oldyoung hands

How do I tell Dad that Mom has died?

How do you tell Dad that Mom has died? This challenging question confronted old friends this past week.

Compassion is such a difficult practice. It is often so difficult to know what is the right thing to do for another person.oldyoung hands

 A friend’s mother recently passed away after a protracted decline. Sadly her dad is suffering from dementia. My friend and her siblings struggled with whether they should tell him that his wife, their mom, has just passed away. Would he find the loss overwhelming? Would he even comprehend the sad news they would share? He has a right to know and grieve the loss of his wife. But if the news was too much for him to handle, should they wait until there was a better time to inform him?

 Further complicating things, he was physically unable to attend the funeral.

 Both options, to tell him or not, are based on compassion for dad. But which one is right for him? She reached out to me for counsel.

My first suggestion was to consult dad’s doctor, someone who knows him and is skilled in these medical issues. The doctor can help ascertain how aware is dad of his surroundings. The children, all adults, can also shed some light on dad’s cognitive abilities, but they are emotionally very close to the situation and may not clearly assess how well dad will process the news. It is likely that despite all attempts to know, it is all but impossible to appreciate how much dad truly understands.

 We cannot know how people will react to this kind of news even without the complications of these circumstances. Maybe dad will have only a moment of clarity or possibly the news will stay with him. He may work through his grief or become overwhelmed by it. I have learned along my journey that we actually only have moments together. Sometimes these moments last and create enduring memories. Sometimes they fade away. The best we can do is to be fully present in each moment together and hope that it endures. The struggle that this family confronts is a struggle we all face, for each of us will experience loss and then try to reconcile with it in the aftermath. We can try to anticipate how people will respond, but we need to be careful in presuming too much, acting for them instead of allowing them the dignity of exercising his or her own agency.

 The Talmud teaches that we treat parents with honor and respect.   Might the ways we do that include withholding speech or information that would be hurtful? If dad still has some comprehension, won’t he feel the sadness in those surrounding him and wonder why his wife no longer visits? Further, how will he react if he learns of his wife’s passing long after the fact without the chance to mourn her loss? Arguably we honor our parents when we include them in even the most difficult things, rather than attempting to protect them. Each of us will be called upon to grapple with a similar situation. We must take the utmost care to ensure that our motives are true and that we act in the best interests of our parents and not fulfilling our own needs disguised as compassion. My friend’s struggle was because she loved her father and wanted what was best for him.

 Zichronah Livrachah may my friends’ mother be a blessing for the family. May her father be given the opportunity to know that too.

Shabbat Shalom




Romemu in New York shares a wonderful Kabbalat Service in which they sing Higaleh Nah, a stanza from the poem Yedid Nefesh:

Reveal Yourself, beloved, and spread over me the tabernacle of your peace.

Let the earth shine with your glory, let us be overjoyed and rejoice in You.

Hurry, beloved, for the appointed time has come, and be gracious to me as in the times of old.

Shabbat Shalom

A Shabbat of Peace and Healing

As we welcome Shabbat, this past week we remember the six million lost in the Shoah on Yom HaShoah.  Our prayers are with them, they are not forgotten.  To those who survived, to those on the March of the Living (including my wife Naomi), to all of us irrevocably changed, may this Shabbat bring healing and peace.

Kol Zimrah sings Cantor Leon  Sher’s, Please Heal us now, El nah refanah lah, taken from Moses’ appeal to God (Numbers 12:13) to heal his sister Miriam.

Shabbat Shalom

The pressing message of urgency in Parashah Acharei Mot

CoachingReconciling the strange message of death

 Acharei Mot opens with an instruction from God about Yom Kippur prefaced by a bizarre phrase: “After the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the Lord.” Is this a warning to Aaron that he has a job to do, so get to it, but do it right or you will end up like your kids? That seems like the unnecessarily harsh treatment of Aaron. Why would God start off in this way? Perhaps it is to guide us toward a deeper idea surrounding the urgency of atonement.

 Kippur is translated as Atonement, broken down to mean becoming “at one” with God. We atone when we harmonize ourselves with God. In this Parashah’s connection with the Yom Kippur ritual, the High Priest is responsible for creating this harmony between God and the people. Aaron is given elaborate instructions in this Parashah to prepare himself and to also prepare the Holy of Holies so that all will emerge pure and in line with God. Later we learn of how the people are involved in the Yom Kippur rituals. Our later writings further elaborate that only asking forgiveness of God is insufficient. But the opening of Acharei Mot challenges us more than with the importance of doing the rituals right. There was a need for action and T’shuva demonstrating a cleansed and pure heart.

 Leading with the seemingly incomprehensible deaths of Nadav and Abihu creates a powerful message intended to shock us into action. We understand that forgiveness of one another is important; before we can reconcile with God, we must reconcile with each other. However, full presence is necessary to the process and time is of the essence. T’shuva and forgiveness are critically important and must not be put off. In the normal course of relationships, such as between parent and child, we hope that parent and child reconcile before the parent is gone. Often we still wait, postponing such conversations until we see parents in their decline. But in Acharei Mot, the stark tragedy of Aaron’s two sons being struck down before his eyes makes the urgent message of atonement even more jarring. The gift of life is precious and tenuous; the estrangements that we may feel need to be repaired before it is too late to repair them at all. The unexpected deaths of Aaron’s sons, command our attention to acting immediately. But it must be with full intention and presence.

 Aaron is warned not to come inside the Holy of Holies at will lest he dies. He must be thoroughly prepared. The High Priest’s preparation and cleansing of the sanctuary are symbolic of the cleansing that needs to occur within each of us. Like the careful removal of all impurity in the holy sanctuary we too need to be cleansed and prepared, so we can approach another with an open heart both asking and giving forgiveness. When we search deep inside ourselves, we often find the hurts we have caused and the wounds we have suffered should not keep us estranged from each other. Our Relationships are precious. We have too little time before it is over, people die and relationships fade into memories.

 Acharei Mot assertively and starkly makes us confront the significance of forgiveness set against the backdrop of our mortality. We risk a lifetime of regret and guilt about things we might have done but did not. The Parashah metaphorically challenges us to find the way back into relationships and again become “at one” with another. Acharei Mot gives perspective to us, showing the overriding need to reconcile with and forgive those we should care about while we are still blessed with the time to share.