My sister has been suffering from Guillain-Barré syndrome for 11 years. She's had numerous setbacks when doctors have said, "Be sure your affairs are in order and contact your family." We gather and she bounces back from the crisis. She says God doesn't want her yet, but there really are things she needs to take care of before she goes. Any advice?
-- G., Orange Lake, Florida
I've watched many people die. People always say this must be the worst part of my job, but they're profoundly wrong. The lessons I've learned from the dying form the core of the deepest wisdom I've gained as a rabbi.
I've been with many dying people like your sister. They're ready to die, but they're not ready to die today. They have, as you say, "things to take care of." Often, the list includes trying one last time to heal broken relationships. They want to die knowing they were not the cause of discord in the family.
Some people want to hang on for the wedding or graduation of a child or grandchild. They want to die with a smile on their face. Some of those final tasks have to do with making peace within their own souls about letting go of life.
People think we die of trauma or disease, but the truth I've witnessed many times is that many dying people decide exactly when to die. It is life's last pure act of will, love and trust.
What your letter brings to mind for me are the problems family and friends of the dying must confront. I'm going through this right now with my dear friend Father Tom Hartman.
You get it in your head that the time of death is coming soon, and then it doesn't come soon, so you become spiritually disoriented. You also become torn between the desire to cling to the dying person and your wish to see them released from their suffering.
There's a wonderful teaching from my Jewish tradition that a dying person (called in Aramaic a gosses) is like a flickering candle at the end of its burning out. If you do something to move the candle or blow on it, it will burn out prematurely. The proper spiritual behavior is to be present and patient, loving and accepting of the fact that soon enough, in the person's own time, and in God's own time, the flame will turn to smoke, but the love between you will never be extinguished.
NOTE ON THE DAUGHTER WITH A DIFFICULT MOTHER: Many thoughtful readers commented approvingly on my suggestions last week to help keep a mother's toxic behavior from emotionally wounding her loving daughter -- but they all had the same important suggestions.
Each rightly observed that I'd overlooked an obvious first course of action -- to immediately take the 86-year-old mother for a complete physical exam by a geriatric specialist. This would rule out a neurological, cardiac or other event that might have compromised her mental and physical health and caused the sudden change in her behavior.
Many readers also suggested the daughter join a caregivers support group to help her deal with her reactions to her mother's behavior. I should have included both excellent tips.
The first step when your parent's behavior changes dramatically is to have him or her checked out for dementia-related diseases. One reason I didn't include this important suggestion is that I was thrown off by the daughter's comments that her mother had "always" been difficult and controlling.
However, seeing a doctor is wise. If the mother had been given a clean bill of health, the daughter would know for sure if her mother was simply behaving badly. Some people are just kvetches. They were born to kvetch (and, no, there's no English translation for kvetch. It means to complain, but it means so much more in Yiddish.)
A kvetch is a person for whom the glass is not half empty, as opposed to half full, but is rather completely, totally and utterly empty all the time and it's your fault! My suggestions to the daughter were behavior modification techniques that might teach her mother how to eventually become not totally impossible but merely minimally difficult, with an undercurrent of kvetch.
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