Once there are no remaining vital signs, what happens?
Personally, I am not that interested in what happens to me when I die. Whether I cease to be when my brain stops functioning, or I bask in the divine light, or I lose my individual identity as I am absorbed into the energy of the Macrocosm, or I am reincarnated and lose my memory of have experienced my current life, I’m quite certain that it will be sufficiently different from anything I know that there is no point in trying to imagine it. The most elevated reason to do anything in Judaism is lishma—for its own sake, with no ulterior motivation. To the extent that I live virtuously, it is not because I expect to be rewarded in the world-to-come.
I am, however, very interested in what happens after death to people whom I love. When my daughter Hana took her own life over three years ago, my agony was excruciating, and what would have been her 29th birthday tomorrow has already hit me hard. Part of my grief stems from imagining the pain she must have been experiencing that led her to suicide. But in 2011, part of my pain came from the abrupt end of our relationship. I would never see her again, never talk, never be able to watch her grow.
Ten months after Hana’s funeral, two spiritual advisors—Lawrie Hartt and Deena Metzger—helped to mitigate my pain by showing me how to change my narrative. Hartt reported that she sensed a request from Hana for music to help her on her journey. Imagining that she was on a journey was helpful. But the idea that I could continue to help Hana, to parent her, was paradigm changing. Two weeks later, Deena Metzger listened to my story and told me that I needed to forgive Hana for killing herself and to stop holding onto her so fiercely. “Let her go,” she said. “Send her on her way and offer her your blessings. Take on her suffering so that she can soar freely.” Again, here was another suggestion about what I could do for Hana, even though she was no longer alive in her body. Our relationship had not come to an end. I could still act lovingly for her, and she for me.
If you believe in the existence of a soul that survives that death of the body, then it follows directly that you might want to communicate with a loved one and even ask her or him for advice, strength, help. You may not, however, have imagined that you can be supportive or helpful to your loved one’s immortal soul. If we are connected with them, then they are probably connected with us.
If you are unable to believe that after I die, a non-physical entity named Jacob Staub will survive, such that I will remain aware of and connected to loved ones who are left behind, rejoicing in their joys and pained by their sufferings, you are in the position that I found myself three years ago. I discovered that there is no more or less evidence that the soul survives death than that it doesn’t. If that is correct, then I get to choose between narratives, neither of which is likely accurate. Maybe Hana exists somewhere in disembodied form and whatever else she is engaged in, she also is sometimes aware of me and sometimes affected by what I do and feel. And maybe Hana died completely as a physical and a spiritual entity in June 2011. The first narrative allows for our ongoing relationship and interactions, so that healing can continue after burial on both sides. The second narrative assumes that there is no Hana with whom to interact.
Two of the four annual Memorial/Yizkor services in synagogues happen this month—one last Saturday on Yom Kippur and a second at the end of this week, at the conclusion of the festival of Sukkot/Booths. I suggested last week that in addition to remembering loved ones and praying for the peace of their souls, worshippers might want to ask them if they need anything from us, and request anything we need from them. So that the Memorial Service might be interactive.
I thought I was taking a big risk by making this suggestion, but many people were very grateful. And I, singing Hana’s favorite sacred chant under my breath, felt her chanting the words of the chant back at me: May the longtime sun shine upon you, all love surround you, and the pure light within you guide your way on.
Rabbi Jacob Staub is Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Spirituality at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, PA, where he directs the program in Jewish Spiritual Direction.
This content was originally published on the website of The First Day, at http://firstdaypress.org/after-death.
Image: “death-Explored” by las-initially via Flickr.