Category Archives: Death

Grieving Widow

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

Last week my beloved husband of six years was killed in a freak ocean
accident. His body has not been recovered. It was sudden and
shocking, and was reported in newspapers around the state. We’d
been planning a future. We had an RV, a coop of chickens, and dreams
for the next thirty years. Now I am bereft and alone. I can only bear to
be around my family, but I must go back to work this week. I am the
financial manager for a non-profit that employs 25 people and has a
board of directors almost as large. I’ve been flooded with emails and
phone calls, but I haven’t had any emotional energy to respond to
anyone. It feels overwhelming to contemplate going back to the office
but I know I can’t do it all from home. How can I insulate myself?

Grieving Widow
Dear Grieving:

First of all, condolences. What a horrific story. I am sure you are in shock as well
as grieving. Send an email to everyone who has communicated with you in any
form. Make it gracious and very clear. Say simply: I am overwhelmed with grief. I
am trying to get through each day and do what needs to be done. I appreciate
your caring and good wishes but just having to talk about what happened
debilitates me and makes me weepy. There will come a time when I am ready to
hear what a great guy he was and to share all my feelings. I’ll let you know when
that is. In the interim, please respect my absolute need to be quiet, to focus on
work, and to avoid being more emotional than I can cope with being. Ask the
exec at your organization to reinforce the message. Most people will respect your
wishes. Those that don’t, simply say, I cannot do this now, and walk away.
If you do not have a support network of friends and family, and a good doctor
and/or counselor, please focus on getting yourself some people to be with. You
may want isolation now, but beyond a certain period it is not a good thing.


Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

Please help me with cell phone etiquette and incipient homicide. I lost
my husband two months ago. We cremated him then and had a
memorial service this weekend. I took the ashes and the flowers from
the service to the ocean and did a private ritual with my sons. While
we were driving there I got text messages from not one, or two, but
from seven (count them seven!) different people, each of whom
professed to be sending sensitive and caring feelings on this difficult
day. If they really wanted to be sensitive, they should have left me
alone! How can I get people to respect reasonable limits on my access
without being without having to give up my smart phone lifeline to the


Dear Beleaguered:

You have the right to be connected to the world and also the right to
filter who has access to you. Yes, people should be more sensitive. At
a minimum they should have emailed, not texted. I’m an old-fashioned
kind of gal: people have abandoned hand-written notes but they’re
personal and meaningful, especially in cases of bereavement. But the
world is more modern and texting has become the way that many
people, selfishly or not, communicate: out of my brain and into yours,
no matter what the cost to you.

In these specific cases, I will assume you did not respond the day of
the private time with your sons. They may feel a little hurt, but you
can send each (or all, via bcc) an email that says: Thanks for your
words of concern. The timing and texting were distracting, but I know
you meant well. Please use email not texts for the next few months.
Otherwise I’ll have to turn my phone off, which would be a hardship to
my family and me. Thanks for respecting my need to go much slower
during this time of transition. Anyone who cannot respect a sincere
request like that should be tossed from your address book.


Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

My father died very suddenly last week. He’d seemed in excellent
health. I played tennis with him last time I visited. We’ve been
increasingly close since my mother’s death ten years ago and now I
am an orphan, though it’s a strange word to use for someone in her
fifties. I’m stunned, shocked, sad, and other than overwhelmed from
all the logistics and reality suddenly imposed on my already busy life,
confused by the fact that I never got to say good-bye. Mostly it seems
totally strange that I will never again be able to pick up the phone and
tell him any of the things that are going on in my life.


Dear Grieving:

The loss of any parent, especially without the insulation of a terminal
diagnosis and/or gradual decline is tough. The loss of the second
parent is even tougher. It’s not just that the illusion of greater
mortality is closer. But also the fact that a huge part of your personal
history is gone. This week is the four-year anniversary of my own
father’s death, and I had lots of time to prepare for it. So my advice
has the sad benefit of perspective. But maybe some of what helped
me will help you allay some of the pain.

