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Terminal Life
Rebbetzin Feige

Terminal Life

There is no greater source of pain than the imminent loss of a loved one.


Michelle called me to share the devastating diagnosis of her father's terminal illness. The probability of losing him put her into an already full-blown, if premature, state of mourning. She was heart broken, inconsolable, and determined to spend every remaining moment with him.

Predictably, she beat herself up with guilt based on hindsight of what she might have, could have, and should have done with and for him all the years that she was preoccupied with her own life.

From the point of his diagnosis, her father, Sam, a vigorous, successful and active man, suspended all his business and activities, dedicating himself exclusively to the"truly important" people in his life -- his children, grandchildren, and very close friends. He is now flying kites in the park with his grandson, taking boat rides with his granddaughter, and having talks with his wife, things he couldn't have previously considered when his days were filled with work. He is putting his affairs in order, while Michelle is falling apart.


There is no greater source of pain than the imminent loss of a loved one. It hurts to the core. Upon the loss of his father, my husband commented that losing a parent is like challenging the common assumption that the sun would rise in the morning. Unquestionably, parents will be there tomorrow just as the sun must shine tomorrow.

To deny and repress them can be extremely detrimental.

There are many stages in grieving. There is the unreality, the denial, the awful pain, the guilt, and the anger. We have to allow ourselves sufficient time to experience all of these emotions. To deny and repress them in an attempt to hasten the process can be extremely detrimental. Ultimately such acceleration will prolong the effects, leaving unresolved issues with the potential of compromising relationships and situations. We have to give ourselves permission for as long as it takes -- to feel, to cry, to mourn to grieve and not feel compelled to follow anyone else's timeline.

Simultaneously, we need a faith perspective relating to mortality and ourselves.


I gently suggested to Michelle that, in fact, all of our lives are terminal. As one thinker put it,"if you're aware of death and the transient nature of your life -- the fact that it's impermanent, intangible and insubstantial -- then your priorities are quite different. If you know that death is stalking you every moment of your life, you don't give importance to trivial things."

Facing our mortality would help us confront what we would like our legacy to be. My husband has suggested that the yizkor service, where we remember our deceased loved ones, reminds us not only of those who preceded us, but also of ourselves and our own lives. If we ponder what our legacy will be when we are no longer here, how we live becomes more urgent to us. We are able to more quickly assess how to get our act together.

The Sages teach us that while other cultures celebrate and commemorate birthdays, Jews remember loved ones at the yahrzeit, the anniversary of a death.

The Sages draw an analogy to a ship. Do we celebrate, they ask, when the ship sets out on its maiden voyage as it embarks onto the stormy seas, uncertain of its ultimate fate? Or, is it more appropriate to celebrate when the ship returns to port intact, having successfully navigated its long, arduous journey?

As Jews, who view the challenging journey of life, its trials and tribulations very seriously, we understand that choices we make in life render us either victors or victims on this journey. So we see its conclusion as cause for celebration.


Another dimension of grief is generated through missing our loved ones – the loss of their physical proximity. We cannot sense their immediate presence in many precious ways -- their embrace, their gaze, their kiss. We long to touch them, to verify that they are still with us.

This is analogous to a plane as it travels off into the distance into a cloud. Would we question the airplane's continued existence as it disappears from sight, or do we understand that we cannot see it, because it has traveled beyond the limits of our vision? We apprehend that that regardless of our inability to see it, the airplane's journey continues.

Life is a narrow bridge between two eternities.

Life is a narrow bridge between two eternities -- the source from which we come when we are born and that to which we return when we our journey ends. In eternity, we will find the loving embrace of our Heavenly Parent -- who will wipe the tears from our cheeks and who will never leave us or abandon us. There, too, we will ultimately be eternally reunited with all of our loved ones.

The sobering postscript, however, is that though eternity awaits us, the nature of that eternity is defined by the choices we make now -- our behavior, thoughts, words, and deeds as we traverse the narrow bridge that we call life.

An inspired bon voyage to all of us.

June 2, 2001

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Visitor Comments: 7

(7) YOLANDA, September 9, 2011 9:20 PM


There is no words to explain the pain and loneliness you feel, I took care of my husband and work at the same time and I will do it all over again, he was a kind and wonderful man, but I do find my self wondering what else could I have done for him, and the answer is I did everything as a loving caring wife would do, love him make him laugh when he was sad, I was a friend, caregiver, nurse and he always let me know how much he appreciated everything I did for him, I will always celebrate his life as a happy man that enjoy music and love me very much, not the man he became with pain and tears in his eyes wondering why him. cancer does not care who you are it just takes over and is up to both the person suffering from cancer and the one suffering seing the one you love fading away just waiting for the last breath is not easy but not imposibly to overcome the pain that i carry in my heart only I know how much it hurts and only I know how I will overcome my grieve.

(6) Anonymous, August 1, 2001 12:00 AM

Losing our beloved grandson

Three months ago our beloved grandson was hit by a car and died,he was 9 years old,he was the light of our lives.
It has been very painful and difficult to think that we can no longer be with him,we miss him so much.
But we are fortunate to have beautiful memories of all the time we had the opportunity to spend with him, and we thank G'd for that.
We hope and pray that G'd will give our daughter and her family the strength to carry on.
As for us we pray that we can continue to be loving parents and grandparents to our children and grandchildren,and when the time comes we can again be reunited with him.

(5) Ruth Freeman, July 2, 2001 12:00 AM

What will I leave behind?

When I was a kid, I watched the movie, "Jungle Book." In the movie, the big bear "dies" and all the animals eulogize him. Then the bear opens one eye and asks "is that me they talking about?"
This scene has always stuck in my mind. What will they say after I'm gone? Will I open one eye and an ear to hear what they are saying? And as Rebbetzin Faige suggests, I try to live my life with this in mind.
Yashar Kochech, Rebbetzin!

(4) Anonymous, June 15, 2001 12:00 AM

Terminal Life

My husband has cancer and I found this article very helpful. Thank you

(3) charna breier, June 14, 2001 12:00 AM

thank you

I wanted to take this opportunity to say thank you to Reb. twersky for these inspiring words. I have lost my young father recently, and am trying to mourn and grieve his loss. Thank you for putting things into perspective.

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