Erica Brown was scared to death of death.
The daughter of a child survivor of the Holocaust, Brown grew up with death as a constant shadow in her family’s past, although one that the family tried to ignore.
But for the past several years, the scholar, educator and Jewish Week columnist has made death her teacher, trying to answer the question of whether there’s a better way to die, and — ultimately — a better way to live.
“Happier Endings: A Meditation on Life and Death” (Simon & Schuster) offers advice both spiritual and practical. While her own teachings are grounded in profound Jewish thought, she also looks toward other traditions, like Buddhism and Islam.
New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks, who attends one of her study groups in Washington D.C, says, “Brown has what many people are looking for these days … conviction.” He praises her empathy combined with tough-mindedness.
The book is filled with stories of people dealing with matters of life and death. She manages to lighten the very tough moments with touches of humor. Among other topics, she writes about “the business of death,” sanctifying the body in death and views of the afterlife, a subject she is often asked about by Jews. In a recent interview, she admits she doesn’t have a good answer. She says, “In a very healthy way, Jews are very focused on this life.”
In talking about Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief, Brown adds the notion of inspiration, the possibility of moving through grief and finding new reserves of love.
She urges talking about death, learning the wishes of loved ones, even composing one’s own obituary as an exercise in re-evaluating one’s life journey. In the course of writing the book, she has taken her own advice — she prepared an ethical will, purchased burial plots and got her financial information in order. Unfortunately, she has also gained firsthand experience in dealing with the deaths of close friends.
But, as events in Boston unfold this week following the bombing at the marathon, there are no words. Brown recognizes that when there are violent deaths, with no preparation, “to some degree you have to throw out everything you know.”
“Even with the loss of someone dear in unexpected ways, we’re interpretive beings. We need to extract meaning from experience. We may search for a way to hold onto memory, or do something in that person’s memory. Is it a happier ending? I don’t know.”
“Happier doesn’t mean happy. It means we can do this better,” she says.
Erica Brown will be speaking about her book, in conversation with Sandee Brawarsky, on Thursday, April 25 at 7 pm at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, 30 West 68th St. For ticket info, go to thejewishweek.com/Erica-brown.