I was in New York during the last months of my father’s life. During that time, my father, z”l, stayed with my brother and sister-in-law in Toronto where they watched over and cared for him. I, of course, came in to visit as often as I could.
No sooner had I returned home from one such visit than I received a phone call telling me “You should come back.” Knowing how tenuous his situation was, and how quickly he had been deteriorating, I rushed back.
He had been in the hospital and it was there that I hurried after my flight landed. When I arrived at his floor, I found a wonderful, considerate nurse seeking me out.
“Could we have a word?” she asked. “I need to share with you something very important.”
She led me to a small lounge reserved for the families of patients. “Your dad,” she began, in a soft, supportive voice, “is ready to leave this world.”
I felt my legs weaken. I knew his condition was dire. In the last days before he’d been hospitalized, he had awakened in the dark of the night, calling out in his weakened voice, “Ma ani?” – “What am I?”
My father, no longer able to daven, bench, learn, study, or recite Tehillim was unable to find his own identity. Who was he if not an active, pious, learned, and practicing Jew? He continued to breathe. His heart continued to beat. But what was the meaning of his existence so close to the end? It was, for him, a death before death.
So I knew he was dying. Still, her words, though delivered with sensitivity, caused me to tremble. She reached out and placed a hand on my arm. “He is ready to leave, but he must know that you are willing to let him go.”
I looked at her with confusion and astonishment.
“Go to his room,” she counseled me. “Let him feel your presence so he can depart peacefully.”
How could I understand what her words meant? How does one let his abba go?
Yes, I “knew” that the inevitable was upon him but how could I look into that chasm with unblinking eyes? How could I say goodbye?
Still, I heard the nurse’s wise counsel in my heart and I hurried to his room where I sat by his bedside, trying to summon the – the what? The courage? The kindness? The strength? – to let him know it was okay to move on, that my love and respect for him would continue unabated through all the years of my life; indeed, that the love and respect would grow.
A few hours later, he left us.
Sixteen years later, I still think back to that wonderful nurse’s wisdom. How many of those about to depart this world are not given the grace of knowing that those around them are willing to grant them a “peaceful exit.”
Granting that “peaceful exit” is not easy. Saying goodbye never is. Not for the one leaving and not for the one left behind.
“The entire assembly saw that Aaron had passed away, and the entire house of Israel wept for Aaron for thirty days.” (Bamidbar 20:29)
What does it mean, that they “…saw that Aaron passed on?” Rashi tells us it refers to the moment they saw Moshe and Eleazar coming down and realized that Aaron was not with them.
How do we come to terms with the passing of a loved one? How do we “let go”? And how does one “let go” of the world as he or she moves on when those who love them most cannot bear to let them go?
Aaron was deeply loved by the House of Israel. When they asked, “Where is Aaron?” Moshe replied, “He has died.” They reacted with denial. This cannot be! How could it possible that one who stood up against the angel and stopped the plague can be overpowered by the Angel of Death?
Aaron was mourned by all. The verse tells us that “…the entire House of Israel wept…” Why the “entire” house? To make clear that Aaron was mourned by every man, woman, and child. After all, he was a man who pursued peace and sought to bring harmony to all. He is the ohav shalom v’rodef shalom. There was nothing he would not do in order to bring about peace, even in the midst of terrible discord.
Moshe, in contrast, was not mourned by all. This is understandable for, as Yalkut notes, Moshe was also a judge who admonished and punished. But Aaron, loved and revered by all, was mourned by all. They could not believe he was gone.
Moshe, hearing their emotion, pleaded for mercy and the angels actually showed Aaron to them, lying in bed. They saw him and, at that point, they believed. They let go.
Goodbye, abba. Goodbye Aaron.
So hard to be left alone, fatherless, Aaron-less.
Everything and everyone who lives must die.
It is as difficult for the person dying to say goodbye as for those of us left behind. Studies have shown that there are ways to make that transition easier and more meaningful. To help loved ones say goodbye, we should help them focus on the many things in their life for which they are grateful, relationships they’ve had, things they’ve done. Also, the things they are proud of having accomplished. Building a business. Being president of the shul. Volunteering to help people in need.
Remind them of their faith and the value of being part of the Jewish community. And always remind them of being loved.
No one who has lived a life has done so without making mistakes, or hurting loved ones Helping someone – and yourself – say goodbye also means giving that person the chance to ask for forgiveness and to be forgiven. Say thank you to your loved ones for the things they have done for you and how they have made your life better and more meaningful.
Let them speak of their genuine emotion and love. Expressions of love and caring sometimes are difficult for too many people. But the potential regret of not expressing these real feelings at the end of life is too powerful to risk by remaining silent. There are no “right” words, only honest words.
We are taught to hold on to life so determinedly that even when someone knows the end is near, we refuse to acknowledge it.
“I know this is it.”
“Don’t be silly. The doctors will do something.”
Such an exchange hinders a meaningful goodbye. Often, before one dies, there is a clear premonition and certainty. Denial only creates problems. Indeed, many times the dying person will have a vision of what awaits “on the other side.” This is often comforting and should not be minimized or dismissed.
But even when the one dying is ready to say goodbye, we hold on. It is important to us that we “see” that our loved one has died, otherwise we may not be able to work our way through the stages of grief first outlined by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969. These five stages – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – are a part of the framework that makes up our learning to live on in the world without the one we lost.
Just after the end of the First World War, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik passed away near Warsaw. His son, Rav Moshe, who lived in White Russia, learned of his death by reading about it in the newspaper. He immediately embarked on the perilous journey to confirm the news. When he was asked why he undertook such a journey when the newspaper article was sufficient to allow him to sit shiva, he replied by telling of the time the prophet Elijah was taken to Heaven. His disciples had known he was going to die. They’d had premonitions and visions of his ascension to Heaven. Even so, they searched three full days for their missing teacher.
When such a person, a rebbe, is taken from his students, they feel too bereft to continue and they search for him. So it is when we lose a parent, a child, or anyone we love and respect dearly. So it was for the House of Israel at Aaron’s passing. Until they saw with their own eyes, they could not accept the sad reality of his death.
We need to “see” our loved one’s passing. We need to wrestle with its reality. We go through the stages of grief until we arrive at acceptance, the ability to see our new reality as it is.
Ultimately, whether we use Kübler-Ross’s articulation of the process of grieving or find expression of our grief in Tehillim or in the experience of the people of Israel when Aaron died, we are always left with the hard task of saying goodbye to our loved ones and then finding a way to live in a world no longer inhabited by their love, their generosity of spirit, their physical presence. A world without them.
Ironically, as that wise nurse taught me by her words and actions, the most important part of making our goodbye meaningful begins with recognition that our saying goodbye allows the one who must leave the opportunity to say goodbye in peace and love.
That reality might be the only salve for our grief.