Petite Essays On Mortality

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The following five essays are companions to Stephen Goldman’s eloquent piece on facing the new year with a terminal diagnosis. All five writers have a connection to the Jewish Hospice and Chaplaincy Network.

Their topic: Mortality.

Follow Your Journey, With Love

Karen Winshall
Karen Winshall

Oct. 6, 2016, was the worst day of our lives. That’s the day my husband, Bill, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Twenty-two months later was the worst day of my life. I was forever changed on the day Bill died. However, during that time I learned to appreciate the true value of all we cherished — us, family and friends.

When diagnosed, Bill said, “We have no room for any negativity in our lives.” We looked for the positive in each day, even the hard, difficult ones. We embraced living in the moment. He faced his mortality with grace, and I tried hard to follow his example. After all, this was his journey.

There was a sense that time slowed to a snail’s pace the last few days of his life. Hospice helped greatly with their gentle kindness and guidance. And, eventually, his journey ended peacefully during the night.

And now begins my journey. I take one day at a time, one hour at a time, one minute at a time, if necessary. I have learned to cherish each moment with those I love.

Bill’s death did not take away from the joy and memories of our lives together, of the shared happiness. My sorrow will diminish in time, but my love will remain.

Hold those you love close for we are all on our own journey.

Karen Winshall lives in Farmington Hills.

Make Each Day Meaningful

Rabbi Joseph Krakoff
Rabbi Joseph Krakoff

Growing up, I often wondered why Jews flocked to the synagogue on the High Holidays more than any other time of the year. As I got older, I realized it is because on Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur, we pray for our very lives. We beg the Almighty to give each of us a one-year contract.

During these Days of Awe, we acknowledge our mortality and the absolute fragility of life as we are reminded of the stark reality that, in the coming year, some of us will indeed die. As a child, this concept and the finality of it all shook me to my core. I couldn’t imagine the thought of not being with my parents, grandparents, siblings and friends, never to see them again.

Now, working in end-of-life care daily and holding the hands of people as they are dying, I have come to understand death does not have to be scary. One day we all will die, but, until that time comes, we should see life is a gift and do our best to make each day meaningful. Knowing my time here is limited inspires me to live out my values and to create a legacy for which I can be eternally proud.

Rabbi Joseph H. Krakoff of West Bloomfield is senior director of the Jewish Hospice and Chaplaincy Network, and co-author of the book “Never Long Enough: Finding Comfort and Hope Amidst Grief and Loss.”

Teaching To Embrace Life

Jessica Hayes
Jessica Hayes

Quiet reflection often leads me to think of beautiful moments I have been privileged to share with patients and families. One that will live in my memory is of a beloved father and patriarch of a strong family. On this day, surrounded by his children, grandchildren and friends, Rabbi [E.B. “Bunny”] Freedman prayed for him, singing beautiful songs at his bedside in his final hours.

Not everyone gets to be a part of such private, beautiful moments when family and friends gather to celebrate a life well-lived before it ends.

Hospice is not about dying. It’s about the beauty of living in the face of mortality. I have learned to become comfortable with death and all that surrounds it. To bear the burden of those who suffer. This is life unfiltered. As a hospice nurse, I help shed light on some of the darkest moment’s patients and families may encounter. In teaching them to embrace these last few months, weeks, days and hours, they are able to change their focus and spend irreplaceable time reflecting on the life before them.

Jessica Hayes of Novi is a nurse and manager at Hospice of Michigan. HOM works closely with Jewish Hospice and Chaplaincy Network to coordinate care for shared patients and families.

Facing Mortality With Love

Phyllis Schwartz
Phyllis Schwartz

I am 13 years old, excluded from the details of my beloved father’s death, burial and shivah. Early on, I learned the certainty of mortality.

As a social worker at Jewish Family Service for more than 20 years and now as I volunteer at Jewish Hospice and Chaplaincy Network, I learn from our patients as they move from independence to dependence, with resilience, adaptability and dignity.

I observe during the last weeks and sometimes years of a patient’s life how mortality is faced with the wisdom and wish to not burden but to offer love and gratitude to loved ones.

If we are fortunate enough to make decisions regarding our last days, we must think about our quality of life. Disease may take that decision-making power from us, which is all the more reason to plan end-of-life-issues with our loved ones. Hopefully, this will protect our dignity and provide support for our need to adapt and remain resilient. On Yom Kippur, I will read in the machzor: “Life is but a passing shadow.” The blessing of visiting hospice patients reminds me of this truth. It is a treasured gift.

Phyllis Schwartz of West Bloomfield is a retired JFS social worker and now a volunteer at JHCN and Jewish Senior Life.

Aiding Families At Death

David M. Techner
David M. Techner

A question I am asked daily: “How do you do this every day — it must be so depressing?”

As a funeral director for 45 years, there is sadness, no doubt, but my goal with each funeral is to celebrate life and, along the way, I have come to love and appreciate the gifts of Judaism in life and death.

I grew up in a secular home. I had a bar mitzvah, but little else was Jewish. Then, at 14, one of my greatest blessings was to meet Ilene, my wife of 45 years, while she was walking her dogs. This meeting also led her father to hire me, at 14, on a busy Sunday, to work at the Ira Kaufman Chapel. Talk about fate!

My job there gave me a sense of faith that has shaped my life today as a prideful member of this wonderful Jewish community.

I cherish the opportunity to teach families the beauty and wisdom of what takes place from the time of death until burial is completed.

My career has been a blessing, giving me the faith and passion Judaism provides to me, my family and hopefully the community I am blessed to serve.

David Techner of Birmingham is a funeral director at Ira Kaufman Chapel, president of the Jewish Hospice and Chaplaincy Network and author of A Candle for Grandpa about Jewish funeral practices.

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