Thoughts on Death and Dying

I find myself thinking about death quite a bit these days. In the past year, I have lost more people to cancer or accidents than I have lost in my entire life. Before I turned 40, I never lost anyone. Then I lost my Grandmother, and three years later, my grandfather. After they passed, it was years before I lost anyone else. This past year, I lost my brother in Law to cancer, a nephew, an aunt, three cousins and one of my former professors passed away. Another brother-in-law, two uncles, a close friend and colleague and a High School friend were all diagnosed with cancer. I pray daily for their recoveries.

There are many cliché’s about death. On an emotionally detached level, my favorite, is that death is a part of life. Its normal and our shared fate. The bible calls it, “going the way of all flesh.” I have officiated at many funerals where I remarked that although death is part of human existence, it seems more of an intrusion, as if we were not originally intended to die. We conceive of life as continual and ongoing. The idea of death doesn’t belong in this equation.

When I was younger, the idea of death scared the hell out of me. Part of the reason was because death is the great unknown. Religion tells us there is life after death, but in the realm of human experience, no one knows. To my way of thinking, people who supposedly die on the operating table and are brought back within five minutes don’t count as far as saying what’s on the other side. They weren’t there long enough if indeed there were there at all, and not just having brain cells firing. It makes sense for people who don’t believe in God to fear death. To them, there is nothing else beyond this life, and death for them represents the end of all things.

I am a person who believes in God and trusts in him. I do believe there is life beyond what we have here and now. This alters the way I view death. To me, death is an end to my consciousness of this existence, but a continuation in what Jewish tradition calls, “the world to come.” One of the reasons I believe in an afterlife, is because without it, there would be no justice in the world, and all our values become meaningless. If there is no afterlife, Hitler and his Nazi followers would have gotten away with what they did. The cruelty of humanity throughout the ages would go unpunished. Human suffering would become meaningless. The idea of this is untenable to me.

Because I hold to the idea of life after death, and ultimate justice in the world to come, death doesn’t scare me. Several years ago, I suffered an excruciatingly painful event in my life that caused me to contemplate ending my life. Prior to this event, I never understood suicide. I thought the people who considered it were either weak, or hated their lives, so it didn’t make sense to me. When I went through it, I understood that people who consider suicide are in intense pain and that pain exceeds their ability to deal with it. I didn’t want to die, I just wanted the pain to stop. To people in this situation, death represents an end to suffering and pain, and entering into rest. I guess this is how I see death. As people get older, their bodies start to run down. Despite all the medical supplements to restore health, sexual drive, energy etc, they are all temporary patches on a body that is going down hill. A person can dye their hair, have it transplanted, have liposuction, face lifts, have joints replaced only so much. Sooner or later, it all catches up with us. Life becomes more and more of a struggle, and if a person lives long enough, death seems increasingly to be a comfort and a rest from the pain, suffering and aggravation of life. We even refer to the grave as the final “resting place.”

I shared this view with a friend of mine, who posed the ultimate question to me: “If you believe this, why don’t you just kill yourself and enter the comfort and rest from this life?” There are moments I do find it tempting, but here are the reasons I don’t consider it. First, I believe life is by divine decree. God created me and decreed that I live. I have an obligation to live out my life as long as I have it. It’s a question of taking care of what God entrusted to me.

Second, the people who depend on me. I have elderly parents, a wife, and three children. If I took my life it would kill my parents, and devastate my wife and children as well as my sisters. I want to live to see my grandchildren. I want to enjoy my children. I have a 13-year-old and I need to be around to be there for him as he grows up. He isn’t there yet. My wife needs me and I need to be there for her. I had a cousin who took her own life, and I remember what it did to my grandmother. She never got over it. I could never do that to my loved ones.

Third, Life is a gift; With all those who struggle and fight illnesses and diseases so they might live, I have an obligation to live my life for as long as I have it. It is not right to throw away a gift that so many don’t have the luxury. I think of children in cancer wards, people of all ages who have their lives taken from them. I think of holocaust victims whose lives were stolen from them. Life is very much a stewardship, and I need to make the most of it.

If I am going through a painful time, from my bout with it in the past, I know that things do get better. Whatever is hurting me can change. A person in pain can seek help, and will discover people do care.

Ultimately, death is rest, and peace at the end of a journey. For now, life is a responsibility to live it well, with honor and as much as possible, with decency. As the writer of Kohelet said, To everything there is a season, A time for every purpose under heaven: A time to be born, And a time to die; As long as I am alive, its my time to live.

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6 thoughts on “Thoughts on Death and Dying

  1. Thank you very much for sharing this. May you live many long and healthy years and one day bounce your grandkids on your knees.

  2. Michael,

    Very poignant. My first loss was my mother when I was about to turn 12. In the intervening 34 years I have lost all my grandparents, my stepmother, and a distant cousin I adored. Just a couple of weeks ago our congregation’s former President and a good friend of mine passed away of a massive heart attack at age 49.

    Life is precious and it is G-d given and G-d ordained. It is not given to us to grant life or take life away. At the end of my journey it is my hope and prayer that G-d will be there to greet me with open arms and love and that many of those who have gone before me will be there with me.

    Thank you for your writings- they are touching and relevant.

  3. Thank you Rabbi for this meditation. Judah Himango recommended this article to me and I an thankful. Btw, the picture looks like the cemetery in the Jewish quarter in Prague? My wife and I visited with our daughter this year to learn about the fascinating history of the Jews in the Czech Republic.

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