On Death

I woke this morning at 1:14 a.m., much earlier than my usual early mornings. I had been dreaming. I remembered my dream. I had been called to remove the bells from my brother Stan’s coffin. (He was buried 9 days ago.) When I got to the room – the coffin was not at the gravesite – instead of the metal poles upon which the coffin was placed to lower it into the grave, there was a similar device, but made up of much thinner rods and with no flat ropes attached used to lower the coffin. Instead, this metal frame sat atop the coffin. This rectangle made out of slim metal poles had a number of bells attached. I had to remove the bells before the coffin could be lowered into the grave. I tried to remove them but I was having a great deal of trouble and woke up.

Some dreams are easy to interpret and this one was even easier than almost all of them. My brother may have died, but he lives on in my head, not as simply memories, but as a brother whom I am not quite ready to bury. I feel his loss. However, I do not feel abandoned. I just miss him more than I think I missed him when he was alive. When I ride the TTC bus, I think that Stan will never ride a bus again.

Nor do I fear death. I do fear dying. I hated sitting by Stan’s bedside and felt helpless as he struggled. He was unequivocal. He wanted to die. So would I in his position. And I was as helpless and tied up as he professed to feel. I could not fulfill my promise and help him. As it turned out, he saved me from my turmoil and guilt because he went very rapidly at the end. I do not believe he feared extinction. Nor do I think I do or will. However, I cannot stand the idea of suffering for no purpose. I cannot stand the idea of wasting everyone’s time and resources just to keep me alive for a week or a month or several months longer.

However, I am a hypocrite. Because I did not feel my time was being wasted as I sat by his bedside. One afternoon, we had the best talk we ever had about our grandparents and parents, even though I could not answer his repeated question about whether our grandparents had been happy. My time was wasted when I was impotent and could do nothing to relieve the distress of his dying. He was not distressed about dying; he was distressed about the process. That was when he felt powerless. The fear of powerlessness was attached to dying, not to death. Death would be a relief from the suffering of dying and he welcomed it as did I.

Death is not an enigma that stymies me and pushes me towards some belief. It is just a given. It is not a puzzle. Death is not something I must conquer. I am not a megalomaniac. Death is certainly not a scandal that needs to be made bearable so that life can be made liveable. God should not be expected to kill death. For God is death – death as well as life. God is NOT dead. But God, to repeat, is death as well as life. Eternity embraces both death and life and we are part of that eternity in being born and dying. When, in the Amidah, we praise God as mechaye hametim, as one who can revive the dead, this should not be interpreted as the resurrection of someone who is dead, but the revival of the life of those who died within those who live, within me. Through grieving, I can better integrate the life of my brother into my own.

Certainly, something killed my brother beyond his control – his three strokes, his heart attack, but primarily his cancer that we knew nothing about until five days before he died. I know that did not bother him. It did not bother me. I have never wanted to control what I cannot. However, I become angry when I cannot control what I should be able to control. I become enraged when I cannot control suffering that I see as unnecessary.

My older brother, Al, fought death. Stan and I vowed not to. And Stan did not. He kept his vow. He simply wanted to die with dignity and, for a relatively short period, he could not. Death is not an evil. Suffering is. Death is to be welcomed as an end to suffering and is not to be feared. And I truly believe that I do not fear it. Nor did Stan. That does not mean he welcomed death when he was alive. Only when he was dying. Only when he was suffering.

I do not feel wounded by the loss of my brother. His dying enriched me for it was an integral part of the way he lived. But suffering, distress, extreme discomfort, horrific pain – none of these are what life is about even though they often, unhappily, accompany life. But when they are not accompaniments but have taken central stage, I hate living for that is the same then as hating dying – but not death. I know that is what Stan felt.

When death is inescapable, life is NOT preferable to death. Dying is then morbid. And death is to be greeted as a gift. To fight for survival to the very end is neither an inner necessity nor a moral preference. It is simply stupid. Stupid personally and stupid for society. Death should not and need not be delayed when it is inevitable. If I ever believed that Judaism advocated holding onto life to the very end, that would kill my love for Judaism.

When I – and my brother Stan – want to determine the timing of our death, it is not because we want to play God. Neither of us wanted physical immortality. But we do want to be able to exercise our free will to choose as much as possible death when we are dying, when death is inevitable and suffering is unending. That is what it means to celebrate life. The fact that life is temporal, is of limited duration, is just reality. So be it.

Nor is our concern with escaping unnecessary suffering part of a slippery slope to the illusion that life must be without difficulty. We both loved life’s difficulties. We welcomed them. They challenged us. They still challenge me. And that challenge does not entail searching for a metaphysical answer to the meaning of life. I have no problem about the meaning of Stan’s life. He was at heart a basically very good guy. He did good things. And the best thing he ever did was contribute to giving life to his son and making a small contribution to raising him, small in the overall multiplicity of factors that shape a life, but very large for Ari.

Stan never turned to God because life was difficult. He never turned to God period. I did, but not because life was difficult, but because God was such an intimate part of that difficulty. God for me has never been a source of solace.

God is the source of darkness as well as light, but a very different kind of darkness than that on the face of the deep before light was thrown upon and enriched life. For some people, God is a consolation. For others, an inspiration. For still others, God is unnecessary freight to be readily discarded.

For me, God is a reminder of my responsibility. God was not responsible for Stan dying. Nor was I. But I was responsible for not being able to relieve his suffering when he needed my help. When I pledged to give him my help. A quick death after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer relieved me of that sense of inadequacy and failure I felt as his death approached. I was saved by a relatively quick death.  

