By Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Entering a room or home where death is a presence requires a lot of us. It is an intensely demanding and evocative situation. It touches our own relationship to death and to life. It may touch our own personal grief, fears and vulnerability. It may acutely remind us that we, too, will someday die. It may bring us in stark painful confrontation with the face of injustice when a death is untimely or, in our judgment, preventable. If we are professional caregivers, we may also face feelings of frustration and failure.
Here are some Jewish principles of care for the dying which are helpful to keep in mind:
B’tselem Elohim (created in the image of the Divine)
This is true no matter what the circumstances at the final stage of life. Often it is our task to simply see that no matter how much time remains until the moment of death, this person embodies a spark of the Divine.
Refu’at HaNefesh (healing of the spirit)
With surprising frequency, the final stages of life offer the possibility of healing of the spirit, precisely when healing of the body is no longer a possibility. It is helpful to simply know this truth, and perhaps to remember occasions when one has seen this in life.
As long as there is life, there is hope. It is not helpful to encourage unrealistic expectations on the level of physical healing, lest the patient and loved ones feel betrayed and shattered when this hope proves unjustified. There are things to hope for, and an attitude of hopefulness is possible even in dark times.
One Talmudic rabbi taught, “Do teshuva the day before you die.” This poignant teaching encourages all of us to live our lives in such a way that we will be ready when death comes. It helps to know that extraordinary acts of soul-searching, reconciliation, and growth can and do happen right up to the end of life.
Inevitably, we die alone, in our own body, on our own solitary journey. Yet as with every phase of the Jew’s life, we journey with others, those who have gone before and those who stand with us now. We are part of this larger community (a Jewish community, a human community) that has known death and will continue to live after our bodies are gone – part of something stronger and larger than death.
Appreciation of Everyday Miracles
Quite often, the nearness of death awakens a powerful appreciation of the “miracles that are with us, morning, noon and night” (in the language of the Amidah prayer). Appreciation loves company; we only need to say “yes” when people express these things.
Unfortunately, most Jews have little knowledge of our tradition’s very rich teachings on life after death. Read up on the subject, then, just listen to the person who is dying.
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