I think this image sums up pretty well what we’re all feeling right now. Staying inside, hoping that by staying behind the curtains that the Angel of Death won’t see you and “Pass over” you (full pun intended here). In this strange time, we’re thinking about death more often because we’re hearing about it every day. I will say it’s easier to think about the death of others rather than our own mortality. Yet now, it’s getting harder not to. And I think it’s a good thing.
The mother of a close friend of mine had a great expression: “No one comes out of this life alive.” How true. Between my own prognosis and the Coronavirus pandemic, the balance between the two is definitely on my mind. Should I contract Coronavirus, it’s like hearing the gangster in a 1930’s film say “Its coytens for ya, Copper.” As much as I try to suppress my thoughts on mortality, it gets harder with the scourge of the virus, literally encasing us in an invisible fog. Anyone walking through my door could be the Angel of Death who has sneakily taken over the body of a caregiver or acquaintance. This is forcing me to confront the inevitable.
Given that uncertainty, I’m now starting to mentally process the risks and the “What If’s”. There are things I’m doing now to prepare for the time that life ends for me. If not now, when? If anything this pandemic should do for us is to force us to think about how we prepare for own passing.
My journey started when I was asked by my palliative care physician to review my current health directives. A step in that process was to complete a POLST form which adds specificity to the medical directive. There aren’t many questions on it, but each one confronted my greatest fears. They include what a medical professional should do if I become unconscious and unable to communicate. Also what should they do if I can’t breathe, eat, or drink on my own? To be on a ventilator or not, or putting in a feeding tube or not? Wow, talk about life decisions – these are for real. When talking to my palliative care physician, who is highly trained in terminal illness, I found there is no real instruction book one can refer to to easily come up with the right answers. This is all self study. It’s a short answer question that turns into an essay on your own life. The good news from this grim scenario is that your answers can change over time and you’ll still get full credit for it. Most importantly, it takes the burden off Mary Ann from having to make those decisions when I am unable to. The last thing I want for her is to feel uncomfortable at best or regretful at worst.
What I just discussed are the nuts and bolts of preparing for my own death. The harder part is how to be at peace with myself when the time comes. I started going deep into myself, thinking about what my wishes might be, what do I need to do for my family and friends so that both myself and they can be at peace. What I really discovered that when thinking about one’s own death, you have to start with your life. You need to think about what the most important things are in your life. Is it family, friends, community, the earth, etc. It takes clarity on your own life to prioritize what you want to leave behind. Of course, your first response is to say everything, so all the more reason to sort your true priorities to get to five of them.
Once I completed the POLST, I started looking to faith, wisdom and resources for help. Looking into faith I was taught early on that Jews didn’t believe in resurrection or hell. My vision was that I always going to join my parents and family in heaven, which I assumed was going to be in a pretty nice neighborhood. The biggest miracle I had hoped for was that when I did see my mother again that she would have mellowed out and that both my parents wouldn’t be fighting all the time. The pristine and perfect notion of heaven was corrected when I came upon an article that stated, “... the Hebrew Bible mentions neither heaven nor hell: it speaks of “she’ol,” a dark underworld to which everyone goes after death, regardless of how they acted during their lifetime. There is also only one chapter in the entire Hebrew Bible that refers explicitly to a collective resurrection of the dead in the future (Daniel 12)… The idea is that different souls have different destinies immediately after death. The righteous are rewarded in heaven and the wicked are punished in hell. But the dominant view in Judaism has been that the punishments of hell are temporary, lasting up to 12 months. Once transgressors have paid for their transgressions in hell, they can move up to heaven. the dust returns to the earth, where it once was, and the soul returns to God who gave it.” (From an interview by George Yancy with Moulie Vidas, The NY Times, March 2020.)
Well should I be nervous and I am totally screwed? I always thought that if I followed the Ten Commandments I should be all right. But I guess I should pack lightly for at least the first year where it will be pretty warm with no hope of getting a tan.
I recently heard a saying that God is not a rescuer, but an enabler. In discussion with my palliative care physician, he suggested I read a book called The Four Things That Matter Most by Ira Byock, MD. The four things he declares that what we should all be saying to those we care about are: Please forgive me, I forgive you, Thank you, I love you. I started embracing some of those declarations and found they lifted some burden from me after I said it to someone I knew who I cared about. I started saying Thank You more to family, friends, and especially my caregivers. I’ve also been trying to say I Love You more often. In earlier times, I had a hard time saying it (and being a Jewish male didn’t help either). I find it easier now because I feel like have a lot of time to make up for and wanting to be more and more comfortable with it. In terms of asking for forgiveness, I feel I’ve always managed to take responsibility for my actions so asking for forgiveness was easy for me. But forgiving others, now that’s tougher for me. I had a friend who sadly experienced a violent end. He was always a bit of a trickster, but also someone who would do anything for you. There were many times he would piss me off to no end. I would get angry and go radio silent with him until I calmed down before I had the temerity to reconnect with him. (I mentioned in a previous post that I always had a hard time letting go of friends.) I never once thought to say that I forgave him. Then I lost touch, until I found out he had passed away. I felt awful, not just for his passing, but that I never had the chance to forgive his transgressions. There’s a saying that truly fits this scenario, “It’s always too soon until it’s too late.”
