The new year brings hope and a fresh start, but life may not improve for a while as more people are contracting coronavirus each day and dying from it. For people fortunate enough to be spared, there are lessons to learn from those who’ve passed away.
Steve Leder is Senior Rabbi of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, one of the world’s largest synagogues, and his new book is “The Beauty of What Remains: How Our Greatest Fear Becomes Our Greatest Gift.”
Leder has been at the bedside of many people as they were dying. He’s counseled their grieving relatives after they died, and has delivered more than 1000 eulogies. But none of that prepared him to eulogize his own father, who died a couple of years ago.
Before his father’s death, Leder says he thought he was doing a good job of consoling those who were grieving. He was wrong.
“I realized that everything I had been saying, or almost everything I had been saying to people for 30 years, was just one degree shy of the deepest truth. It was just a little bit off.”
Leder says he used to tell people who lost loved ones that their pain wouldn’t feel the same as it did in that moment. But now he understands grief as a non-linear experience.
“It's much more like waves that come and go and come and go, and the sets get further apart. And sometimes your back is turned, and a rogue wave just takes you down. And you have to learn to float with it, not to try to stand up against it, but to lie down and float with it. And then stand up again when you can.”
The memories of a lost loved one are also dualistic in nature. Leder looks past platitudes such as “he lives in memory” or “may his memory be a blessing.”
“Memory is beautiful. And it really hurts. I describe it as like being caressed and spat on at the same time,” he explains.
He often faces that duality when reflecting on his own father, who was often demanding. His feelings for his father are complicated.
“He was really tough on me. And I have to somehow square that with the joy he often exposed me to in life. … He loved his culture, where he came from, how much he loved ordinary people, and despised arrogance,” Leder says. “I think we all have to make peace with what cannot be resolved. We can either hold on to and focus and embrace the negative, or we can embrace the beauty that remains.”
Connecting with dying patients
For 33 years, Leder has been attending the bedsides of dying patients. He says he’s seen two things: regret for what wasn’t done, and a lack of fear. These patients weren’t afraid of dying themselves, but were afraid of what may happen to those they left behind.
“The truth is that there's a certain point at which death is as natural a thing as anything else in our lives. It's sort of like being completely totally exhausted. … All you want to do is get into bed and go to sleep. You're not anxious about sleeping. You're not sad about sleeping. It is just the thing your body needs to do.”
In his book, Leder shares the story of Tara, an ALS patient who asked his permission to take her own life. The act was against Jewish law, so she wanted his permission to take a cocktail of drugs. Tara lost her ability to speak, so her husband spoke in her stead. She told him to call Leder when it was time.
Leder says the situation reflects his conflict being a rabbi and being human.
“I asked myself: How can I say no to this woman who's suffering so terribly, and so clearly wants her life to end? I stepped out into the hallway outside the bedroom with her husband and her daughter. And I said, ‘Let me tell you something. Jewish law says no, but I'm going to go in there and say yes. Because I cannot live with myself being more compassionate with my dog than a human being.’ And I walked in and I said, ‘Tara, take the drugs.’ And I went home.”
Tara’s husband later called Leder and thanked him.
“I learned to lead with my heart, and that nothing terrible would come from leading with my heart,” Leder says.
Values are more important than physical things left behind
Leder now advocates for leaving multiple wills to loved ones. These wills take less than 30 minutes for most people to write, and they aren’t just about material possessions like money and estates. They’re also about ethics, says Leder.
After his friend’s mother died, he asked her what she learned after the funeral.
“She said, ‘I'll tell you what I learned. Nobody wants your crap. We spend our lives collecting stuff we think matters. You can't even give it away when you're gone. Nobody wants it.’”
Leder continues, “I think it's so important to have a second document that bequeaths our values to our children, that articulates what we hope they carry from us into the world when we're gone, that is not material, but spiritual [and] value-centered.”
He points out that many spend their lives accumulating what they don’t need, and death brings that realization.
“I'm closer in some ways with my father almost three years after his death than I was at any time during his life. And I've discovered him in new ways. He still makes me laugh, he still makes me cry,” Leder says. “There is a beautiful part of life that continues and even flourishes long after our bodies are gone.”
Read part of the ethical will Rabbi Leder wrote to his children:
“Be good, and the rest works out. See the world with the people you love. Cherish time. It matters so much more than things. Mine with you and mommy has made my life worth living. I wish for you that kind of love now. I wish for you that kind of love when I am gone. Say Kaddish and light a candle for me when I am gone. Feel its warmth, and know I love you still. — Dad.”
An excerpt from "THE BEAUTY OF WHAT REMAINS: How Our Greatest Fear Becomes Our Greatest Gift" by Steve Leder.