Talking about death and dying: Never too soon to start

Rabbi D’vorah Rose leans across the café table with a big smile. “I love end-of-life work and I love talking about it,” she says. She wants us all to talk about it, too. And she wants us to have that conversation now, regardless of age or state of health.

“When you are 75 and have six months left to live, you clarify your values, identify what’s important to you. Imagine if you did that at 35,” said Rose, a healthcare chaplain and a nurse. “When we ask ourselves about the dying process, soon we question the process of living. The more we can open these conversations, the more we can try to understand what it all means.”

 

Rabbi D’vorah Rose

The 51-year-old Rose is enthusiastic about the many grassroots organizations exploring death and dying, and she salutes those in healthcare, in religious communities and in the general population who offer programs to help people “wrestle with the reality” of how best to approach the end of life.

 

“One of the gifts Judaism can offer to the larger community is a time-tested approach to dealing with death, for the dying and also for the grieving family,” she said. “The structure gives people a language to talk about the process and allows them to move through the steps.”

Rose pointed to the Zava’ah, a Jewish ethical will that allows people to pass values from one generation to the next, as well as Jewish advance medical directives. Also significant in the grieving process is the tradition of sitting shiva, which allows survivors to shut out the rest of the world and pause for mourning.

Even so, Rose noted that many Jews are reluctant to have intimate end-of-life conversations. She recommends speaking with a rabbi or seeking information from groups such as the National Institute for Jewish Hospice, founded in 1985 by Rabbi Maurice Lamm, author of “The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning.”

At the beginning of her career, Rose wasn’t concentrating on end-of-life care. After earning a sociology degree from the University of Wisconsin, she worked as a volunteer for health agencies in Nepal. While there, she decided to become a registered nurse and returned to Wisconsin to complete her training.

“Working as a nurse, I found I was fascinated with the spiritual and ritual aspects of hospice care, though in my training I had not been given all the skills I needed,” Rose said. “I could manage symptoms and I could manage pain, but I was terrified when I tried to help families with a dying relative.”

One experience in particular has stuck with her, and recalling it brings tears to her eyes. She was working with a patient in the last weeks of life, and though the medical team had done everything to minimize the physical suffering, the patient was not at ease. “I realized that what I was seeing was spiritual distress,” Rose said. “That brought up strong questions for me, and I made the decision to go to rabbinical school.” 

Rose received her rabbinical ordination via ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal and a master’s degree in Jewish Studies from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Pennsylvania. She also completed a postgraduate training program in clinical pastoral education at Stanford University Medical Center.

She now works as a spiritual and cultural diversity educator at a hospice and trains other healthcare providers and religious communities on how to better care for their patients and themselves, in addition to writing and editing books. Rose also lectures at healthcare conferences, including the American Academy on Communication in Healthcare at Yale University this June.

Her primary message is that it’s never too early to start the conversation about end-of-life issues. Though she’s not opposed to a “bucket list” of places a person wants to go and things a person wants to do before dying, she says she has a better idea.

“What I’d like to see is a bucket list that explores our quality of life — psychologically, spiritually and emotionally,” Rose said. “That’s fertile ground.”

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.