Terminal Life

May 9, 2009

5 min read


There is no greater source of pain than the imminent loss of a loved one.

Michelle called me to share the devastating diagnosis of her father's terminal illness. The probability of losing him put her into an already full-blown, if premature, state of mourning. She was heart broken, inconsolable, and determined to spend every remaining moment with him.

Predictably, she beat herself up with guilt based on hindsight of what she might have, could have, and should have done with and for him all the years that she was preoccupied with her own life.

From the point of his diagnosis, her father, Sam, a vigorous, successful and active man, suspended all his business and activities, dedicating himself exclusively to the"truly important" people in his life -- his children, grandchildren, and very close friends. He is now flying kites in the park with his grandson, taking boat rides with his granddaughter, and having talks with his wife, things he couldn't have previously considered when his days were filled with work. He is putting his affairs in order, while Michelle is falling apart.


There is no greater source of pain than the imminent loss of a loved one. It hurts to the core. Upon the loss of his father, my husband commented that losing a parent is like challenging the common assumption that the sun would rise in the morning. Unquestionably, parents will be there tomorrow just as the sun must shine tomorrow.

To deny and repress them can be extremely detrimental.

There are many stages in grieving. There is the unreality, the denial, the awful pain, the guilt, and the anger. We have to allow ourselves sufficient time to experience all of these emotions. To deny and repress them in an attempt to hasten the process can be extremely detrimental. Ultimately such acceleration will prolong the effects, leaving unresolved issues with the potential of compromising relationships and situations. We have to give ourselves permission for as long as it takes -- to feel, to cry, to mourn to grieve and not feel compelled to follow anyone else's timeline.

Simultaneously, we need a faith perspective relating to mortality and ourselves.


I gently suggested to Michelle that, in fact, all of our lives are terminal. As one thinker put it,"if you're aware of death and the transient nature of your life -- the fact that it's impermanent, intangible and insubstantial -- then your priorities are quite different. If you know that death is stalking you every moment of your life, you don't give importance to trivial things."

Facing our mortality would help us confront what we would like our legacy to be. My husband has suggested that the yizkor service, where we remember our deceased loved ones, reminds us not only of those who preceded us, but also of ourselves and our own lives. If we ponder what our legacy will be when we are no longer here, how we live becomes more urgent to us. We are able to more quickly assess how to get our act together.

The Sages teach us that while other cultures celebrate and commemorate birthdays, Jews remember loved ones at the yahrzeit, the anniversary of a death.

The Sages draw an analogy to a ship. Do we celebrate, they ask, when the ship sets out on its maiden voyage as it embarks onto the stormy seas, uncertain of its ultimate fate? Or, is it more appropriate to celebrate when the ship returns to port intact, having successfully navigated its long, arduous journey?

As Jews, who view the challenging journey of life, its trials and tribulations very seriously, we understand that choices we make in life render us either victors or victims on this journey. So we see its conclusion as cause for celebration.


Another dimension of grief is generated through missing our loved ones – the loss of their physical proximity. We cannot sense their immediate presence in many precious ways -- their embrace, their gaze, their kiss. We long to touch them, to verify that they are still with us.

This is analogous to a plane as it travels off into the distance into a cloud. Would we question the airplane's continued existence as it disappears from sight, or do we understand that we cannot see it, because it has traveled beyond the limits of our vision? We apprehend that that regardless of our inability to see it, the airplane's journey continues.

Life is a narrow bridge between two eternities.

Life is a narrow bridge between two eternities -- the source from which we come when we are born and that to which we return when we our journey ends. In eternity, we will find the loving embrace of our Heavenly Parent -- who will wipe the tears from our cheeks and who will never leave us or abandon us. There, too, we will ultimately be eternally reunited with all of our loved ones.

The sobering postscript, however, is that though eternity awaits us, the nature of that eternity is defined by the choices we make now -- our behavior, thoughts, words, and deeds as we traverse the narrow bridge that we call life.

An inspired bon voyage to all of us.

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