There are three people whose stories have become central to why I want to learn more about dying. They are my daughter and the story of her entrance into this world, and my maternal grandparents, my Bubbe and Zayde, and the stories of their exit from this world.
My daughter was born this past May in a birthing center in upstate New York. While struggling to feed her on my body I wondered out loud “why is this so hard?”. The midwife in the room answered “because you’ve never seen it before”.
She was right. Something as “simple” as feeding my daughter seemed like it should come naturally but I had never seen it so intimately. I found myself trying to intuit a skill that previous generations had learned from being exposed to it. Something seemingly so natural had to be taught to me.
In our modern times, life transitions like birth and death used to be visible and now they happen behind closed doors and away from home.
At that moment, I might have started thinking about my grandparents because we named our daughter in honor of my grandfather, or it might have been because I was in a medical facility that reminded me of where they spent their final days, but either way, my daughter’s entrance into the world called to mind my grandparents’ exit.
Bubbe and Zayde each died, a few years apart, in a hospital. I now wonder if they could have died at home in their own beds had we known they were dying. Neither had spent much time in medical settings until that point (my Zayde more so because of a decade living with prostate cancer) and it saddens me that they weren’t able to spend their last days in spaces that were familiar, comfortable, and known.
We didn’t talk about dying even when we knew their deaths were imminent. I didn’t ask my grandparents what they would miss the most, or what they were most proud of, or if they were scared or in pain. These questions felt (and still feel) big, hard, and scary and even if I had thought about asking questions like these, I would have been too nervous to say them out loud. Thinking back, I realize I was worried that talking about death might upset my grandparents.
If only I had been a little braver, a little bolder. I can only imagine what important and beautiful conversations we might have had.
We learned to understand death’s call by observing and interacting with the rhythms and rituals that surface when it does. Moving this lifecycle event from our homes means we’ve begun to lose our ability to approach death and dying with understanding. We no longer hold knowledge about what to do, what to say, and how to prepare when the end is near.
I want to learn more about dying and death so I can be there for my loved ones and community, and as a Jew, I want to know what wisdom and rituals Judaism can offer us. The Be.Side Project will be my platform for sharing as I learn. I’m excited to have you with me on this journey.