Talk to your father. Yes I know he’s dead but in your car, the shower,
a park, or anywhere private, talk out loud to him as though he could
hear you. Think about him before you go to sleep; you may dream
about him. On your smart phone you can talk, or on your computer
you can write, things you remember and loved about him. Make a
small altar somewhere to honor him. Put on it everything from pictures
to mementos and a candle. Go to services. Sit shiva and say kaddish.
Talk about him to people and explain what made him special.
My own father taught me to play chess, to play tennis, and to talk to
people with sincere curiosity and caring. He was smart and had a great
sense of humor. One of my favorite memories of visiting him was how
he spoke to everyone who helped care for him and tried to know them.
Como esta? to Jose from Mexico and Ca va bien? to Nanette from
Haiti. He survived Hitler, immigration, and making a new life in the US.
When I asked him once about his life he said, I never went hungry,
always slept in a bed, and never had to hold a gun. I hope your
father’s life was as good.

So So Sad

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

My oldest friend is dying. Not oldest age but some I have known for almost 40
years, ever since college and all through law school. Were not in practice
together but we’ve been at ever one if our respective families broad marriages
even divorce parties for our first exes. I like this guy more than either if my
brothers. He’d been sick all winter and was finally corrected diagnosed with stage
4 throat cancer. If radical experimental chemo even works he’ll be dead in two
months because he can only get nutrition through a straw and us eating away.
I’m not as close to his sister but she needs support. She ‘s refusing to talk about
what’s happening to him, but calls to go to dinner, movies, and distraction. How
can I talk to someone who”s in denial when I’m more emotional than she us about his passing.

So So Sad

Dear So So Sad:

It would be great if the sister had a different support network, but
either she does not, or she is cozying up to you because she knows
how close you are to the dying brother and that’s a close as she can
get top expressing her feelings. Simply being nearer to you is a
comfort for her, and one you’re going to have to be willing to give, and
to get your own comfort elsewhere. You don’t need to do so to the
exclusion of either taking care of your friend or his family, or to taking
care of your own needs, but you should offer her the compassion she

One thing you might do, and I am no psychologist, is to talk about
your own feelings. Partly to let her know it’s okay to feel the pain and
incipient loss. But also to push her to a point where she’s willing to let
some of the heartache she must be feeling show. One side benefit is
that if it makes her too uncomfortable she might back away from you.
But given the short time horizon you are describing, no one is going to
be able to doge this for very long. Also you might take her to visit her
brother, to be the interlocutor in the room. Or just outside in the hall,
so that there’s no big gap of “I should have done more” in her after his

Larry Jr.

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:
My Dad passed away today, just shy of his 93rd birthday. At that age, I can&'t
claim to be shocked, but he&'s the one I&'d normally discuss this kind of issue with. Now he&'s gone and I have to make a decision. I don&'t know whether to have a funeral or not. We aren&'t very religious. The ceremony isn&'t that important to me at least. The reason I&'m unsure is that all his friends and siblings have passed away already, my siblings as well are gone, and none of the next generation live locally. It’s just me and two cousins in the area. I doubt we could form a minyan
without including strangers. The funeral is paid for. My Dad had made
arrangements back in the 70s when my parents purchased the cemetery plots. It
just seems pointless and an empty gesture to have a Rabbi and Cantor do the
Yiskor for maybe five people.
Larry Jr.

Dear Larry Jr.:
Condolences first. When I lost my father I so deeply appreciated that
he and his friends had a burial society, phone tree, even the post-
service oneg all planned out, so my sibs and I could be on autopilot.
So the first question is Is there truly no one who would attend? I’m not
asking about a minyan (unless the Rabbi would require one.). I&'m
asking, Is there someone who would mourn him or miss saying good-
bye to something more than a newspaper obit? Have you combed his
papers for lists of friends, or his address book for phone numbers,
asked his neighbors, talked to the folks at whatever community center
he might have played cards or schmoozed.

If the answer is truly no, then do what works for your close relations. I
think it&'s nice to have someone say some prayers. Simply meeting
with him for an hour to tell him about your father will make this
process easier for you. And when you hear him described back through
the filter of the rabbi&'s farewell, and when you hear the kaddish
chanted, I think you will be moved in ways you did not expect.
Even though it is not unexpected, don&'t be surprised if this hits you.


