Two things in life are unavoidable: Death and taxes. And no one wants to talk about either of them.
Yet most of us have had to deal with loss, which can come with a menu of grief, shock, confusion, and conflict. This is why Jewish Family Service, in collaboration with Temple Beth Am and Congregation Beth Shalom, is holding a four-part series on the logistics of leaving life.
“Good Grief: Jewish Traditions and Practical Preparations for End-of-Life” launched as a five-part series in 2008 and has run every other year, according to JFS Family Life educator Leonid Orlov.
“Folks in the Jewish community often don’t know where to turn when a death occurs. They find there are so many different layers,” Orlov said. “We understand that grief is something we all deal with as humans.”
The series consists of four sessions: Documents, laws, and finances with attorney Karen Treiger on Feb. 6; comforting the dying and bereaved with Rabbi Anson Laytner on Feb. 13; burials, funerals, and other practical concerns with funeral director Ross Kling on Feb. 20; and Jewish mourning rituals with Rabbi Jill Borodin on Feb. 27.
“The most important thing is you should plan while you’re well,” said Treiger, who focuses on elder issues at Thompson and Howell. “There are bad lawyers. Get a good lawyer. Think, though: How is this all going to play out?”
There’s no way to be completely prepared for death, she says, but there’s a lot you can do to cover your bases.
“Say you have dementia,” she said. “You can become your own worst enemy.”
Individuals with illnesses like Alzheimer’s often become paranoid of the people they trust the most, Treiger explained. Individuals in an early stage of dementia may want to relinquish control over their assets in anticipation of this.
Get your files in order: “Write down what you have, who your doctors are, what your passwords are,” she added. Make it so that “when you die or become incapacitated it’s as easy as possible.”
Another thing to think about, says Treiger, is how you want to be remembered.
“Are you leaving any charitable gifts? A foundation? What do you want to achieve with your charitable giving? How do you want to shape what people are going to think abut your later?”
Consider, too, writing an ethical will for your children and loved ones. “What messages about your life do you want to pass on to your children after you’re gone?” asked Treiger.
Ross Kling, director of Rosebud Funerals, will deal with the uncomfortable logistics between death and burial.
“When the person dies, now what do you do?” he asked.
From the Jewish perspective, he’ll discuss the shomer, who watches over the body before burial; the chevra kadisha, the group that ritually washes the body; and provide information about local Jewish cemeteries, as well as general information, like the role of the medical examiner. He will also discuss the associated costs.
Kling, who has been a funeral director for 16 years, said he will not tell people how to handle these matters, only inform them of the spectrum of practice.
“People walk out with the knowledge of what our tradition is,” he said.
“When someone dies, you want rituals that are comforting,” said Beth Shalom’s Borodin. From the perspective of the mourner, Borodin will deal with Jewish laws and rituals, like the shiva visit.
“It’s not a subject you really learn about in advance,” she said. To complicate things, what does one do when a death occurs on a Jewish holiday, or when the individual has opted for cremation rather than traditional Jewish burial?
“It’s amazing how many special circumstances there are,” she said. “Death in real life doesn’t usually work the way it does in Hollywood.”
And there certainly is no script when it comes to comforting the mourner.
Rabbi Anson Laytner, a former congregational rabbi, hospice chaplain, and one-time director of AIDS organization Multifaith Works, will address the sensitive topic of consoling the bereaved and the dying, as well as ethical wills and end-of-life decisions.
“People don’t want a justification of God,” he said. “They just want someone to hear them and be with them as they go through their sorrow.”
Laytner has personal experience, too: He lost his wife to cancer in 2010.
“I was witness and active participant in both good support and bad support from people,” he said. The best support, he advises, is “a big, long hug.”
And the not so good? “‘I know just how you feel. I lost my dog.’”
The series, perhaps understandably, does not draw huge numbers of participants.
“We’ve never just ourselves had this series at JFS, because we realized that the religious communities would have the critical mass of interest,” said JFS’s Orlov. “This is really the topic that is difficult, but crucial.”