I’ve already kissed her good night, but my daughter Talia, who is 11, pulls closer and whispers, “I’m afraid of dying.”
“You dying?” I ask. It is a ritual we have been through before. “My dying? Daddy dying? Grandma and Grandpa dying?”
“Everyone,” she answers, as she has many times since she was 3 years old and spotted a strangely motionless fish washed up on a Long Island beach.
She’s fearful of death from every perspective — of surviving without her parents, of losing beloved relatives, and also of her tiny place in the universe, which isn’t even a forever place. “Life is short. Enjoy it,” she insists repeatedly to her 8-year-old brother Joel one night, not stopping until they’re both fully roused and rattled.
As has often been the case with my children and the trickiest of topics, I’m at a loss. My answers — that fear of death is natural; that she has a long life ahead; that daddy and I and her grandparents too, all of us live carefully, healthfully — fail to provide comfort. I promise a longer conversation, a more nuanced view. “Let’s make a study of death from the Jewish perspective,” I suggest.
And so dear Talia, this is the start of that longer conversation.
My mommy-friends have reminded me that we shouldn’t be having this conversation after dark. In fact, Rabbi Karen Reiss-Medwed, who lives in Atlanta, keeps a notepad for her three children to write down worries. “The pad has to leave the room so that there is no dwelling on the concerns at night,” she says. And Rabbi Ruth Abusch Magder, a San Francisco mother of two, quotes from the prayer Adon Olam, which speaks of “giving our souls to God at night,” which she interprets as “God is willing to hang on to that which troubles our souls,” so we can rest at night.
In the light of day, a friend reminds me to remind you, dear Talia, of this: that “rather than worrying about death, which is out of our control and inevitable, what if we focus on life?” e-mails Rabbi Heidi Hoover, who has two children, and is the spiritual leader of Brooklyn’s Temple Beth Emeth v’Ohr Progressive Shaari Zedek. “How can we appreciate the people we love while we still have them?” she says. “This is a very Jewish approach.”
As far as what happens after death, in my experience, Jews tend to avoid the topic. In Hebrew school, you won’t hear about Gan Eden, the Jewish paradise for souls who have passed from this world, or Gehinnom, a kind of Jewish Hell, where some sages believe individuals review the transgressions they committed during their lives. In a liberal Jewish context, you likely won’t hear much about the Jewish belief that “death is a threshold to a new world — the world to come,” as Maurice Lamm writes in “The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning.”
In truth, these concepts seem foreign to me. Still, Talia, at the risk of angering your logical and loving father, I will admit this: I am open to the possibility that there’s more than dust after death.
Your Great-Grandpa Harry, who died almost a decade ago, enjoyed a close relationship with his older sister, Fanny. Sadly, in his final years, Great Grandpa, his mind slowed by Alzheimer’s, could barely communicate with us, never mind with a sister, in frail health herself, and living hundreds of miles away. But they died on exactly the same day, almost as if — we joked to ourselves — each wanted to journey from this life with a partner.
A second coincidence: In the wee hours of that February morning four years ago, within minutes of Great-Grandma Charne’s actual passing, I dreamed of her death. I woke up sweaty, relieved that my nightmare was just a dream! In the midmorning of that day I learned the awful truth, that my dream was in fact reality.
Was Grandma saying goodbye to me that morning, as my mother has suggested playfully? I like to think so. But even if there isn’t any supernatural connection between the living and the departed, I feel Great Grandma’s presence in my life. I feel her love with me always, sheltering me, reminding me that my cup is “half full,” pointing me toward the sunshine in this life on Earth.
Elicia Brown’s column appears the second week of the month. firstname.lastname@example.org.