|(I originally posted this 1 year ago, Jan, 6, 2016 for Hevria - edited for Jan. 8, 2017)|
“May G‑d console you, together with all mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” This is what we say to someone who is sitting Shivah, who has just lost a loved one to the final stage of life. Death has no parallel on earth. So jagged, paralyzing, and final. Death causes such a surging fallout, is considered so terrible and sad in its finality, that the event stands alone in human experience. Death is the winner of all calamities. Death is the last of all events and it may suddenly pounce on us or lead a slow lingering process of illness and suffering that affects entire communities of people.
I have been quoted many times saying, “There’s only one thing I’m sure of and that’s that I’m going to die – we are all going to die.” From the day we’re born until our final breath we’re on a path of slow decay. Death of our human experience is inescapeable. When the process is concluded, the only tragedy is the pain and havoc created in other people’s lives; the survivors left to pick up the pieces, fill the void, and repair the element that once secured the positions of all of the parts relative to each other.
The symbiotic relationships of mother, father, sister, brother, son, daughter, or friend – once balanced now disoriented, tortured, and broken. The agony of the empty seat at the table, the cherished photographs, yearning for lost time, and so many tears. Death takes our souls, and leaves behind debris of catastrophe; a mixture of treasure and grief. Depending on who you were while you lived, you may leave a pale sludge, a cataclysmic residue, yet quite often the death of a person leaves behind a celestial ghost which must be apotheosized and ennobled on many occasions.
An utterly selfish and self-centred reality is where I often find myself; in self imposed solitude and contemplation. Happy and euphoric, manic and ecstatic, the existence of my life in limbo seduces my heart and whispers a quiet love song. Why am I here? To make my soul juicy and fatten my essence for smooth entry and illustrious admission into The World To Come. Death, I fear You not. I yearn for you, dream of you, and welcome you in good time. You are my future and I hope we will share an eternal love until the time of Tchiyat HaMetim: revival or resurrection of the dead; one of the fundamental beliefs of the Jewish Religion.
During the vulnerable journey from the physical to the mystical, the laws and practices for the survivors attempt to comfort the newly departed; unraveling a plethora of seemingly odd rituals meant to respect and comfort the eternal soul and providing a framework and structure of action. We’re commanded to abide by the ceremonial rituals and traditions ordained and protected by the ancient Talmud and Kabbalah. Knowing what to say, how to behave and do are painful dilemmas and anxieties for supporting members of society, community, and the mourners themselves. The mention of death often brings a fidget to wellbeing and apprehension to existence.
Dedication and care is devoted to how to comfort the terminally ill – what to say? What not to say? Obviously every individual has unique needs and desires. I am open and invite discussion and sometimes I overshare. Others are quiet and private. We are all sullen, bitter, and utterly tormented at times. Dying is a complex tangled process encompassing a spectrum of anxiety, exhaustion, hope, relief, and dread. It assails my loved ones with great vengeance. The inevitable yet unknown stages of death fondle me and entice a forbidden macabre dance with mortality that is graceful and lovely, grotesque and twisted.
I’m an observant Jew and all too acquainted with the rituals of handling the deceased. My mother volunteers with Chevra Kadisha: an organization of men and women volunteers who accompany the deceased through ritual preparation for burial and known as a burial society in English. She has assisted in countless ceremonies of Taharah: the ritual cleansing process of washing, grooming, and dressing deceased women. I know of the dedication required to participate in the Jewish process and steps for caring for a body. The honor and respect of breathless bodies is intended to culminate in celebration of the life of loved ones following the grieving period.
We are not alone. The fundamental rules in Judaism, in death and bereavement, are intended to surround the dying and the mourners with a supportive community. The funeral procession, while a show of respect to the deceased, is in actuality an act of the living for the living. The Hebrew word, levayah, signifies joining and bonding which, in my human understanding is an act of living humans – souls still living in their houses (bodies).
The most intense mourning, hours after death, to the seven-day Shivah immediately after the burial, to the 30-day Shloshim period… the mourning period of a year, reciting Mourners Kaddish, lighting candles, saying special prayers on certain holidays, and visiting the gravesite are physical and spiritual practices meant to comfort the loved ones left behind and are taught and believed to increase the wellbeing of the departed soul’s ascent to The Next Life AKA Heaven.
Throughout the world, there are cities built on volcanos. In an unpredictable flash, the gut of the volcano rumbles like a hungry bear coming out of hibernation. The foundation of entire cities may tremor underfoot and hot lava may spew into the heavens, vaporizing every living being in it’s path leaving tons of dust and volcanic stone. According to National Geographic, more than one billion people (20 percent of the world’s population) live in volcanic hazard zones. Imagine that. I wonder what inhabitants of volcano cities must feel? Do they live in constant fear? It seems they do not especially after eruptions wipe out their cities and they are not slow to rebuild; in the radius of the same volcano.
