My grandmother used to say, “The older you live, the less people will attend your funeral.” She meant that as you outlive more and more of your friends, the less people are left who will know you well enough to attend your funeral. She lived to be 93 and had over 300 people at her funeral, so while one might conclude she was wrong, on the other hand, there might have been many more.
I have written before on Death and Dying, but recently, I had the occasion to spend some time with a very close, dear friend. He is ten years older than I am, and a year ago he was diagnosed with a virulent strain of cancer. He went through chemotherapy and radiation, but it had little effect on him. A few weeks ago, the doctors concluded he had about a month to live. His wife called me and said it was his desire as well as hers, for me to perform his graveside service, something I felt honored to do, but I also felt I wanted to see him before he died. I was going to be on the west coast anyway for some meetings so I changed my tickets so I could fly up to see him after my meetings concluded. I asked his wife if I could see him, because she said he was very weak and she had to stop visits because they left him exhausted. He said he definitely wanted me to come so he could say goodbye to me in person.
When I got there, I was not prepared for what I saw. He was weakened by the cancer as well as the chemotherapy and he had lost his hair and was bedridden. I stood by his bed and we looked at each other. The only things I recognized were his eyes. They were warm and familiar, and I could see he was glad I came. I sat beside him and took his hand. It hurt me to see him this way. He was a big strong robust man, and now he was thin and weak, and dependent on others. I fought back tears as well as the desire to say anything. I looked at him, and we smiled at each other, and I held his hand. He said he was glad I came. He asked what things were happening in the organization we are both part of, and I shared some of the things going on.
Since I was staying there several days, I didn’t try to cram everything into one conversation, but shared bits and pieces on various topics, and at times just sat with him without saying a word. He let me know what things were important to him and I promised I would do everything I could to make them happen. Other people, mostly family, came to visit so I went in the other room while they visited and popped in for a visit several times a day, so as not to tire him out. Hospice workers came and went, changing bandages on the tumors that were devouring his body and administering morphine for his pain.
My friend was at peace about his eternal destination, and was looking forward to his future. As he lived his life with faith and dignity, so he was dying with the same peace and faith with which he lived. His death would be deeply felt by family and friends, but at the same time would be a relief for all who love him. The hard thing in these circumstances is seeing someone you love in such pain and suffering. The predominant prayer was for God to be merciful to him and let him pass in peace. Words of comfort and empathy were not needed and in fact, seem inadequate and trite. I chose to just be with him, so he would not be alone.
When I talked with the family, we talked about the funeral, mourning customs and plans. When I talked with my friend, I read to him from the Siddur, the Jewish prayer-book, and from the psalms. We prayed, and spent time together. The Siddur says, “These are the things for which a person gets a reward in this world, but his reward is not diminished in the world to come.” Among them are escorting the dead. While it is true that this refers to attending a funeral, I believe even more so, it is accompanying someone as they are dying. This came to mind as I stayed with my friend. He was as vulnerable as a young boy looking to hold his parent’s hand. My being there gave him comfort. He didn’t need my words of wisdom. He needed someone to be with him and accompany him as he makes the transition from this life to the next. He will be remembered for a blessing.
Post Script: My friend passed away three days after I wrote this blog entry. His passing was quiet and peaceful.