My minister colleague passed into the next world recently. I had only known her about six months, and yet, we had become quite close. The depth we’d reached in our relationship in such a short time was partly because of who she was and her beautiful neshamah or soul. It was also partly because I was her mashapiah or spiritual director, both individually and in a group with other ministers. Her passing has had unexpected effects on me. I think that’s because she was and I am a clergy person. I also think this would be true had we both been marketing executives or machinists or musicians. Sharing one’s life’s work with colleagues makes you unique friends, and those outside the work don’t often understand the bond. Indeed, we often find ourselves close friends with people we’d never have become friends had it not been that we worked together.
As a group of her clergy colleagues and I were processing her passing, one said “it’s different when it’s one of your own.” Clergy are used to being at the bedsides of people transitioning from this life to the one beyond. They are used to being with grieving families in all kinds of situations in which a loved one is dying or has died. Clergy comfort the dying and the bereaved. When our own family members die, we are often the ones to lead the funeral, memorial, and graveside services. I’ve done this myself several times for my relatives. I prepare for it in the same way I prepare when it’s not a family member, and if I cry at the service, I don’t lose control; I’m still able to create the service and comfort the mourners. I also don’t personalize it in the way I’ve personalized my colleague’s passing. Somehow with her passing, my own eventual death seems more real, seems nearer.
Sure, she and I were close in age, and our paths to the ministry and rabbinate were pretty similar in that these were both new professions for us in our middle age. Sure, we shared a passion for the work and we both at times found text study to be a deep meditation. And we were also very different in many ways. Had she been a middle aged woman scientist or shared my enthusiasm for gardening or history or cooking, I don’t think I’d be feeling so driven to begin to prepare for my own dying.
There is a Buddhist practice of meditating on one’s death daily in preparation for its eventuality. Indeed, we Jews have something like this in our Bedtime Shema, which I’ve been praying pretty much every night for about seven or eight years. That’s when I run through the day in my mind and pray that those whom I may have wronged in any way will forgive me, and I forgive those who might have wronged me over the course of the day. I pray that HaShem will protect me in the night and will grant me the ability to awaken, and I pray the Shema for the last time that day. It’s the Jewish way of preparing for death. This practice has taken on a whole new significance since my colleague died.
Now during my Shema al HaMita or Bedtime Shema, I linger on the part when I ask for G-d’s sheltering wings to protect me in the night. For the ancients, of course, the night was a scary time in a way it isn’t for me. For the Rabbis, sleep was considered to be one sixtieth of death, as if a sixtieth part of ourselves died each night and was resurrected in the morning, G-d willing. For me, living safely in a place where I don’t have to worry about being attacked in the night and being one who understands that sleep isn’t really a form of dying, the prayer for G-d’s protection now feels like a rehearsal for my eventual leave-taking from this body. Since my colleague died, life’s brevity and unexpectedness carry more currency. Now, too, when I awaken and pray modah ani, my gratitude for receiving my life back, I take more time to relish feeling alive. My colleague gave me this gift with her dying, a gift I never received from another’s death. I’m pretty sure that’s because she “was one of our own.”
Rabbi Lori Shaller, an ordained Mashpi’ah Ruhanit (Spiritual Director), co-directs ALEPH’s Educating for Spirituality program.