After Escaping with My Life, I Have More Questions Than Ever about Death

March 2, 2020Paula Kaplan-Reiss

“I’m so sorry” and “You’re a miracle!”

These are the two phrases I have heard most often in the past six months, after I fell 75 feet off a cliff just one week after my 89-year-old mother passed away from pneumonia. I sustained many broken bones and a concussion, but I survived and made a complete recovery. Five months later, we buried my mother-in-law, who died of dementia.

Having turned 60 in September, these losses were hardly my first experiences with death or crises. Eight years ago, I endured a year and a half of treatment for breast cancer and, ultimately, thrived. But the last six months have fundamentally altered the way I look at death.

As a child, I was taught little about death, other than that it was to be feared and avoided. When I was 9, my grandfather died of complications from a stroke. I wasn’t allowed to attend his funeral, which I found remarkably unfair.

At the time, I imagined a heaven with a loving God, where my deceased relatives would be eager to see me. I hoped heaven was rich with positive feelings, where anxiety and anger did not exist.

And so, each night when I went to sleep, I diligently said the Sh’ma and added, “Rest Grandpa’s soul.” As I grew older and more relatives died, I dutifully added each name to my list, resulting in prayers that lasted too long and were too depressing. I feared stopping the practice, though. Would their souls not rest? Would they feel abandoned?

Now in the last third of my life, losing my mother has been my most profound loss. I continue to struggle, finding it hard to believe she is with my late father or with my grandparents. I want to believe in the soul that we, as Jews, believe lives on – but I find that I can only perceive the World to Come in human terms.

I wonder: Do souls see and remember? Are they aware of what goes on among the living? Do they have feelings? Are they close with God? Do they only see and connect with people they love? Does this connection last for eternity?

After my concussion, I lost four days of memory, during which time I believed I was in the hospital tending to my dying mother. As soon as I became aware, though, I began to actively grieve the loss of my mother – and started to wonder how I will die.

While recovering, I repeatedly heard how lucky I was to be alive, that God must have a plan for me. I know countless people who have survived breast cancer, but I know no one who has experienced an accident like mine.

I’ve survived cancer and a death-defying fall. What will eventually kill me?

Needing to find meaning for my survival, I focused on thanking those involved in my rescue and working to improve mountain safety for others – and then, my mother-in-law’s health began to fail.

For many years, dementia had altered our relationship, and I helped my husband tend to her needs in assisted living. As she declined, though, and we knew her death was imminent, all her aides said the same thing: “Only God knows when she will go.”

Dissatisfied with this response, I struggled to imagine an anthropomorphic God who would make the decision on the time and date to take her. More likely, it seemed as if her battery were dying, with little indication of when, exactly, it would cease to work. While she received comfort care, we sat with her and held her hand.

A rabbi visited and did Vidui, a confession of her sins and transgressions before God. To me, it felt absurd, given her inability to sin for the past 10 years, yet the rabbi said all the right things, looking appropriately somber. The hospice workers acted and spoke with care and compassion. And, as I did with my mother, I watched her take her last breath.

Where was God in all this? And how do I connect with my spirituality? I can no longer look to death for answers. Despite our scientific and technological growth, we have no concrete information from the World to Come – and so I can only stick with what I know, which is life.

 If God is life, God has given me family, community, love, strength, miracles, losses, and a full range of positive and negative emotions. God has provided me the ability to improve my world.

If I have a God-given soul, I pray its essence was transmitted to my children and will continue for generations. And I hope my death will come after a long, full life and will happen peacefully, without pain and in my sleep.

Perhaps this last hope is unreasonable – but for now, I long to not be preoccupied by my death. Eventually, I know, I will run out of miracles. In the meantime, though, I want to find the resilience to enjoy the life I have been given through my parents and, ultimately, through God.

In this life-giving God, I choose to believe.

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