Judaism and Hospice:
Meeting the Divine at the Edge of Life
Attending the births of each of our children, many of us have the feeling of being present for a miracle, a witness to the divine gift of life.
Those of us who have been present many times as someone took their last breath, have a similar feeling of being in the presence of holiness.
Sometimes we take the miracles and blessings of life for granted, but we feel G-d's presence strongly both at life's beginning and at life's end.
There is a world of difference between a person so sick that any breath might be their last, and that same person when their last breath has gone. As long as there is breath, there is life and hope. Not a naïve hope for a miracle, but the original meaning of hope in Judaism, clinging to the spirit as long as it is within us. The Talmud teaches us that a person who is alive, even if on the verge of death, is as valuable as any other living human being.
Every time we walk into a room, whether it is a hospital ICU or a patient's bedroom, or even to visit someone with end-stage Alzheimer's, we are reminded that this person is as valuable as any other human being. We often hear family members say about their loved one: He never wanted to be a burden or She wouldn't want to be taken care of by others. As if losing autonomy and requiring assistance from others were shameful. Why is this symbolic of having lost our dignity? No one believes their loved one is less worthy of love because of their physical condition. Dignity is built into who we are, and can never be taken away. Our value comes from our essence, from our
G-d given souls.
Judaism teaches that G-d views us as intrinsically worthy and never worthless. Instead of imagining how other people see us, perhaps it is more appropriate to ask how G-d views us. There are other valuable questions to ask: Where am I going to die? Will I be alone when I die? What will my death be like? What happens after I die? What do people fear most about dying? The greatest and most common fear is the fear of separation the transition of leaving our loved ones behind. It is a fact that we are simply unable to be on both sides of life at the same time.
Here we can help one another by expressing our love and devotion. We can understand that the time will come to let each other go, knowing that the bonds of love will remain stronger than death itself.
We honor the dying when we address the sadness and fear of anticipatory grief, and focus not just on what we are afraid of, but on what we believe in.
We need to develop a vidui, a final confession, and say prayers that address the feelings we hold dear. It can be a challenge for some, but a very worthwhile challenge, to express our personal visions and beliefs, to pray a spontaneous prayer that comes from the heart.
At one time, most people died at home in a natural way with family close at hand, providing care. Today, most people long to be at home when they die rather than in a hospital room.
When we read the story of the death of Jacob, the Torah tells us:
When Jacob finished his instructions to his sons, he drew his feet into the bed and breathing his last he was gathered to his people.
Jacob did not ask to avoid death, but for a chance to recognize his life was coming to an end so that he might bless his family before he died.
There is a beautiful textual interpretation which teaches that the Shema, the affirmation of Judaism and faith in one G-d, did not originate with Moses in Deuteronomy, but with Jacob's sons, who said it to their father:
Shema Yisrael, Listen dear father, Yisrael (Jacob's other name) the G-d you believe in is our G-d as well and will be after you die.
Hospice gives us all a chance to say those things that must be said, to give and receive comfort and relief for as long as we live.