This week’s Torah portion, Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26), and this week’s haftarah portion from I Kings (2:1-12) tell of the death of two great patriarchs, Jacob and King David, respectively. However, a closer look at both narratives reveal that they are also about hearing the ‘living will’ of each man from his deathbed. Judaism truly elevates this act of relaying to one’s children and grandchildren, in person, the values that you hold highest, and your wishes for how they might conduct themselves in the years after you are gone.
These past few days, and weeks, have been hard for many of our Temple Emanu-El congregants, with the passing of truly respected pillars of our community, including one of our past TE Presidents. As a rabbi of our congregation, I sometimes have the honor of being with members of our congregation as they approach their final breath, and with their family through burial and shiva. One of the conversations that is typically had is worrying about their remaining spouse. Not so much about whether or not s/he will be “taken care of”, but rather, will s/he be “included” in social situations. After decades of marriage, sometimes even a half-century, it is hard to imagine losing a beloved spouse; and even harder to comprehend what it looks like to go from a “we” to an “I” in a matter of days.
Conversations that I have had with widows, and widowers, in the months following their spouse’s death often contain sentiments of extreme loneliness. Their loss of a spouse they had braced themselves for, but not being included brings up feelings of abandonment, sorrow, and even anger.
The awkwardness that we might feel in reaching out to a widow or widower to include them is understandable, for the dynamic of couples must change when half of the couple is gone. The uncomfortable question that is unspoken is, “Will we talk about the deceased, and will that be sad?” To reach out, despite reservations takes a bit of courage, but perhaps the way to start is to name the proverbial elephant in the room. “We are so glad that we could get together. Clearly, we all miss him/her, but we love you and of course, want to continue our friendship.” Most of the time, that pause of recognition, even if it is sad, will allow you all to move through that emotion into a relaxed, organic space together.
Part of the living will that every couple has, the part directed to their dearest friends, is that after they are gone, that their husband/wife will be held in the loving embrace of those who so enriched their days while they were still alive.