A Very Brief Manual on Visiting the Terminally Ill
Perhaps because we are directly and actively involved with after-life ritual we do NOT shrink from connecting with people who are terminally ill. We continue to speak and behave as we always have. And we don't describe time spent with a terminally ill friend as a visit to “the dying” because we interacted, talked, argued, joked or even just sat quietly with a living being.
We who serve in the Chevrah Kadisha continue to relate to the no-longer-living being as if they are alive; that is the essence of Taharah. It is a ritual involving a few simple steps and prayers but the most important element is our kavanah, our intention for our actions to bring comfort and bestow dignity.
We're not more special or better than anybody else in the community, we're simply different when it comes to death. Chevrah Kadisha members have volunteered to extend their boundary of human relationship beyond death. Taharah is a meaningful ritual which requires continued connection. We are present and actively participate in the final ritual act. We know it first hand, we feel privileged to perform the rites and understand its value.
Physicians often feel discomfited by a patient's ease and comfort with impending death. The “manual” for the living would be brief: “don’t visit if your own fear and discomfort cause you to behave or speak differently than you would to someone in perfect health.” Years ago, during a hospital visit with a terminally ill friend, she waved her daughters out of the room insisting they go off to a restaurant with my husband. The two sisters live 2,000 miles away, they hadn’t left their mother's bedside for three days and didn’t want to leave for even an hour. Their mother said, “You know, I can sleep very well with Merle here,” and got the laugh she intended. They went out to dinner and I stayed.
B___ was sleeping when they returned. We four stayed in the room talking quietly. After a while, my husband and I went home. Our friend B___ died towards morning, her daughters asleep in her room. We understood that it was her way of saying that she felt safe enough to leave.
Merle Gross says about herself: I’ve told my children what I would like etched on whatever stone marks my future grave: “She was fun while she lasted” (boldface intended). I know how serious a business Life is, and I don’t want to project an image of me as having been a party-girl, not at all. Simply put, a burial site, for me, is not where my memories of late loved ones reside. I hope that visiting my burial spot won’t feel important to my children—maintaining it? Yes; but visiting it? No. I hope their memories of me will attach to the places we’ve “experienced” together. So, maybe I’m reaching out from the grave to send a sly message, but a valid one, aimed at some passerby of the future. Perhaps someone coming to or leaving a funeral will read those words and understand that the late Me felt she had a gravely important message to convey which is, connect in “real” time with loved ones, and strangers, too. At a funeral, doesn’t every attendee hope that any sour, unpleasant memories will fade soon and be replaced with the treasured ones which, more likely, explain why we’re there?
In 2008, when our Conservative synagogue decided to establish a Chevrah Kadisha, my husband and I volunteered as “charter members”. Barry retired from law practice in 2010, I'd retired from business in 1994, when I sold my women’s clothing manufacturing company. From 1995 until today, I've recorded seventy oral history “interviews” as a trained volunteer in the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation Project, and I’ve had several enriching stints as guide and/or discussion facilitator for Facing History and Ourselves, and Chicago Historical Society exhibits.
[Ed. Note: Merle Gross has penned several other entries for Expired and Inspired. You can find them by searching through the archives here (More Articles, to the left and down). — JB]
GAMLIEL INSTITUTE COURSES
Please Tell Anyone Who May Be Interested!
Gamliel Institute Course 5, Chevrah Kadisha Ritual, Practices, & Liturgy (RPL) will be offered over twelve weeks from September 6th, 2016 to November 22nd 2016 online. There will be an orientation session on September 5th for those unfamiliar with the online course platform used, and/or who have not used an online webinar/class presentation tool in past. Times will be 5-6:30 pm PDST/8-9:30 pm EDST on Tuesday evenings.
The focus of this course is on Jewish practices and all ritual and liturgy (excluding Taharah & Shmirah, which are covered in Course 2). This deals specifically with ritual and practice towards and at the end of life, the moment of death, preparation for the funeral, the funeral, rituals of mourning, and remembrance. This course also includes modules dealing with Funeral Homes and Cemeteries.
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There is no prerequisite for this course; you are welcome to take it with no prior knowledge or experience, though interest in the topic is important. Please register, note it on your calendar, and plan to attend the online sessions. Note that there are registration discounts available for three or more persons from the same organization, and for clergy and students. There are also some scholarship funds available on a ‘need’ basis. Contact us (information below) with any questions.
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