We are all going to die. I focus my attention on living not remorse or sadness. I cannot control the worrying though I do try with exercise, healthy eating, bringing some sense of order and routine into my home, and taking various anti-anxiety medications. I’m acutely aware; 24/7 that I don’t have time for reluctance, shame, and complicity. Every moment feels like a potential opportunity for assertiveness, determination, and purpose and when I fall short of utilizing my time – that’s when the romantic whisper of death entices me and infiltrates my prayers. I pity the bodies who cheat their souls from a life with inherent meaning. Without faith, who is responsible for giving life meaning? In lieu of knowing the meaning of life, we must create it. It helps that I have a set of rules and guidelines provided by the holy Torah and I respect that it doesn’t resonate with everyone.
Whether you believe in G-d or a Higher Power (or not) right NOW is a wonderful opportunity in which we may never again have the occasion to create: create relationships and bonds, interact with our loved ones, and embark on projects that will bring goodness to This World. Our only certainty in life is death. When our soul’s homes break down everything else will cease to matter but the state of our spirits. Finally, without choice, the decayed house must be disposed of and the soul must leave.
I rarely attend funerals. I tremble as I fulfil my duty to visit Shivah houses and meet with mourners. I feel the suffering of others, strangers, acquaintances, neighbors, and companions on this earth. I feel a purpose and a calling to ease the suffering of people and it helps me laugh and dance along my Journey. Sometimes I'm not sure if I'm comforting the mourners or if they're comforting me. My life has become so entangled with the purgatory of living with cancer and not knowing when the scary Jack is going to spring out of it’s box. I find and create joy and purpose in my life when I’m able to. I believe we can create anything we want and the more passionate you are the greater the creation. I am committed to kindness and hope, but mostly faith that everything is for the good and that I am a tiny yet important part of the Big Picture. I’m here for a reason.
Every hour, around the world, people are leaving their troubles and their ecstasies on earth and their bodies are buried or cremated in any number of religious or secular ceremonies. I wonder what it would be like to grow old? what is old? 70? 80? 90? 100? After a certain point, every step we take in life is as precarious as stepping on trembling ground where the hot molten lava bubbles beneath the volcano cities of Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Europe. The ground grows thinner beneath our feet with every step. The love of Life and the fear of Death are harder to grasp, as I walk the path of my Journey. I have no idea about what death is, so I cling to the faith and hope that apart from the pain and suffering of a disease like cancer, and the terrible consequences to others, this earth is only the beginning. I’m here. I will do my best to live, laugh, dance, and run until my last breath. When I go, I envision a wonderful New Beginning. Death may come knocking yet I have a beautiful future to look forward to.
It may seem twisted to have a love affair with death. People are afraid to die and yet I encounter countless people who seem afraid to live. You cannot deal with your pain or with fear unless you’re willing to live through it and I’ve experienced the contractions of giving birth to happiness in the face of agony. You may waste your life and it terrifies me to imagine the possibilities. Nobody chooses a life threatening illness like cancer and losing control is NOTHING like giving up. Happiness comes to those who accept that the only thing they can control is themselves and their reaction to what happens around them. There is no other way than to seek love, joy, and beauty that surrounds us. A life of happiness doesn’t cure sadness, anger, pain or betrayal. True happiness requires acceptance, forgiveness, and faith. There is no beauty without ugliness, no bliss without misery. Only I can decide how long I’ll visit those dark places.
Life is a journey and so is death – they are harmonious and inseparable. I have a choice to make every single day and what an opportunity to waste! I aspire to view the world with compassion not anger, acceptance not judgment, and most of all: love not hate. I'm not always successful. I fall. I fail.
I still have hope and I haven’t given up so when I go, I wish to have the last word. Those closest to me may hold my body in their arms and I hope they will want to cuddle, kiss, and carress me. I trust that Omnipotent Arms will take me and carry me Beyond. I long to climb into them. I long to leave behind lasting memories of love, faith, and joy. I wonder what it would be like if funerals were celebrations of eternal souls set free.... If we all agreed that The Next World is greater than this one, then maybe the custom would actually be to celebrate. We mourn because we, living people, experience tragedy and loss. If we were 100% sure about the glory and wonder that awaits the soul when it leaves This World, Shivah could be a seven day celebration; without tears, without sadness, but humans cannot live that way.
I know nothing. I merely dare to believe that This is only The Beginning… the rest has to be a wonderful mystery and I must force myself to look forward with complete faith.