Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Of Death and Dying

Somebody...somewhere...at some time in the past must have declared that one is never too old to learn new things. While that adage is most definitely true, there are many things that one wishes never had to have been learned. Such has been my renewed education over the past month.

I have written several times about my father-in-law's decade-long struggle against PSP and all of its debilitating and miserable effects. From the very moment of his correct diagnosis, we were all very aware, including him, that this was a battle that could not be won. We talked about inevitabilities and game plans. We discussed end of life care and longterm goals. We engaged in philosophical debates and angrily cursed God. We ran the gamut of emotions and we attempted to find a new normal by which to live our lives amongst the constant background noise of death's footsteps.

But we knew.

We all knew.

Three weeks ago, we all sat close by him as he slowly and silently just sort of stopped being. It was the death that he wanted, the death that he chose when he still could verbalize his thoughts. There was no feeding tube, no intubation, no monitors. He was simply gone.

And while we all had years to prepare for the moment; while we all intellectually understood that this death was a dignified death, it didn't lighten the load of grief one iota. The tears flowed easily and copiously, and the pain of his absence will be felt for a lifetime.

I have officiated at many funerals over the course of my career and I have led many shiva services. I have been there while close relatives have sat and I have overseen many a shiva house. Death is not a foreign concept for me. But this was the first time that we had shiva in our home, and my education grew exponentially over the course of those seven days. We were overwhelmed with kindness and thoughtfulness and our gratitude truly knows no bounds, so please don't mistake what I am about to say as bitching or moaning. I simply want to impart some life lessons learned so that others might take them on for the next time they are confronted with a similar situation.

Here are a few handy tips you might want to remember when dealing with mourners and visiting a house of mourning.

1. Please go and pay your respects to the mourners first, even when the house may be overflowing with people. In a busy house it is sometimes easy to forget that it isn't a social gathering and perhaps this isn't the best time to catch up with long lost friends and family. I understand that it happens, but try and remember why you came in the first place.

2. When you speak to the mourners, try and avoid cliches like  "Well, at least his suffering has ended." or "He's in a better place now." These statements don't help. If you honestly can't come up with something to say, a simple hug and "I'm so very sorry for your loss" will suffice.

3. When visiting, please understand that mourners often need a timeout. A walk, a nap, or simply just some solitude. They may not be there right when you come to visit. That's ok. If you can wait, great. If not, we understand and thank you for your visit.

4. I realize that there is a natural curiosity about the end of a person's life, but please don't demand that the mourners recount the final few days ad naseum. The Husband desperately wanted to remember the father of his youth, not the father that had wasted away for the last ten years. Stories and photos from the past make for far better conversation.

5. Kids are great. We love kids and kids have an inherent way of reminding us that life goes on. But, if you are bringing children to a shiva, please come prepared with books, colouring supplies, video games etc,. and be prepared to police and discipline. Not all houses are kid friendly and houses of mourning are not necessarily the best places for kids to be running around or sliding down railings. If you have a problem with this, best to leave your kids out of your visitation.

6. I know that everybody is so very well-intentioned and well-meaning when they ask "Do you need anything? Just call and ask." And believe me I did. Many times. Of so many. Thank you is simply never enough. But a far better response might sound like this. "I noticed that you needed milk and were running low on soda. I'll be over in half an hour." Sometimes just doing is better than asking.

7. God bless the people who took our garbage. We were overflowing with it and couldn't possibly store it for more than a day. Several people just put it in their cars without even asking and removed it to the dump, put it out with their own, or disposed of it in ways I would rather not know of. Thank you to all of you.

8. Yes, I know that we didn't do a great job of recycling during the shiva. It isn't that I didn't want to maintain our "as green as possible" lifestyle, but convenience and exhaustion were simply too powerful. But, thanks for pointing it out. (Sorry. I couldn't resist just a bit of snark.)

9. If you are asked to take food home, do it! We have two very large refrigerators and freezers and we were still overflowing. Providing food for the mourners is the Jewish way of saying "We love you", but it becomes overwhelming. The Husband and I simply could not consume all of the leftovers in a year of diligent eating. Taking food home when offered really does help relieve some of the stress felt by those residing in a shiva house. Give it to a shelter if you wish. Just take it when offered.

10. Running errands is one of the greatest gifts you can give to the mourners. Can you pick somebody up or take somebody home? Can you do a Walmart run? Can you speak to the Chesed committee about details? Can you stay at the house during the funeral? Can you stay late and vacuum? Can you make phone calls to inform people? Can you......????

We are approaching the end of shloshim and the loss that we all feel is still very keen. Living with a prolonged illness and ultimate death of a loved one stirs up a myriad of emotions, many of which are in conflict. Some day soon I will write about all of that, but right now it is just too raw. For now it is enough to remember and give thanks.