Stan died on a Wednesday morning when he was supposed to be transferred to a palliative care hospice. We waited for hours. He never arrived. The previous Friday, we and he learned from his doctor in the neurological unit that, as a result of trying to find out why he continued to be tired and why he kept giving off a series of large burps, that he had metastases in his liver and lungs.

I know – I read it every morning and evening when I say the prayers of a mourner for the thirty days required of a Jew – that I should pray for strength and a restoration of hope given the death of my brother. But other than feeling weaker with my advancing age, I do not feel any need for strength. In a weird way, I feel stronger in certain dimensions with Stan’s death. I feel I have an even greater responsibility to the next generation. And his death certainly makes no dint in my sense of hope.

If you love life with all your heart and with every thread of your spirit, then, however, death comes, how can it not be a welcome terminus to a life well-lived and about which you were blessed. Dying may not be welcome, but surely death is.

I guess I do not understand what grief is. But perhaps I do. Stan is missing in action. Missing in being. Missing in becoming. He’s not here. Only the bells. Only those tinkly reminders of who he was and how he chose to live his life. Those bells remind me how he currently enriched my life, Ari’s life and all those others whose lives he touched. No wonder that I could not remove them.

Stan did not need, nor do I, any silly idea that he has a life after death, other than the life that is part of my own and so much more a part of Ari’s and part of the continuity of life on this earth. And he is a reminder that we must do everything in our power to ensure it continues for the sake of future generations. 

It is an absolutely silly argument to suggest that life has no meaning unless there is a possibility of an afterlife. That is an insult to life itself. It is a pretence. It is an illusion. And an absolutely unnecessary one. Life is so meaningful that it does not need the crutch of a promised afterlife. It is simply not true that we all want to know what is beyond the grave, unless we mean by that what the future will be for our children and grandchildren. My brother didn’t. I do not. We did not need science or philosophy to disabuse us about an afterlife. For neither I nor either of my brothers held such a belief. We did not need religion to offer it as a prospect, for that only made us suspect religion as being part of a con game.

We both believed that it was a crock to hope for a life beyond the grave other than the life that lives on in the hearts and minds of those who knew you. Grief should be embraced, not perceived as suffering and requiring relief through an illusion, through a delusion. I am never going to be able to sit and laugh with my brother again nor berate him for his strong convictions nor tease him about his contradictions. But I can remember a number of the occasions when these occurred.

I do grieve. But in doing so, I am not suffering. Grief is NOT an illness from which one recovers, but a feeling which may fade over time, but which stays with you. You do not recover from it as you would a broken bone or measles. You live with it as it morphs and takes on new shapes. Certainly, it recurs intermittently. Sometimes, I go hours without thinking of Stan. Some day it will be days and then perhaps weeks. That is what happened with my disquiet about my older brother’s death. But as I stood by my brother Al’s graveside after we had buried Stan, that sense of presence, that sense of absence concerning Al, returned with an unexpected force.

I believe that the grief I feel is an intimate part of life and not something to which I will leave behind once the mourning period is over. I neither want to contain my grief or give it time limits. Grief is part of life. I want to experience it. I want it to help me understand my brother and my relationship to him.

In saying Kaddish morning and night, my concern is not with death or even with acknowledging Stan’s death. I am not in denial. I do not seek to remain intact while I grieve, but to properly grieve so I may understand myself, to understand Stan, and to understand the world better. To repeat, grief is NOT an illness from which we require healing and for which we need to impose limits. I am sure I will grieve for the rest of my life and, to the inevitable extent that the grief fades, to that extent I grieve for the coming loss of contact with the spirit of my brother.

Why then the pause? Why the seven days of shiva? Why the thirty days of shloshim? Why the continuity of the grieving ritual for 11 months? Not in order to get past it, but to enrich it, to not let the opportunity pass us by, for grieving is a great teacher. Without those periods, we lose out; the sensitivity to loss fades all the faster. Nor is grief an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to life. For grieving is central to life. It brings us closer to it rather than distancing us from it.  When a week ago, on Saturday evening, all my children, all their cousins and I and my wife sat around a table with a few others, we laughed for almost three hours on end as each told a different story about my brother Stan and his idiosyncrasies.

Mourning a life is remembering a life. Is celebrating that life. Is re-enacting that life. Is making that life vivid. That is why I wanted my friends and family around. That is why the community support was so terrific. I could share his life with them.

Why then do I say Kaddish? Why do I recite it twice a day? It is all about God. No, about God’s name. It begins:


Yit’gadal v’yit’kadash sh’mei raba
May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified

God’s name is sanctified, not in life after death, but in this world, in the world that He created. The Kaddish addresses our lifetimes and our days, in the lives of the people of Israel. It is not about the days that purportedly follow life in eternity. And when we say we wish to bless that name for ever and ever, we mean for as far into the future as possible, not for some myth of eternity outside of time. We pray for peace on this earth as we laud and praise and extoll, glorify and exalt that name.

My brother did not extoll God’s name. I now do. In some future blog I will explain what is in that name that is worthy of of such exaltation.


One comment on “On Death

  1. Kelly Morefield says:

    Howard I am very sorry to hear about your brother. Your words, as usual, are eloquent and comforting to many others I’m sure. What a gift you bring.
    Thinking of you, Kelly Morefield

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