On Being with Those Who are Dying

The Jewish tradition of being at the bedside of the dying is of immense value, not only for the dying person but also for those about to be bereaved--and for all of us, who must learn to face death.

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Excerpted with permission from “The Psychological Wisdom of the Law” in Jewish Reflections on Death, edited by Jack Riemer (Schocken Books).

The concept of wisdom(hokhmah) in the Bible is not that of sage philosophy or metaphysical abstraction. Wisdom in the Bible means doing what is right in each situation. It is in this sense that the Jewish perspectives on death and the Jewish mourning practices are "wise." They are wise because they pro­vide a total framework within which [humanity] learns to accept death, to mourn completely, and to live again fully.

visiting the dyingWhen the family and community are faced with the pros­pect of the death of one of its members, Jewish law reminds us that "a dying man is considered the same as a living man in every respect." But in American culture today, dying is treated as if it were a separate realm of existence. America is essentially a death-denying society; consequently we treat the dying dif­ferently from the way we treat the living. We avoid them, or avoid honest communication with them. We try to spare them the problems of everyday living, and we thereby deprive them of its joys. The dying person lives alone in an artificial envi­ronment created by those who do not wish to cope with the fact of death and its inevitable call to every living being.

Halakhah [Jewish law] forbids this dishonest approach. The dying per­son must be treated as he was always treated, as a complete person capable of conducting his own affairs and able to enter fully into human relations even unto death. Further, the Jewish tradition of never leaving the bedside of the dying is of im­mense value, not only to the dying person but also to those about to be bereaved. How helpless and how guilty we must feel when we hear of the death of a loved one, especially if no one was there to ease the fear of uncertainty and the pain of separation.

All kinds of questions spring to mind from the wellsprings of guilt: "Was everything done that could have been done?" "Why didn't the doctor or nurse get there sooner?" "What could I have done to prevent this?" "Did he suffer?" "Why was he alone?" And underneath these questions lie another series of questions: "Will I suffer?" "Will I be alone?" "Will anyone care for me though I didn't care for him?"

Judaism shields mourners from being overwhelmed by this kind of guilt because the community shares in the care of the dying so that they are never left alone. The community provides reassurances that everything appropriate was done. To the extent that I am a part of the community, part of me was there when he died, and so I need not fear.

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Audrey Gordon

Audrey Gordon is assistant professor of community health science in the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health, and is an expert on current thinking about death and dying. As a graduate student, she worked with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. She is the co-author of the book They Need to Know: How to Teach Children about Death.