There was a wonderful piece based on a conversation had with Reb Zalman Schachter Shalomi published on a NYT’s blog entitled Talking about Dying. In this piece he discusses the question of approaching a loved one during his/her later years and talking about what it means to die. He argues that we should be cautious with the need to talk about death and dying with those in the “December years”, for underlying our need to ask the elder about dying is a seemingly selfish desire. We have to remember that the goal isn’t to satisfy our own curiousities but to be present to someone and give that person the opportunity to share the experience with us.
“What should you do if your parent is drawing close to dying but doesn’t want to talk about it?” I asked.
I was sitting in Boulder, Colo., with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, 85. Reb Zalman, as he’s called, founded the Jewish Renewal movement and wrote “From Age-ing to Sage-ing,” a classic book on how to age consciously and well.
I’d recently moved my 94-year-old mother to a care home for people with Alzheimer’s. She’d made funeral arrangements years before, but she never spoke about the elephant in the room — her approaching death. I wanted to know what she was experiencing. Was she in denial or at peace? What could I do to help her make the transition with grace and love?
I couldn’t just blurt, “Mom, you’re dying. How does it feel?”
When I told this to Reb Zalman, he smiled. “You don’t have to tell her that,” he said. “Just sit with her quietly and think about it. She’ll be going to another place, and you’ll be missing her. Not everything has to be verbal. Your thoughts and feelings will get through to her.”
Another approach, he says, is to write a letter. “Visualize the person sitting in a chair and read the letter aloud, even though you won’t send it. You can say things like, ‘Dear Mom, I love you and I care for you, and I want you to know how much I appreciate your life. I want to make our parting good for me and good for you.’”
“In my experience, this really works,” Reb Zalman added. “Your thoughts seep into her awareness, and you’ll get some response — perhaps not directly, but you’ll feel it.”
I had this talk with Reb Zalman during a series of conversations with him about what he calls “the December work.” He wrote “From Age-ing to Sage-ing” in his 60s — the September of his years. Now, he says, it’s December, and one of his priorities is to help people caring for elders to understand what they’re going through and what they need.
“No one talks about how it feels when your cells are wearing down, when it takes a while to remember a word because your hard drive is running slow,” he said.
Reb Zalman has long been a trailblazer for people from many faiths. Born in Poland and ordained a Hasidic rabbi in Brooklyn, he’s a master at connecting two worlds — the ancient Orthodox and the current cutting-edge.
In the ’60s, he sought to move beyond the confines of Hasidism and to learn why so many youths were abandoning their roots and looking East for spiritual nourishment. He took L.S.D. with Timothy Leary, traveled the world and developed friendships with spiritual leaders like Thomas Merton and the Dalai Lama. He’s been married four times and has 11 children. He founded Jewish Renewal to help keep the religious tradition relevant and alive, and he has ordained 136 rabbis and cantors who lead communities around the world.
People often come to him with questions about dying, and he sees it as crucial for family members to open the subject with each other in all its aspects, whether they do so directly or indirectly.
He tells those of us caring for people in their own Decembers that “this is not about you. It’s their life, their passing, and it’s best to give them some choices and follow their cues.”
Discussions about death are never easy. The rabbi’s own father wouldn’t tell his son what he wanted done with his remains. When Reb Zalman broached the subject, his father would say, “You can’t wait for me to die already?!”
Instead, Reb Zalman recalls, he told his father what he wanted for himself. At the time, he was considering having his ashes scattered at Auschwitz (a plan he later dismissed). His father jumped into the parental role, saying, “That’s not best — you should do something else.”
“What have you got in mind?” Reb Zalman said. His father told him he’d bought a plot in Israel and wanted his remains buried there and maybe Zalman should do the same.
“I had to flip him into telling me by speaking first about my own wishes and thoughts,” Reb Zalman said.
He faced a different issue when a friend was dying of cancer. In the final days, the friend was in great pain and was frightened that it would never stop. He told her she would not feel pain after her transition: “You will not always be in that physical body. You will slough it off and be free. Everything will be calm.” He told her that people who’ve had near-death experiences report being “enfolded in unconditional love.” For this woman, Reb Zalman said, “that was a message of joy and hope.”
I asked Reb Zalman what he would want in his final days. He closed his eyes and thought. Then he smiled.
“Remember what Woody Allen said? ‘I don’t mind dying as long as I don’t have to be there.’ I’m the opposite. I want to be awake and present when I’m dying.” He said he’d like his wife, Eve, to be with him, and he’s told her, “When it’s my time, I’d like you to let me go.”
She agreed but asked in return, “Would you take me with you as far as you can?” They have a deal.