End of life rituals: A final gift of love

faith in handsWaiting for someone to die is like waiting for a new baby to be born. And I’m waiting. . . waiting for my mom to pass. My daughter gave birth last month. . .so I waited anxiously to greet the newborn babe. I was anxious because any number of things can go wrong during a birth. I cried with relief after my daughter pushed out her perfect baby, who entered the world with the wail we expect and cheer.

Now I’m crying because I’m losing my mother, a little bit each day. As her energy fades, her mind fogs over, and her physical form diminishes, I hold onto the last thread of communication that we have. “I love you, Mom.” I tell her over and over again. She hears me, but she doesn’t hear much else because she is severely hearing impaired . . . and her cognition is fading.

A couple of years ago, Mom and I talked about facing the end of her life. I asked her if she had a good life, and she said, “yes.” I asked her if she had regrets, and she said, “yes.” But she didn’t want to talk about that. I told her I would do my best to be with her at the time of her passing. And now I am preparing to go sit by her side and wait until the last breath escapes her lips.

I’m relieved that my brother and I already made the funeral arrangements. At least we won’t have to deal with that when the time comes. I am also relieved that I made arrangements with Chevre Kadisha, the Jewish Sacred Burial Society. Many religions have complex codes of conduct for survivors and very specific rituals and customs that have been carried out for centuries. Harvey Lutske writes in The Book of Jewish Customs that the practices and customs rabbis established for survivors to observe following the death of a loved one help the survivors “cope with their loss, continue with their lives, recover emotionally, pay respect to the dead, and perpetuate the memories of those who have gone before us.”

Final gift of love

My mother’s body will be lovingly washed by a group of women in a ritual called Taharah. This cleansing requires several people because the entire body must be washed and moved from side to side in a specific way according to Jewish law. Afterwards, a huge amount of water is poured over the body and passages are read from the Song of Songs. The people performing the Taharah ask for forgiveness in case they performed some indignity. The body is then dressed in a cotton or linen shroud and put into an unadorned, pine coffin. Typically, someone sits with the body or “met” until internment. This is called sitting Shimira, and it is often done in two-hour shifts around the clock. The person reads psalms or prayers silently or out loud, or meditates while a candle burns continuously at the head of the coffin.

Buddhists also incorporate a cleansing of the body and a vigil into their mourning ritual. Families are often invited to wash the body of their deceased loved one. Washing a corpse enables you to become intimate with death in a way no other thing does. It’s hard work, but it’s an important way to honor the dead, said one Buddhist minister.

Death is the great equalizer

To the question, “What is the value of death?” the Jewish rabbis answered, “If nothing ever died, we, the human race, would not learn how to value time. Life’s finiteness is earmarked, and ended, by death. And learning to face death may be life’s greatest challenge.”

As hard as it is, we can take control and manage the death and dying of our loved ones. We can do things that make sense to us and provide us with comfort. Kim Mooney, the Board President of Conversations on Death, and Director of Community Education for Tru Community Care, Colorado’s first hospice, says, “The more you’re involved in the death and grieving process, the more we’re able to be in touch with that innate place in ourselves that tells us how to live. It’s the fear of death that makes us live. And it’s the terror of death that makes us run from the experiences that will teach us.”

As painful as it is,’ says Mooney, grief work and dealing with the death of a loved one guides how you’re going to live your own life. “We’ve skewed our relationship to death in this society,” she says, “but we can’t walk away from it. If you don’t do the work around it, you will somehow diminish the quality of your life. Grieving is a life-long process. Our lives are a series of gains and losses. Learning how to grieve, and incorporating a loss and moving on is critical to being able to become a mature, spiritual person because it implies an acceptance of what life is.”

I am an expert at grieving because of my many significant losses. But this time will be different because I’m losing my mother, my primary connection to the world. This time it  will be especially painful and profound, and I’m a little scared about facing the final letting go of having a mother and how it will affect me. But death will once again serve as a teacher to remind me that we are here temporarily, and that as my teacher loved to say, “Do not trust the time. Life is short, make it sweet.”

These personalized rituals can provide comfort and ease the intense pain that accompanies grieving:

  • Dressing and washing the deceased
  • Having a meaningful farewell service
  • Honoring the loved one at different times during the year
  • Building memory books
  • Finishing what they didn’t
  • Writing letters to the deceased and writing them back to yourself
  • Donating a toy for the age of a baby or child who died to “Toys for Tots”
  • Deciding what to do with your wedding ring after the death of a spouse
  • Writing a life story

*Segments of this post were originally published in an article I wrote called “Caring for our own at death.” It appeared in the defunct “Nexus : Colorado’s Holistic Journal” (Nov/Dec 1991).

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