Death and the Hereafter
The Last Farewell
There is a Yiddish saying about our finality. It is about the death of a man. The last stanza describes it all as the malach hamoves (the angel of death) makes his appearance: “Weib und Kinder musst du lassen stein und musst mit mir auf jene Welt mitgain.” (Wife and children you must leave and must go with me into the next world). It describes the fear about death so simply. It is the unknown, the pain, the finality, that is so frightening for all of humanity.
During the years of our existence we are attached to so many people, circumstances, and things. It begins with our mothers to whom we cling, depend on, and with whom we feel comfort, security and love. She is the one being who normally will never abandon us. As we grow, our father becomes an important protector and love object. He is an essential being we add to our safety net. There is so much more, our family, our friends, our surroundings, our possessions, our education, our beliefs, our religion or lack thereof, our ability to love, our view, our world view. All these things, our experiences, our feelings, and much more, make us who we are. We are creatures of habit. We have a place at our table, in our home where we feel comfortable, where we sit, where we sleep, etc. Our comfort, both within and without, is very important to us.
As we age, we think more about our finality and all that will happen to us. It is the fear of the unknown, the fear of pain, the inability to breathe, the darkness, the fear of losing everything and everyone that we know, the loss of our earthly goods, our nakedness, our lack of self control, our nothingness, and the loss of our loved ones with whom we have shared our thoughts, our life, and our very being. Will we be remembered with good feelings, as decent kind and worthwhile, or with disdain? How long will we matter after we are no longer among the living? Will our world think of us with kindness, with love? Do we deserve to be remembered at all - did we matter? All this and more make up the fear of the loss of being, the loss of our existence. There is much to be said about religion. Depending on what faith the individual has, his attitude toward the "hereafter" differs. We will mention here but a few: There is the thought of some Christians that there is a St. Peter who will greet them at the doors of the next world and will inform them by their good deeds or lack thereof whether they will enter the gates of heaven or hell; another is that they will meet their Savior and be forever happy in eternity (whoever and whatever that may mean). Another is that the soul will fly to heaven; that they will be surrounded by “angels”; that their good deeds on earth will count to give them the happiness that they seek. Buddhists believe that following the eight fold path will alleviate suffering. In our Jewish faith there is a belief (depending if you are orthodox, conservative or reform) that if you have been a good person, especially if you have kept as many as the 613 mitzwot as possible, you will die close to Friday and go to gan Eden (heaven) on Schabbat. You will be seated at the “Schabbes” table and eat Leviathan (allegedly a delicacy of a fish) and totally enjoy the Friday evening meal, the candles, the singing of the “zemiros,” as you have during your life on earth and more. We share the belief with the Salvationists that with hand to man and heart to G’d is one way to live a life which helps others as well as ourselves. If we are compassionate in thought and deed we will be rewarded in “yenner” (other) world. We must not dwell on that which we cannot control. Our religion can help us to remember our loved ones who are no longer with us by following the ten commandments; one of them is to honor our parents so that we may live long on earth, by commemorating their lives, by remembering them by sitting “schive”, saying the kadish on the dates of their deaths each year as well as on special holidays, and by living a decent, honest, and useful life!
Dr. Ursula A. Falk is a psychotherapist in private practice and the author of several books and articles.