My answer to people was always: There are good days and bad days.               Today&'s a ____ day. It really helps to take naps and walks. Let your
time be emptier and not too filled with people or work. See what
memories float up. Crying is good. So is chocolate. Or wine. whatever
it takes. Let yourself remember what you loved best, be able to
acknowledge his flaws or small hurts, and get very clear that all is now
forgiven, that you remember him with love. Do what you think your
father would have wanted., which sounds like a funeral. And don’t be
surprised if he shows up in a dream sometime and say Thanks, Larry.
You were a good son.

Sister-In- Law

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:
My brother in law is dying. He’s 44 and has metastasized cancer. We
live across the country and because of a bankruptcy that’s forced us to
live on cash instead of credit. We have not been as much a part of
family life as we might otherwise have been. My husband has taken a
leave of absence from his job to be with him in the last weeks. I am
due to go soon, though I haven’t seen the mass of in-laws in a long
time. I love my husband and his brother. But I am afraid I will feel like
an interloping stranger to the meshopchah, crowding their precious
last time with him. I am also heartbroken and clueless about what one
says to someone who is unfairly dying so young, let alone a guy who
has a great wife and two teenaged children, has never hurt anyone in
his life, and who is the last person this should be happening to. Do I
just hover in the background and help out, or is there some other way
of being appropriate?
Sister-In- Law

Dear Sister-in- Law:
Go and tell everyone quietly: Please tell me how I can best be useful in
this difficult time. I’ll babysit, run errands, cook, clean, whatever is
most useful to the near and dear. For your husband, try to be his rock.
Hold him, encourage him to cry, take him on walks, give him a shot of
something string when he needs it.

To his bother all you can say is, I’m sorry, you have always been a
good person, and people love and value you. We’ll miss you and honor
your life and your memory. [Brother’s name] and I will help your
family as best we’re able. If there’s a reason for this tragedy I don’t
understand it either. But people who claim to understand say G-d
works in mysterious ways. I don’t understand them. I have no good
answers and probably not even the right questions. If I could punch a
hole in the sky and change it I would. But instead all I can do is hold
your hand and tell you every time I cheer for [his favorite team], see a
certain movie, eat a certain food, etc I will think of you. You’ve been a
great brother to him. We all love you and value your being and your

Dutiful Daughter

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:
I have two friends with dying mothers. Each went into hospital for
something minor and had an “event” occur which seemed terminal.
One went home did all the filial things, and has returned her mother is
going to live, as it turns out. The other’s mother is almost definitely
dying (kidneys and lungs working only with big assists). The husband
is sure of her wishes, in accordance with her medical advance
directive. But my friend is totally resistant to visiting and saying
goodbye. Yes it is cross-country, but I have offered air miles. She is a
running list of excuses and rationalizations from work responsibilities
to “She won’t know” why it’s not only okay not to go but why it’s even
better. Clearly it is better for her, but am I being old-fashioned
thinking there is just something that matters about being present for
the last breaths and honoring the relationship? They did, btw, seem to
have a decent mother-daughter dialogue. No overt fighting or running
battles. I’ve tried to tell her she’ll be sorry later, but she is a stone
Dutiful Daughter

Dear Dutiful Daughter:
I’m with you. I was there when my mother died and while it is very
difficult to articulate in words, it meant a lot to me to be there when
she passed. She surprised the doctors by how long she lived after
being taken off the respirator. The human will to survive is pretty
amazing. Interestingly, studies have shown that often people die when
the meshpochah have left the room to go get a cup of coffee or a
nosh. There’s something about all the hovering that keeps souls tied,
when sometimes it’s better to say, It’s okay. You can let go.

