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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The bedside vigil serves one more purpose. As death ap­proaches, a crisis of faith occurs as the life cycle draws to an end. A personal confessional is encouraged from the dying as a rite of passage to another phase of existence. This type of confessional occurs throughout the Jewish life cycle whenever one stage has been completed. So we confess on the Day of Atone­ment as we end one year of life and begin another. So grooms and brides traditionally said the confessional and fasted on their wedding day, for they sensed that it marked the end of one stage in their lives and the beginning of another.

The con­fessional on the deathbed is the recognition of the ending of one cycle and the beginning of another. This and the recitation of the Shema in the last moments before death help to affirm faith in God precisely when it is most challenged, and help the dying person focus on those most familiar rituals of his life just at the moment when he enters the most mysterious and un­knowable experience of his life. This comforts him together with those who share his vigil.

The wisdom in actually observing the death is that the real­ity cannot then be denied. Psychiatrists know that the relatives of those missing in action or those who are lost in battle and whose bodies are never recovered have the hardest time re­cuperating from grief, for they have no body around which to focus and express their grief and so they are vulnerable to the temptation to deny the reality of the death. Judaism does not permit the mourner to escape the reality of death; it bids him see it, and then it leads him through a whole network of burial and mourning procedures whose purpose is to help him come to terms with it.

In doing this it is in harmony with psychiatric literature, which abounds with examples of the fearful conse­quences of death-denial and repression of grief. The talmudic sages centuries ago seem to have sensed the same truth that psychiatrists now articulate, which is that the recognition of death is a necessity for continuing life, and grief is a necessary and unavoidable process in normative psychological functioning. (Vivian M. Rakoff, "Psychiatric Aspects of Death in America," in Arien Mack, ed., Death in American Experience)

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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.