It’s Different When It’s One of Your Own

Published in the Jewish Journal blog “Inspired and Expired,” September 14, 2016

My minister colleague passed into the next world recently. I had only known her about six months, and yet, we had become quite close. The depth we’d reached in our relationship in such a short time was partly because of who she was and her beautiful neshama or soul. It was also partly because I was her mashapiah or spiritual director, both individually and in a group with other ministers. Her passing has had unexpected effects on me. I think that’s because she was and I am a clergy person. I also think this would be true had we both been marketing executives or machinists or musicians. Sharing one’s life’s work with colleagues makes you unique friends, and those outside the work don’t often understand the bond. Indeed, we often find ourselves close friends with people we’d never have become friends had it not been that we worked together.

As a group of her clergy colleagues and I were processing her passing, one said “it’s different when it’s one of your own.” Clergy are used to being at the bedsides of people transitioning from this life to the one beyond. They are used to being with grieving families in all kinds of situations in which a loved one is dying or has died. Clergy comfort the dying and the bereaved. When our own family members die, we are often the ones to lead the funeral, memorial, and graveside services. I’ve done this myself
several times for my relatives. I prepare for it in the same way I prepare when it’s not a
family member, and if I cry at the service, I don’t lose control; I’m still able to create the
service and comfort the mourners. I also don’t personalize it in the way I’ve
personalized my colleague’s passing. Somehow with her passing, my own eventual
death seems more real, seems nearer.

Sure, she and I were close in age, and our paths to the ministry and rabbinate were
pretty similar in that these were both new professions for us in our middle age. Sure,
we shared a passion for the work and we both at times found text study to be a deep
meditation. And we were also very different in many ways. Had she been a middle
aged woman scientist or shared my enthusiasm for gardening or history or cooking, I
don’t think I’d be feeling so driven to begin to prepare for my own dying.

There is a Buddhist practice of meditating on one’s death daily in preparation for its
eventuality. Indeed, we Jews have something like this in our Bedtime Shema, which
I’ve been praying pretty much every night for about seven or eight years. That’s when I
run through the day in my mind and pray that those whom I may have wronged in any
way will forgive me, and I forgive those who might have wronged me over the course
of the day. I pray that H’Shem will protect me in the night and will grant me the ability
to awaken, and I pray the Shema for the last time that day. It’s the Jewish way of
preparing for death. This practice has taken on a whole new significance since my
colleague died.
Now during my Shema al H’Mita or Bedtime Shema, I linger on the part when I ask for
G-d’s sheltering wings to protect me in the night. For the ancients, of course, the night
was a scary time in a way it isn’t for me. For the Rabbis, sleep was considered to be one
sixtieth of death, as if a sixtieth part of ourselves died each night and was resurrected in
the morning, G-d willing. For me, living safely in a place where I don’t have to worry
about being attacked in the night and who understands that sleep isn’t really a form of
dying, the prayer for G-d’s protection now feels like a rehearsal for my eventual leavetaking from this body. Since my colleague died, life’s brevity and unexpectedness carry
more currency. Now, too, when I awaken and pray modah ani, my gratitude for
receiving my life back, I take more time to relish feeling alive. My colleague gave me
this gift with her dying, a gift I never received from another’s death. I’m pretty sure
that’s because she “was one of our own.”