Finally, one of the resources I was introduced to is called The Five Wishes. It’s a deck of cards, each with a wish that a dying person would want in order to be at peace. As I went through the deck, many of the wishes seemed obvious. But there were some that made me really think. As tough an exercise that it was, it helped me prioritize the things I want to happen most when it’s time to say Adios. First, I picked fifteen, then resorted down to ten, then finally down to the last five. When I was done, I again felt a sense of relief for myself and for my family.
At this point, I’m sure you’re curious what I chose. Here they are:
- To feel like my life is complete
- To not be a burden on my family
- To not die alone
- To be able to say goodbye to important people in my life
- To be free from pain
I’m sharing this because I hope you, dear reader, will take this opportunity to take your fears of death and take the time to think whether your prepared to face the inevitable. My hope is not to frighten you more than you already are. Hearing the number of fatalities each day seems like it’s getting closer each day. But I feel that if you’ve taken care of yourself, then have faith in the randomness of it all that this will bypass you and that you will survive. I actually have the same hope as all of you, even though I am extremely vulnerable. Yet the one thing I can say is if the worst should happen I can take some solace that I have done some of the hard work ahead of time. That doesn’t take away from how difficult it will be for me to say goodbye to my wife, my kids, my family, my close friends. But I can say I’ll be more at peace.
My point here is to meet death with life. All of these decisions you consider have more to do with life than death. Your directives are about keeping you going. Your wishes are about your loved ones, a sense of closure, and how you want to be remembered by others. These are meant to free you up so you can enjoy life now with less baggage and less worry. It’s something you control so why not do it?
More to come…
17 thoughts on “Matters Of Life And Death”
Another provocative and extremely thoughtful piece. And probably the most poignant so far. I actually think about death a lot. Probably because there’s been so much of it in my family starting from when I was quite young.
But it’s so different to think about death in the abstract versus to know it’s close or potentially close and to behave as if that is the fact. I so appreciate your thoughtfulness and actions. Narrowing down those five priorities is really a useful thing to do.
I think one that I would have on my list is to resolve old grievances with those I love as much as possible.
I think that when one is close to death all old grievances will probably melt away or lose the power we place on them when we’re living our day-to-day lives.
What we will probably most want then is to send love to those we care about, no matter what they may have done to us. Those “things” probably will no longer matter much if at all.
Your words have inspired me to keep trying to mend a deep rift I have with a family member. I’ve been on the verge of giving up on it but perhaps it’s worth continuing the fight in a new way. Perhaps beginning with “I forgive you and I hope you forgive me.”
Thank you Harry for your wise and inspiring words and for your choice to be so vulnerable at this very vulnerable of times.
Harry, I didn’t need to sit down, as you suggested, until I got to your bullet points. So I’m glad I sat down anyway.
Some of the issues that you’ve been facing are issues I myself have encountered. Some occurred during that our-of body experience in 1978. Those were quick, though, and hit me over the head like a flash of lightning. Other of the issues occurred over long periods of time and were related to chronic disease.
But I know the similarities end and that you’ve been in territories I can only imagine. I think of you and your family often. I wish I could be there. I hope you and Mary Ann can meet Byron. You both have been there for me many times and I thank you for that. — Donny
Dear Harry, you are thought provoking, deep and soulful. Sending love
Harry, you have been all over the world. I’ve been with you on a few of your travels and have heard about many other. This journey, with it’s unpredictable twists and turns like through a dark – sometimes frightening, sometimes beautiful forest, has broken through to the light. To the essence of love and truth. You have been so generous in sharing this journey with us all and also reminding us of the temporal nature of our Existance. Reminding us of what’s important and that how we live our lives is intertwined with how we face our mortality. Thank you so much for sharing this with us and for being the generous, menchy person that you are.
Thats alot to think about! These times, you, life, death. My belief, after taking a course in kabalah, is that we all go to heaven. God is at the center, and where we end up is just closer or further away from God. Real estate. Its a positive feeling. And that there are finite souls that get sent out again. I also feel that I have had enough signs from Mommy and Daddy to know they still have a connection to us, so that we will still be connected to our living relatives. Alot to think about on Passover and during the corona plaque. Praying it passes over our households. XOXO
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Harry, this is a totally moving and poignant piece. Your final five are not much different from mine. I believe there is a heaven and an afterlife (only because I was raised in a different faith tradition). Strangely I expect to meet you there but perhaps not untangling fishing line…
It’s a crazy time, Harry Wittenberg. I think we are all ponding our inevitable right beside you in these solitary days.
