First Person | Mind, Body & Spirit

Talking about the end of life takes courage, commitment

Sandra Wortzel from Casa ad
Sandra Wortzel

The Days of Awe are a pivotal time of year, a time of introspection, of remembrance, and a time to dream anew. We stand on the ground of the entirety of our lives, looking back at the variegated landscape of our past experiences, and forward into the misty mystery of all things that will inevitably unfold. Into a new year we go like voyagers on a starship, wondering what new frontiers we will face, what decisions we will be asked to make, what adventures we will undertake. As we look inside ourselves, we hope and pray that we have learned something from our past that will help us grow and thrive on our journey into the future.

In the ancient wisdom of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) 3:1-2, the narrator says, “A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven: A time for being born and a time for dying …”

Kohelet instructs us that we will all face the same fate; whether we have been wise or foolish, in the end, each and everyone one of us will die.

Eleven years ago I lost my maternal grandmother, Sara, who was 92. Three months later my mother, Marcia, age 75 died. These were losses of great magnitude, my beloved matrilineal connections gone in quick succession. In an instant I found myself moved up to the frontlines of elderhood before I was ready.

Today, with the wisdom of 60 years and my experiences as a psychotherapist, hospice chaplain, daughter, wife, mother and grandmother, I understand from the depths of my soul that it is never too soon to have important and meaningful discussions with our loved ones about the fate that we all face in life — dying. In retrospect, I am not sure I could have persuaded my grandmother or my mother to talk about the “inevitable.” I yearn to go back, to be given a “do over,” to trust the process of living and the power of our strong familial bonds, to trust what love had cultivated, to be able to discuss the hardest of topics. My mom passed away in the hospital, never speaking about or facing the fact that she was dying. In hindsight, to know my mother’s wishes at the end of her life, to know her heart, would have been a precious gift.

Six years ago, after a series of health calamities ending in a terminal diagnosis of metastasized lymphoma, my father, age 86, entered inpatient hospice, where we were able to continue our ongoing conversations about life, death and what happens after you die. His passing was peaceful and gentle, in an intimate setting, with caring, dedicated and compassionate hospice staff. I had learned the hard way, having had no heart to hearts or true closure with my mother, that it can be a much more satisfying leave-taking to have those challenging conversations with our loved ones before it is too late. And with dad, most gratefully, I did just that.

In this new year of 5776, I ask you to discover the wisdom and foresight of your inner Kohelet, the philospher and teacher that lives in you. Make the fearless commitment to talk about what matters to you most about end of life concerns with your loved ones and friends. The Jewish values and soul-traits of honesty and compassion entreat us to discuss these hard topics, including all that you do and do not wish to occur at the end of your life, medically and otherwise. Speak of this with your trusted loved ones and with your physicians, whom I truly believe want to know. Spend time thinking about, and then completing, advance directives, which will offer the gift of peace of mind to you and your loved ones. Write an ethical will, in which you share ideals, values, stories, what you truly believe in and, most of all, your heart. In doing so, you offer a road map to your loved ones for generations to come, so that their starships may encounter a bit less turbulence as they seek and find joy in life’s journey.

Sandra Wortzel, M.A., R.P., was ordained by Aleph Alliance for Jewish Renewal as a rabbinic pastor/chaplain and a mashpi’ah ruchanit (spiritual director). She is a chaplain for Casa de La Luz Hospice and leads monthly Shabbat services at The Fountains retirement community. An expressive arts therapist and educator for many years, she sees individuals in spiritual direction, using contemplative and expressive arts-based practices.