I don’t think about dying that much anymore. It’s one of those topics that I have to give myself a time limit to ponder, like the questions of what’s outside of our galaxy, black holes, and the 90% of my brain that I'm apparently not using. Death brings up all of the unanswerable questions and only serves to increase my anxiety. Perhaps it would be easier if I had a firm belief in an afterlife, if I could envision the beauty of the Jewish World to Come. Perhaps if I was confident that Heaven existed and that my final destination included lounging on a sunny beach lulled by the waves, I could breathe easier. But thinking about dying usually causes my brain to cramp, twisting with the ‘what if’s’ and gray mysteries.
Death prompts the “What comes next?” multiple-choice question. Choice A) Spending all eternity in a pine box, ceasing to exist, to be aware, dust becoming dust. Choice B) The World to Come or Heaven. A beautiful existence where all my loved ones are waiting for me; an environment stuffed with simple blessings and sweet joys. Choice C) Reincarnation: a choice that only exhausts me at the idea of having to do this all over again. More challenges? Combating the same challenges that I failed to overcome in this lifetime? Yes, there’s the opportunity for success and laughter and insight, but still, really? Again? Choice C makes me want to lie down now and call it a day. Choice D) A fiery city where pain and suffering are the norm and punishment is the sole item on the menu. Maybe its arrogance that causes me to strike this one off the list. I’ve made plenty of mistakes, caused hurt and worry, etched scars into the souls of those I was trying the hardest not to wound. I'm far from a saint, but in comparison to true evil, I have to believe I’d make the cut. If there is something after this lifetime, I'm hoping it’s anything but choice D. Usually, I feel justified in nixing Hell by drawing on Judaism. I remember classmates, kind-hearted Southern Baptists in Abilene, Texas, telling me “I'm so sorry you’re going to burn in Hell. You’re such a nice girl”. I confidently comforted them with “It’s ok. I'm Jewish. Jews don’t believe in Hell.”
And then there’s choice E) All of the above in some unknown combination, woven with bliss and sorrow, loss and connections.
I used to think about dying quite a bit. When dying seemed to be the next item on my life agenda, I couldn’t take my eyes off of my questions about the afterlife, wondering what do Jews believe, what do I believe, and will it hurt? I was less preoccupied with concepts of Heaven and Hell, and more distraught by this thought: What if, wherever I am – Heaven, Hell, buried deep beneath the surface, I know what I'm missing? What if, despite rewards or punishments, I am aware of the family that I can’t be with, the distance between the people I love and myself? What if all of the regrets, forgotten promises, resentments carried and tears induced follow me forever? All I could imagine was endless heart-wrenching sorrow at what I could have been, what I could have done, and the knowledge that it was too late. It was this thought that festered. This was the ache that necessitated time limits, the thought to distract myself, to erase with a kiss and a band-aid.
I tried to comfort myself with learning; asking parents, cousins, friends and Rabbis what they believed, what Jews believed, what they thought was in store for me. I read books about theories of the afterlife, Jewish opinions of what happens when we die, and spiritual articles, in the hopes of comforting my fears, trying to find an answer that I could whole-heartedly believe, an answer that would stave off the suffocating anxiety. I forced myself to abandon the quest, to “JUST STOP THINKING” and to focus on the hugs and outstretched hands surrounding me. I corralled all of my unknowing and fears into a more concrete terror. My single worry became “What if there isn’t space for me at the cemetery by my family?” I needed reassurance, promises that there was a square plot for me beside those my parents had purchased for themselves far in advance of needing them. I make them swear that I wouldn’t be alone in a corner, lonely and forgotten.
I welcomed death with my actions while I shook with fear over the outcome. It’s easier to worry about cemetery plots than what I was most afraid of: that I would be alone forever. The thing about death is there are no comforting answers – at least not for me at that time. I listened to theories and I knew that they couldn’t be anymore sure than I was. I spun with fears, debated beliefs, and reviewed my life. Dying is a solo journey, so my fear of being alone gained momentum, even as I still breathed in and out.
I don’t often think about death these days. Those who loved me more than I could love myself granted me a stay of execution. I kicked and screamed, demanding the right to give up and throw in the towel. And I was lucky enough to have people who staunchly ignored me as they set about saving my life. So death is no longer on my immediate agenda and I try to avoid the subject for my mental protection. I still have no clarity, no comforting vision of blissful eternity, and no circled multiple-choice answer.
A Jewish View of "Hell" - by Lori Palatnik : Video on www.Aish.com
Occasionally, the questions re-emerge, popping up amidst errands and to-do lists. So this morning, I watched a video by Lori Palatnik, an amazing Jewish speaker, on the topic of Hell. She stands rooted in certainty of the World to Come, and describes Hell as a world of shame. Hell is a land where we are burdened with the sharp clarity of what we could’ve been, should’ve been, and would’ve been if only we had known. This world of shame saddles us with missed chances, unsaid apologies, and skipped good deeds.
I begin to squirm as it hits too close to my nightmare scenario, but then she goes on. She claims that Hell is a gift from God. Just like the hospitals on earth, we hope to never have to check in, but are grateful they’re there if we need them. Hospitals aren’t pleasant or pretty, but they offer the chance to heal amidst the pain. Hell, Lori Palatnik says, is a hospital for our soul where we can work to repair the damage we caused, learn our neglected lessons, make our amends. It isn’t a life sentence, but rather one last chance to repair our soul so that we might merit a spot in the unimaginable joyous World to Come. She finished with this: As hard as it is to say “I'm sorry” here, it is infinitely easier to polish our lives here than within the walls of the world of Shame.
And suddenly, I can lean back, finding space to breath, easing the brain spasms that are inevitable side effects to pondering death. This is a view I can live with. This offers hope. I suppose some could see it as carte blanche to live a life of immediate gratification and selfishness with the intention to right their wrongs at a later date. But for me, this casts death in a softer light. Instead of bathing in fears, I am given a plan. There is final option on the multiple-choice question. Choice F) Strive to live a life of kindness and honesty, of forgiveness and amends. Strive to grasp opened doors and seize chances to make the world a better place. Admit mistakes made and draw loved ones close. And should I fall short, never living up to the person I could’ve been, I will have the painful gift of a second chance.
Dying is still a topic that makes my brain hurt. I still wouldn’t bet my life on the existence of an afterlife. And as long as it stays a future occurrence rather than a current event, I can spend my days steeped in the business of living rather than dying. But there are no assurances or firm promises of time. Rather than cowering in fear or obsessing about theories, I choose to save the multiple choice exam for later in favor of saying “I'm sorry”, “I love you”, and facing the chances to be better, do better, live higher, even when it’s the harder option.
If my nightmare about death is draped with loneliness, then I better use my days for connection, holding out my hand while I have the chance. I’d rather not have to do this all over again. I’d rather toil today and only have to climb the mountain once. Today I’ll leave dying filed away and work on living the life I have. Instead of wilting in fears, I’ll show up and try to be my best self. And when I fall, I’ll practice picking myself up in this lifetime rather than saving it for a later world.