If your friend is as much of a rationalizer as you describe, she might
be able to stay in denial for a long time, at least on the public level.
But we only get two parents, and losing one of them is a big deal. If
she has the chance and doesn’t go, I suspect she will regret it on the
inside, and there’s no do-over. I recommend having a one-on- one, in                          person not phone, and tell her one last time all the reasons you think
she should go, from being supportive of her father to future regrets. If
she still chooses not to go, shut up about it. But I wouldn’t rely on her
too hard if you get sick and need some help.

Grieving Son

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

My mother just died. I am 45 and this is new territory for me. I live 2500 miles
from where I grew up. My mother raised me alone but she has always been
vibrantly happy and self-sufficient. I am btw a bachelor (previously married, no
children). My job is a very demanding, lots of people depend on me and this
huge and sudden interruption is causing chaos, as I am the only responsible
party to go take care of funeral and house. There was no warning. No indication
she was going to do anything except live another 30 years. One massive heart
attack and wham, gone. I am reeling and not sure how to get my bearings.
Grieving Son

Dear Grieving:
My condolences. I’ve been through this twice. It doesn’t get any easier or better
with repetition. What I learned: It is a very non-linear process. You’ll have good
days and bad ones. It’s okay to cry any time you need to. It’s okay to say My
mother just died. That’s true with any colleague or stranger, or to snag the exit
row on an airline. Make sure you are equipped with caffeine and chocolate. Don’t
kill any of your relatives (even if they seem to deserve it in a given moment).
Sleep when you can. Do only what you need to. Avoid people who trigger bad
responses in you. Go for as many walks as you can. (Note: some of this is good
advice even without losing a parent). Don’t worry about your office –they’ve
coped with worse and will do so again. Focus on taking good care of yourself and
whatever your family needs.

My favorite poem about death is by a guy named Billy Collins, former US Poet Laureate, called “The Dead”:

The dead are always looking down on us, they say,
while we are putting on our shoes or making a sandwich,
they are looking down through the glass bottom boats of heaven
as they row themselves slowly through eternity.

They watch the tops of our heads moving below on earth,
and when we lie down in a field or on a couch,
drugged perhaps by the hum of a long afternoon,
they think we are looking back at them,

which makes them lift their oars and fall silent
and wait, like parents, for us to close our eyes.



May the memory of each of your loved ones be a blessing.

Love Her So Much

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

My wife is entering her third round of breast cancer. She had it in the
90s and survived after a double mastectomy and two rounds of
chemo. Against my advice she took hormones and got BC a second
time. Complications and chemo again but she has been cancer free for
five years. Now it appears that a spate of strange symptoms are
evidence of a third round. It has already begun to metastasize to her
lungs and other organs. I know I am going to lose her this time. I
know enough about what we’re facing that keeping on a brave face
won’t be enough. How can I get us through this?

Love Her So Much

Dear Love Her So Much:

You have two missions: One is to be there for your wife. The other is
to stay strong enough to be able to do sop. You’ve been through the
drill twice before, so you know the importance of having a support
team and not trying to be a Lone Ranger style hero. Appoint the
closest most reliable family friend or relative who’s willing to be the
care team manager. S/he should be willing to coordinate all your
friends and relatives who’re willing to schlep her to and from chemo,
bring food for the family, and generally do things like supermarket
runs, mow the lawn, and clean house. Also simply to sit with your wife
and read to her, or be in the house while she rests, in case she wakes
and needs anything. There are various internet sites that’ll allow the
manager to organize scheduling.


You can use the same site to post updates on your wife’s medical
progress, to list requests, and harvest well wishes. That’ll save you (or
worse, your wife) from a zillion one-on- one conversations that’ll
probably not do a lot for your spirits. Eat right, exerciser, and try for a
decent night’s sleep. Create a safe harbor for your self. Imagine a
quiet zone, anything a friend’s guest room to the temple sanctuary:
somewhere where you can go to sit, cry, be by yourself with pain,
grief, fear, or any other emotion you don’t want to bring home to your
wife. Around her you’ll need to be soothing, supportive, loving, and as
optimistic as circumstances will allow. There’s also recent research
that shows that when people write about their lives it helps them
process fear of death. When the time comes for hospice, be prepared
to take a leave of absence from work and be with her until the end.