Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
As a rabbi, I am privileged to officiate at many life cycle events. I become part of a family’s life in the most joyous of times and, more often these days, I become part of a family’s life in the saddest of times, helping them to say the last goodbye to a loved one.
Often a family will turn to the rabbi to guide them through the process of funeral, burial, and Shiva. There are questions to be answered and decisions to be made, and all of it occurs in a short and what seems like a whirlwind period of time.
It is the nature of the work that many times I do not know the person who has died, and sometimes I do not even know the immediate family. In those cases, my first conversation with the family comes after a referral from the local Jewish funeral home, followed by an initial phone call to get basic information, often followed by an in-person meeting. Again, this usually occurs all within a 24-hour period.
For reasons I do not know nor understand, this winter has been an especially ‘busy’ season for me in terms of funerals and shivas. One theme, in particular, stands out – that family members of a loved one who has died do not know ‘what to do’, and not just from the Jewish perspective. They are in shock, no matter if the death was sudden or not unexpected. They are also very sad, and making certain important decisions is beyond their emotional capabilities right now. They are overwhelmed and so they turn to the rabbi for help.
If in an ideal scenario I could have known the person who has died, and by extension their family, I could offer some loving rabbinic guidance to help ease their pain. This though is not the typical reality.
If I could I would offer the following words:
Life is uncertain; we never know when the end will come. We pray that everyone will live a long life, even though we know that sometimes that is not the case. We can never be fully prepared to deal with the death of a loved one, yet when it comes, we have no choice.
In its simplest terms, there are two ‘categories’. The first involves logistics – especially when loved ones do not know the answers to simple or typical questions. Who am I supposed to call? What should the arrangements be? Do we have family cemetery plots? Where is the safety deposit box? And the key? Is there a family attorney? Financial advisory? What about Shiva? What would Mom want? Perhaps a single person, or drawer, will hold all the answers necessary.
The second category is the ‘story’. Share your story with your loved ones. Tell them about your life – all the great moments as well as the disappointments and difficulties. Don’t shelter them. They want to know, and you want them to know. What’s important to you? What do you want them to know about you? What should they know now as adults that they did not know as children? What are your favorite family stories that should be passed down to the next generation? Perhaps begin to ask questions of others as well.
If it’s just too difficult to share with family members, then share it with someone else – a trusted friend or confidante. You cannot say it all out loud? Then write it down. You deserve to have your story known, and those who love you deserve to know it.