Death and Dying: How the Living Can Cope

Death is not something we like to talk about much or to be honest, at all.


But as we continue to react to the horrific murder of 17 children and teachers in Parkland, Fla., this past February, we are reminded of all the other mass murders in schools and public places in this country and abroad. And we decided it’s time to address some important issues around the subject. Too often this terrible but incontrovertible fact of life—that we all are going to die, though hopefully in a less traumatic way—is taboo. 

As we’ve each sadly learned, death may come quickly, or it may sneak up on us like a terrible rash, slowly, then steadily, and finally we’re facing it through the eyes of our loved ones or ourselves. Only when we must confront the subject head on, do we force ourselves into conversations, but then stop as quickly as we can. 

Quite often we find ourselves talking about trying to beat death rather than accept it as a given. Some scream when it’s at their door, “Do everything you can to save my life.” And we do our best to help them by searching for another doctor or treatment rather than dealing with the likely outcome. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” said writer Joan Didion, who wrote poignantly about her husband’s death in The Year of Magical Thinking and then her daughter’s death in Blue Nights

When the rare occurrence of someone accepting their fate of an imminent death, most of us are shocked. Perhaps at these moments we should tell ourselves stories to cope well with the inevitable. Why not bring the reality of death to light by sharing together calmly and peacefully?  

In thinking about this recently, we began to wonder: 

  • Why do we talk so rarely about death? Is it the finality of death that’s so frightening? Or the pain of the process?
  • Why are so many anxious about saying a person died and instead use euphemisms such as “passed away” or “moved on?” Or why when a woman sees that her partner is “in pain” rather than dying, does it lend a more sympathetic ear? What role does language play?
  • Why are we so afraid to plan for our deaths--make known how and where we want to be buried or ask other family members for their wishes while they are healthy? Do they want to donate their organs? Have a wake? And why do those of us who leave this world not have wills and estate plans? Do we believe that if we avoid these steps, we just might cheat death?
  • Is part of the fear of death since some of us are unsure about what happens after death—if there is a heaven and a hell—and what takes place in either?
  • Finally, why is it sometimes the case that people who don’t believe in religion or God, suddenly do when they’re at death’s doorstep? 

We have so many questions. We do not have many answers. 

Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, writes: “I am convinced that it is not the fear of death, of our lives ending, that haunts our sleep so much as the fear... that as far as the world is concerned, we might as well never have lived.” 

And so, the two of us have come to think that if a loved one is dying, we should stop being afraid to bring up the topic. We both know doing so won’t make the possibility go away. Instead, we hope to support the person’s dignity with a sincere and specific, “Thank you for being you. For all you’ve done." 

We will share stories we recall and even offer to tape record their stories if they wish. We will let the person know that her or his living mattered. Saying, “I love you” freely and often or something to that effect is emotionally healing.  Know that it is never too late to say something meaningful. If you are not in the habit of declaring your love for a person, take the risk. If love is too strong, go with something less effusive, perhaps, “I’ve always admired you, respected you, thought you were terrific and here’s why….” Surprise them. It could take your relationship to another level. And don’t wait until the last minute to say these types of goodbyes. 

Once someone dies, there are rituals involved in many religions for the living. In our own Jewish faith, there are guidelines to help. Members of a sacred burial society (Chevra Kaddisha) accompany the body and ensure that it is never alone. They wash and ritually cleanse the body and dress it in white burial shrouds (tachrichim); men are often buried with their prayer shawl or tallit with the fringes cut off. Afterward, the body is supposed to be buried in a plain pine box to democratically demonstrate that we all leave this world the same way, and the funeral conducted within 24 hours of death or as soon as possible.  Mourners are guided to sit Shiva (in mourning) for seven days after the funeral to be comforted by their community. The period for Shiva may be reduced depending on when the death occurred.  Nobody sits Shiva, the period of mourning, on Shabbat, for example. 

And even after that, many who are observant go to temple daily for a month, 30 days (Sheloshim) to say Kaddish, the prayer for the dead for their loved ones. Those who have lost a parent may recite Kaddish every day, or simply once a week on Shabbat, for a year. And every year afterward, many Jews observe the person’s death near the anniversary by reciting the Kaddish and the Yahrzeit prayer, literally defined as “year time,” and also by lighting a special Yahrzeit candle. A headstone is erected at the gravesite at the 11-month mark. 

Not everybody follows these rituals exactly. Some less observant Jews may prefer to borrow pieces of the tradition. And through the centuries Jews have added other traditions, not specifically commanded, but which observant Jews have come to practice. For example, when someone is dying, it is important for family to be present. No one should go into that place of oblivion alone. “The purpose is to have someone there when the spirit or soul leaves the body,” explains educator Lisa Lisser, facilitator of adult Jewish learning and spirituality at Central Synagogue in New York City. 

But for those who don’t know what religion dictates when a loved one dies, it may simply be a matter of kindness not to leave the living alone at such a critical time. Family gathers and the community joins in, too, by bringing food during the Shiva so those in mourning aren’t by themselves in their distress and don’t have to worry about such mundane activities as shopping and cooking. For many it’s also comforting to spend time with others remembering their loved ones and sharing stories about them.   

Yet afterward, the Jewish religion makes very clear about how life should proceed. Rabbi Peter H. Schweitzer, an American leader of Humanistic Judaism wrote in Moment Magazine, “Ask the Rabbis” (Feb. 2006), “It (Judaism) teaches us that there is a time to mourn and a time to renew one’s commitment to living. It teaches us not to don the sackcloth of grief as a permanent garment but, over time, to cast it off.” 

In other religions and cultures, there is more discussion and greater openness about the topic of death. Christians believe that death does not have the last word. Their faith is rooted in the belief that God made man to enjoy eternal life. An afterlife. And how we live our lives on earth will determine where we end up after death. It’s similar in Islam where death is treated not as the end of life but the continuation of life in another form. The rituals vary.

First and foremost, regardless of which religious tradition you follow, there is respect for the body. In many religions, when a person dies, the living hold a viewing, a visitation or a wake to spend time with the body. In other religions besides Judaism such as Islam and Quaker, it is believed the body should also be buried as soon as possible after death. 

Death is part of life. Talking about it among the living may help mitigate some or most of the fear. So, as we age, let’s start the dialogue sooner—and before it’s too late.

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