better future. And, ultimately, when we are successful, perhaps fewer families will end up in crisis around end of life, and we’ll hear fewer cries of “if only….”