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. I was, and I am thankful that I fulfilled my mother’s wish and my promise to her.
Just two weeks ago my beloved mother passed away from pneumonia. Pneumonia has traditionally been called “the old man’s friend” because a frail elderly person typically loses consciousness and passes fairly easily in sleep. Although it was not easy watching my mother drown in her own fluid, she appeared to not be in pain. Her breathing was labored for hours, and then she sank into a state of peaceful acceptance as her last breaths came in whispers until the last tiniest breath sealed the finality of her life.
I’m relieved that I had made the funeral arrangements with my brother a year ago. At least I didn’t have to deal with that on the day that the earth stopped spinning and I forgot to drink water as I faced a new reality of living in a world without a mother. 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 was 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 significant losses. But this time will be different because I lost my mother, my primary connection to the world. This time is especially profound because no one can replace a mother. It will take time before I don’t have the thought to call her, to check in with her, to make sure she is okay. And even though I have children and grandchildren, I will always ponder the profoundly unique love that binds a mother and child in remembering my own sacred relationship with my mother.
In listening to the sweet words and stories that so many people told me after learning of my mother’s passing, I am reminded that it is how we make people feel—not what we accomplished—that is what we remember about a person. Death once again serves 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 death, dying and grieving:
- Have a heart-to-heart talk with your loved ones before they get too ill. The Five Wishes is an easy-to-read end-of-life document that helps makes the difficult discussion about what you would like your end of life to look like.
- Hospice is a free palliative service offered by Medicare/Medicaid that supports the dying patient as well as the family
- Play music that the dying person loves, sing hymns, chant, etc.
- Dress and wash the deceased and dress the body in a white linen shroud
- Muslims typically share their prayers with the person who is dying before encouraging the dying person, if possible, to say or listen to the words, “I bear witness that (there is) no god except Allah; One is He, no partner hath He, and I bear witness that Muhammad is His Servant and Messenger. Once the person has passed away, the next step is to perform the ghusl, (similar to the Jewish taharah) or the washing of the deceased’s person body. The ghusl can can be done by most adult family members of the same sex as the deceased. After the body is washed, it is then enshrouded, typically in plain, white cloth.
- Have a meaningful farewell service
- Honor the loved one at different times during the year
- Build memory books
- Finish what the deceased person didn’t
- Write letters to the deceased and writing them back to yourself
- Donate a toy for the age of a baby or child who died to “Toys for Tots
- Write a life story