Dostoyevsky once famously wrote that happy people all seem happy in the same way, but people who suffer all suffer in their own unique way.
As a rabbi, I have seen some truth in this. Happiness has a quality that seems rather universal. But each tragedy has a unique dimension to it. Every life lost is different. Circumstances of death and the age of the one who dies makes a profound difference in the way the tragedy is experienced. We can’t compare your loss to another’s loss. And, the nature of the relationship also differs and creates much of the response to death.
I know that every person sitting here at Yizkor on Yom Kippur comes with unique memories and feelings. For some, the death of a loved one remains a pain so profound that life will never bring the joy it once had. For others, the death of a loved one opened new opportunities, new ways of being in the world and even new love. Each is unique. Each needs to find expression.
Yizkor is one of our rituals that makes me feel proud of our tradition. It does confer life on those who have passed on, even momentarily. It makes a statement that life matters beyond the moments when we live. It is a deeply profound expression for us to say these prayers and be brought back into a relationship that is no longer present. The person cannot be seen, but the person is felt. This is an emotional visit. We know we can’t stay here, but we have learned that it is good to come back here.
For those with whom we had good and happy relationships, we can feel the sadness of the separation in our lives but reinvigorate the goodness and love we experienced. And for those relationships which were painful and conflicted, perhaps we can let more of that go with the passing of time; or, at least give it some expression that may be healing for us.
We are able to honor once again those who gave us life through this moment. We do all this, not by denial of death’s reality. The opposite. There is a type of embracing that needs to take place. We will return to our lives again, memories will come up at certain times, and we will honor their deaths again on yahrzeits and the other Yizkor services throughout the year.
There is something incredible that we take this very personal experience and share it with a community. Do you see why I think this is a gift? As we said before at the time of our loved ones passing and over the years at moments like this, the words of the Psalmist ring true: We walk through the valley of the shadow of death. And then we move forward.
I’d like to address another dimension of Yizkor.
Because we reflect on death, this time also inspires our own thoughts about our own lives and deaths. I know that is not what we like to talk about. But an honest life should compel us to have some thoughts and conversations about that.
I have spoken previously about how we want to live in terms of how we want to be remembered. This time I want to take it from a different perspective. It comes from an article by a palliative care specialist – a hospice nurse.
This question is different. This question is about what we might regret when we are about to die – when there is no time left. What did we fail to do? What did we do too much?
This woman, Bronnie Ware, collected the five most common regrets expressed by the dying. We can learn from them. Some of them are obvious, but reminders can be helpful.
Bronnie Ware worked for over twenty years with the dying. I know that the people who work with the dying have the quality of angels. They are almost always loving, caring and responsive.
This is her list:
The first was that many people come to a place where they say that they spent too much time and effort living the life that others expected of them. They dressed like others, they spent time doing things that others around them did, and they even went to the restaurants that they were told were the places to go. They often said they should have continued to learn in their later years but had no companion interested.
There is a real call here to be true to ourselves. We have desires and personal tastes that we too often repress because of social expectations, spouses and family, friends and community. We should take stock and consider what we want to do. We should do that which reflects our own tastes and desires. I so often hear people say when I ask them about what they are doing: Ask my wife or ask my husband. And although there is something sweet and kind and considerate in that response, it often represents a giving up … and we should never give up while we have life. That is not to say we don’t compromise. It is to say, it takes more than one to compromise.
Live out your dreams and continue to allow your life to reflect yourself…and your values.
Bronnie Ware also said that every single male she cared for said: I wish I hadn’t worked so hard! We know that. Years ago, I remember Rabbi Harold Kushner saying that he never visited anyone on their death bed who said: I wish I spent more time in the office.
We need balance in our life, and we need priorities. We must simplify our lifestyles. And, we need to support that in each other. Today more than ever we can be working 24/7. We are working from wherever we are. This simply depletes the quality of relationships. There are roses to smell, places to visit, people to embrace. It’s not all about earning and working.
The third regret is that the dying confessed that they didn’t express their feelings enough. They repressed so much so as not to hurt others or cause conflict.
Here’s the problem with repression of feelings. We push them down, often so far that we allow them to hurt ourselves. Repressed feelings, especially anger and hurt, don’t remain down inside of you. We know that diseases of all kinds can be caused by repressed feelings.
Repressed feelings often find a way of coming out in harmful ways, with unintended consequences. They turn you into someone you do not want to be. When you are honest, relationships can be raised to a wholly different level. The “way” things are said is critical, but things felt, should be expressed.
The fourth regret is that people feel very sad that over time – because of transition and because of the focus on work – people often neglect old friends. In truth, in most cases old friends are usually best friends.
Ware said every dying person she met missed old friends. I have a great recollection of a woman I visited in hospice last year whose two best high school friends spent the last week of her life with her. She was so excited and happy to have that time.
At the end of life, the only thing that matters is love and relationships.
At the end of life, the only thing that matters is love and relationships.
At the end of life, the only thing that matters is love and our relationships.
And the final regret of the dying was found in the following:
People regularly said: I wish I had allowed myself to be happier.
You see, most people don’t realize that happiness is a choice. We easily stay stuck in old patterns and habits. Fear of change has us pretending too often to ourselves and others that we are basically content when we are not.
We need change. We need laughter. We need to be silly.
In our tradition, we have moments that are designed to create joy. Oneg and Simchat, are two ways. When you approach them with the intention of experiencing their joy, it can be found.
When you are on a death bed you don’t care what others think of you. How wonderful it would be to let go of this now and give way to smiles and laughter. Think a little bit less of how everyone else is judging you.
You know this is a pretty judgmental environment. I am not speaking about the machzor, I’m speaking about the nature of our community. We must let it go!
Life is made up of choices. We can choose consciously, wisely and honestly. We should choose to give ourselves the freedom of expression, the life of meaning, the experiences of joy, and time with those we love.
As we move towards the Yizkor service let us not only remember those who have gone from our lives. Let us use that which the dying can teach us and also think about the lives we choose to live. Consider what you miss, what you want to do, who are your friends, what has meaning in your life and where you derive joy. You shouldn’t wait.
Yizkor is a gift. Memory continues to instruct.
We turn now to prayer and to God, and to the memory of those we recall on this day.