When my father was dying I asked my rabbi about how the people he sees confront death. He told me, “It’s all over the place. Some people are in total denial, some people take the time to make their peace with life, and some people are between the two” Watching you deal with everything you definitely are making your peace with life. You’re a mensch my friend.
Harry, were you by any chance quoting my mom? She often said, “Chris, you know none of us makes it out of this one alive.” Sort of the Saturday morning serial approach to life and death. Of course it turns out she was right, as she died this past February 6. She was prepared, having outlined her obituary, signed durable powers of attorney for healthcare, had a DNR, and prepared her memorial service — the call to worship, three scriptures, four hymns, responsive reading, unison prayer, and benediction. She left space for the pastor’s homily and whatever the kids wanted to say. Mom was prepared, which isn’t the same thing as being ready. But she wasn’t afraid. I think mom wasn’t afraid because she was a person of faith, because like you, she believed in something greater than herself. I don’t know that it’s important precisely what it is you believe in, but faith, in the face of all of life’s traumas, makes a difference. You’re standing (or sitting, or wheeling about) more consciously close to that transition point toward which we’re all headed. I’m not ready — not ready for either of us to move on — although I know we both ultimately will. You are teaching us all how to move through this with grace and dignity. And jokes. Don’t forget jokes. Waiter, taste my soup. There’s no soup, it is a memory of something you loved. A-chaa!
Yes, it was your mom I was quoting, even though I took some liberty with her words. And yes, will keep the laughter going.
Harry, another amazing, thought provoking article. This is especially relevant to us right now because Fred has a major leg surgery and is in horrible pain. This goes on all day and all night. I start to think, is this going to be going on for the rest of our lives? This, along with the horrible virus, makes you think about the ones you love and what you want for them?
As for heaven and hell, having been raised a catholic, we were given holy cards with pictures of saints on them. On the back was a prayer. Next to the prayer was a number i.e; 90 days, 60 days, etc. These were called indulgences. If you said the prayer and dedicated it to someone, it helped towards shortening their time in purgatory and moving them closer to heaven! Not sure how long you had to stay in purgatory but this was one way to help shorten the stay! I’m
Not sure if they still exist but I remember doing a lot of praying for a lot of people!
You give me a lot to think about. Thanks for your beautiful writing!
Thank you Harry, another moving and thought-provoking piece. I matters that these are things you are actually grappling with, not an academic exercise. You make these questions vivid for all of us, it’s a gift.
Dearest Hesh, This is the blog I’ve been waiting for. To begin – It seems to me you are talking about Granting Forgiveness when not requested? What’s up with that?
Saying ‘I love you’ – silly me, never realized you didn’t speak it but, good lord you are a most loving person! You’ve lived it.
I, too have to decide about ventilate/intubate – and I’d just assume skip a final hospital visit. I hope you have been assured that your passing will be painless, physically and you’re doing the work to assure a peaceful mental withdrawal. I, too am doing this work right along side of you.
As to your 12 months down South…I beg to defer, sir! No, no I don’t see it.
Books on tape: The Five Invitations – highly recommend
Having cleaned many-a-bottom doing Hospice work I get hung-up on the bathroom issues. Dizzy Gizzy!
If I am all over the place blame it on the Medical Cannabis – relax into the flow, sweet boy
I want to confirm my deep inspiration love, and admirationI have for you. These were not easy emotions for me as a reserved Japanese male to express, but it a testimonial to you that I can easily do so now. I recently lost a friend with whom I was able to express my feelings of love and gratitude to him before his unexpected passing. Thank you for the gift of being able to do so. I am grateful to you. I am also appreciative even at my age it is not too late to grow and mature.
Denny, you’re comment is deeply touching to me. It’s true still waters run deep. I’ve always felt a connection with you over the years, and am so glad we can still express it. Love ya, brother.
When Chris’s mother died, her pastor mentioned that, in Kenya, they do not refer to death as “passing on,” but rather as “arriving.” I really like this idea and find it to be similar to one’s experience in a labyrinth: you walk a long and convoluted path, full of many twists and turns, and when you get to the end you have simply arrived. There is no pathway out, only the opportunity to gaze back over your complex (and maybe perplexing) path and admire the view. I think you will look back over a beautiful path full of many twists and turns that have touched many lives. I’m grateful that at least of those turns brought you into my life..
Love you always,
When Chris’s mother died, her pastor mentioned that in Kenya they do no refer to “passing on,” but to having “arrived” at one’s destination. I like this idea and find that it is similar to the experience of walking a labyrinth: you walk a long and complicated path, full of twists and turns, about-faces and long stretches of nothing and, when you get to the end, there is no exit – you simply have arrived. From your place of arriving, you are then able to look back over the complicated and perhaps perplexing path that brought you to that point. I think you will look back over a very beautiful path that has touched many lives. I am just grateful that one of your twists and turns brought you into my life.
Love you always,