This guest post by Karen Kaplan originally appeared in Expired and Inspired, the blog of Kavod v’Nichum. Read our open call for guest posts →
Karen Kaplan in 1992 became one of the the first 200 female rabbis in the world. In 2007 she became a board-certified chaplain and served in hospices on the East Coast for 7 years. She is the author of the book Encountering The Edge: What People Told Me Before They Died. Free of religious agendas, the book consists of true stories about her hospice patients and what they most cared about and believed in (the book is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold, as a softcover, ebook and starting in July 2015, as an audiobook; excerpts and reviews are available at publisher’s site). Just days before this guest post came to press, Karen was pleased to announce the release of her audiobook version of Encountering the Edge. Karen also blogs at Offbeat Compassion.
For me, what’s on tap after death is unknowable. Not only that, what will happen right before is just about equally mysterious. How can we predict the way each of us is actually going to feel when the time comes? When we are children, we cannot understand what it is like to be a teenager, and teenagers have little conception of what it will be like to be middle-aged. Here I sit, middle-aged, wondering when I am old, whether I will still feel fulfilled by my accomplishments or instead become embittered about mounting physical and cognitive limitations. When I approach my own death, will I be calm, frightened, curious, indifferent, or even relieved? Will I experience each of these reactions in turn? I don’t think it is possible to predict how I will feel until I reach that point. I hardly even know how I will feel about things when I get up tomorrow.
Yet, you might be skeptical that I am so unsure, since I have witnessed so many people who have indeed gotten to that point. “Surely,” you might protest, “with your front row seat at death scenes, you must have a better idea than most how the majority of people face death and their fears of it. If you cannot tell us how to be less afraid, then no one can.” The unspoken part of that might be, “And by the way, I do not believe for sure in an afterlife. No canned religious answers, please.” Fear not. (For those who do, the very short answer in Judaism is that there is an afterlife for most people, but that it is not very precisely defined. The only ones who do not get the privilege are thoroughly evil. Their fate is to be blotted out of existence.)
It definitely is curious how many patients on hospice are not fearful about dying. Some tell me as their chaplain that they find comfort in the traditional idea of olam haba (“the world to come”). Others feel so run-down and so limited by their physical condition that, as one person put it, they were ready to “call it a night.” Then of course some patients are no longer self-aware enough to consider the issue, whether it is from dementia or from constantly being asleep or in a coma.
I often find that other family members are more afraid of death than the patients themselves are. A daughter might take me into another room well out of her mother’s earshot and nervously whisper, “Don’t tell Mom she is dying; she doesn’t know. We don’t wanna scare her.” And then, moments later as I am sitting quietly beside her mom, the patient will say, “I know very well what is happening to me. I know my life is almost over but I’m ready. It’s how my daughter will cope is what’s worrying me.”
The fact that those who are dying are less anxious about their demise than their children gives me hope about my own share of anxiety. Over and over I see patients focusing less and less on themselves, and more and more on those who will be left behind, particularly when young children are involved. I have found that when they are satisfied that the survivors will be okay, they become more at peace. So when I witness other patients paving the way for me with their own feelings of closure, I too feel more optimistic about a peaceful end. But then again, not everyone feels they are experiencing a happy ending.
Well, but what about the afterlife business? One of my fans has described me as an afterlife agnostic. Fair enough. In one chapter of my book, Encountering The Edge, I describe the beliefs that various patients expressed to me about the afterlife and compare their views with mine. To be honest, my own feelings towards death frequently vacillate between alarm and tranquility because of this agnosticism. But before you leave dispirited, let me reflect with you (and with myself) a bit about this ambivalence.
As I’ve been saying, it is hard to put yourself in another’s shoes in the future, even when they are your own. But what I can do is tie a context to the times I have felt afraid, compared with times when I have faced my mortality with more equanimity. I think I feel most afraid when I am full of energy, safe, and in excellent health. Death would be the inconceivable opposite; the idea of not existing is what frightens me the most. But when I have had the flu or other temporary conditions, I have felt more indifferent and less concerned. Also, I have seen a considerable number of people become indifferent at the very end. Although this may not seem like an uplifting way to go, it is preferable to terror.
Perhaps you feel that what I have said is anticlimactic. Perhaps you had hoped that I would hint at a spiritually transformative dying experience filled with a soft beckoning light. I certainly do not mean to rule this out, and apparently this has happened to some people. I do hope it will happen to you and to me. But like all else we experience since birth, the time before our death is another slice of life, with all its unpredictability and messiness intertwined with specks of hope and transcendence.