On Death and Dying (PART I of II)

Three lifetime friends, all living in different cities,  sitting in a quiet corner of a café in Nes Tziona, were engrossed in one of the most painfully unpleasant conversations imaginable, made somewhat  tolerable only by the pastries wolfed down with steaming cappuccino.

All three of us had recently endured the loss of close beloved members of our families. None of us had recovered from their deaths. None of our eyes had yet dried from bitter tears. I was the first to speak as I had suffered the first loss. It was that of my beloved wife of 56 years who breathed her final breath in her bed at home following eight months of chemotherapy for an incurable pancreatic cancer.

We took sips of our cappuccino with bites of the creamy pastries as L. began, through her choked voice and streaming tears. to share the painful dreaded death of a 50 year old son who committed suicide by hanging himself in his home. It was an unexplained death. No suicide note was left for his mother, wife or children. I had not known him nor his family but his mother was married to my dearest friend of 64 years. She described how she would awake screaming at night, the very sight of his photographs evoking cries and tears which did not respond to comfort.

More coffee.  It was the turn of G to share his deep pain. Years earlier he had been deceived by an unfaithful wife, resulting in divorce. Their two young sons were driven out of their mother’s home and moved into the new quarters with their loving and devoted father. He had been given a severe blow from which, years later, he has not recovered and while still a  young man he refuses to consider a new marriage preferring to live only with his two adult sons. In his beloved mother’s old age he became her caregiver.

He traveled from the Tel-Aviv area to do all the shopping, carrying heavy groceries up three flights of stairs, helping in the cooking, laundering and house cleaning, G. devoted all of his time to the care of his adored mother. On the morning of a previous year he appeared at her door with the usual bags of groceries. No response at the doorbell or knock on the door.  Using his own keys he entered the apartment, put the groceries on the kitchen table and called out to his mother. When there was no response he entered her bedroom and found her lifeless body on her bed. In total shock from which a year later he has not recovered, he blames himself for not having been with his mother during her few remaining breaths of life.

He honors her memory by going to her synagogue three times every day to pray that her soul may be uplifted to the highest heights of heaven, reserved only for the most devout and caring Jews. He is the most beloved and treasured son any family could hope to have.

Switching to a coca cola I revealed the very recent death of my younger and only brother a few months earlier. Now bereft of a father, mother, wife and brother, I rely upon my three wonderful children and my three outstanding grandchildren….all professionals… for my care and spiritual support. May God grant them good health and long years of life !

One thing the three of us shared in common was the unwelcome visitations of the angel of death Another, that our beloved died all alone with none of us  immediately present.

I had been the closest. My wife lay dying on her bed in our bedroom with an oxygen tank placed nearby to allow her to breathe. The hospice nurse entered the room, checked her pulse and informed my daughter and me that death would occur very soon. I walked him out of the bedroom for less than one minute and returned to my wife’s bedside to discover that her beautiful soul had been surrendered. Following Jewish religious custom, I closed her eyes, kissed her lifeless lips, covered her body with a sheet and lit a candle on the table next to her bed. Screaming, I telephoned the rabbi who came with his wife in less than 15 minutes at 3:30 in the morning. He picked up the telephone and called for the chevra kadisha to pick up a lifeless body and to prepare it for burial 6 hours later

Two years passed on the first day of Kislev, and my pain and grief have not subsided for even a moment

L., G. and I held hands as we shared our common grief. I quoted from passages in the 1969 ground-breaking book “On Death and Dying”, penned by the renowned Swiss psychiatrist, Dr. Elisabeth Kubler Ross. She was the first pioneer in the field of death and dying in which she outlined for the first time the five stages of grief which we all pass through on the road leading back to sanity.

In a direct order they begin first with denial, then on to anger, followed by bargaining with God, moving on to depression and finally, having successfully completed the first four stages we arrive at acceptance. In her own words she has offered a modicum of reality. “It’s only when we truly know and understand that we all have a limited time on earth and that we have no way of knowing when our time is up, that we will begin to live life each day to the fullest, as if it was the only one we had”.

Dr. Kubler Ross is the world’s leading expert in cases of death and dying. But in one issue I disagree with her theories. “It is not death they fear; it is the dying”she maintains..   I strongly disagree.

In dying there is some hope of a change and with medical treatment, a return to life.  Death, on the contrary, is final. Never again to hold a hand, to kiss the lips, to stroke the hair. Never again to embrace and to hear the sweet words “I love you”.  Death is final,   It is the end all.

I have never accepted the biblical promise of a “techiat ha maitim”. The resurrection of the dead is firmly believed in Christian theology but very few, except among Orthodox Jewish believers , cling to it and express a hope of being re-united with the dead in a better place.

The theology I have taught maintains “if you are happy in this life, it is your heaven. And if you are unhappy in this life, it is your hell. There is no life beyond the grave.”

For my dear friend L. there can never be an answer to her son’s suicide..She is bound to a life of pain and she has no answers to comfort her. She prays to a God who does not hear her words, who does not see her tears, who offers no reply. He is a Silent God…as silent as He was when six million of our martyred dead prayed and begged Him for life and salvation.

The three of us are embedded in nostalgia with memories but left without rational reason.

And I, two years later, talk to my beloved wife who cannot hear nor respond, hugging her  photographs, kissing them from the framed glass which imprisons her existence but not her beautiful soul.

As we prepare to get up and leave on our ways home, we embrace one another and promise to maintain the therapeutic conversations sharing happy and sad memories and striving to renew our lives as possibly as we can.

But to maintain honesty, at least on my part, is not an easy promise I can keep. Maybe, who knows, if I live long enough, I may yet reach Kubler Ross’s fifth stage. But I’m not holding my breath.

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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