I’m so sorry” and “You’re a miracle.” These are the two phrases I have heard most often in the past six months after I fell 75 feet off a cliff just one week after my 89-year-old mother passed away from pneumonia. I sustained many broken bones and a concussion but I made a complete recovery. Five months after my fall we buried my mother-in-law, who died of dementia.
Having turned 60, these were hardly my first experiences with death or crises, and eight years ago I endured a year and a half of treatment for breast cancer, and ultimately, I thrived. But the last six months have fundamentally altered the way I look at death.
When I was 9, my grandfather died of complications from a stroke. I wasn’t allowed to attend his funeral, which I found remarkably unfair. Each night, as my mother listened, I diligently said the Shema and asked God to “Rest Grandpa’s soul.” As I grew older and lost more relatives, I dutifully added each name to my list, resulting in prayers that lasted too long and were too depressing. I feared stopping my request, though. Would their souls not rest? Would they feel abandoned?
As a child I was taught little about death, other than it was to be feared and avoided. Of course, I imagined a heaven with one loving God surrounded by my deceased relatives who would be eager to see me.
Losing my mother is my most profound loss and I continue to struggle with it. No longer having my child-like fantasies, I find it hard to believe she is with my late father or with my grandparents. I want to believe in the soul that Jews believe lives on after death. But I can only perceive the World to Come in human terms. Do souls see and remember? Do they have feelings? Are they aware of what goes on among the living? Are they close with God? Do they only “see” and “connect” with people they love? Does this connection last for eternity?
Following my recent concussion and surgery, I lost four days of memory, and I’m told I thought I was in the hospital tending to my dying mother. When I regained my faculties I began to actively grieve her loss and started to wonder how I will die. I’ve survived cancer and a death-defying fall — what will eventually kill me?
While recovering, I repeatedly was told how lucky I was to be alive and that God must have a plan for me. I know countless people who survived breast cancer. I know no one who experienced an accident like mine. Needing to find meaning for my survival, I focused on thanking all involved in my rescue and working to improve the safety of the mountain for others.
And then, just as my life was returning to a new normal, my mother-in-law’s health began to fail. As we sat with her and held her hand, her death imminent, all her hospice aides said the same thing: “Only God knows when she will go.” Dissatisfied with their confidence, I struggled to imagine an anthropomorphic God Who would make the decision on the time and date to take her. Losing my belief in God’s role, I visualized my mother-in-law with a dying battery, giving little indication of when it would no longer charge.
A rabbi visited and recited the Viduy, a confession of her sins and transgressions before God. To me, it felt absurd given her inability to sin for the past 10 years as she succumbed to dementia. Yet, the rabbi said all the right things and looked appropriately somber. The hospice workers acted with care and compassion. And, as I did with my mother, I watched my mother-in-law take her last breath.
Where was God in all this? How do I take solace from my spirituality? I can no longer look to death for answers so I stick with what I know, which is life.
If God is life, then God has given me family, community, love, strength, miracles, losses, and a full range of positive and negative emotions. God has provided me the ability to improve my world. If I have a God-given soul, I pray its essence was transmitted to my children and will continue for generations. And, I hope my death will come after a long, full life and that my end will be peaceful.
Maybe that hope is unreasonable. But, for now, I long to not be preoccupied by my death. Eventually, I know I will run out of miracles. In the meantime, though, I want to find the resilience to enjoy the life I have been given through my parents and, ultimately, through God.
In this life-giving God I choose to believe.
Paula Kaplan-Reiss is a clinical psychologist in North Brunswick. She is a member of Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick and the author of “The Year I Lost My Breasts … and Got Some New Ones: A Breast Cancer Blog.”