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Difficult Conversations

October 2015

From the Desk of Cantor Joanna Alexander

Last year, I wrote about the gifts of my grandmothers.  Part of their gifts to me was communicating to my parents (their children) about the quality of life they wanted were they unable to communicate and advocate for their own medical decisions.

Part of their gift was to pre-plan a funeral. So I should not have been surprised when my mother sent me a copy of the documents stating she had pre-planned and purchased her and my father’s funeral. Now as a cantor who performs funerals semi-regularly, I do know what a help to the family this can be. It is incredibly difficult to make these decisions while in the grip of mourning. They are also incredibly expensive and more so last minute (or at time of need). But still, this was my mother. She is 65 years old, in good health and she just buried her mother at age 96. Isn’t this a bit premature? We could have another 30 years together. And yet my mother learned from the gift of her mother. She felt the blessing my grandmother had given her by planning and purchasing her funeral shortly after my grandfather died more than 20 years before.

            Now I know that whether I am blessed with many more happy and healthy years, or they are struck down tragically, suffer a long illness, I will not have to make the difficult decisions in a time of great stress and sadness. I will not have a disagreement with my sister, and I will not have to pay for something I may or may not be able to afford at the moment. It is done, it is paid for, and they will apparently be buried in good company, near my childhood rabbi and music director.

            Why did my parents, who are in good health and had long-living parents, decide to do this at such a seemingly young age? Perhaps it is because my father is a doctor, and even though he does not work in life-or-death situations, he is still more aware of human frailty than many others. Perhaps it is because his sister, his youngest sister by 7 years, has been living with metastatic breast cancer for 9 years and reality is becoming more obvious with every visit. Perhaps it was watching his mother disappear over 10 years to vascular dementia (like Alzheimer’s but with a different cause) and his determination not to live under the same circumstances. I don’t know why my parents chose to confront the reality of death when it is so difficult for some, but I am grateful because I know that we will all die. We cannot know when, we might fight against it as long as possible, but it is unavoidable.

      64772351 f6c3aae46b z      Because we know how difficult it can be to accept this reality of life and speak about it; because we know that sometimes one person is ready to have this conversation and others in the family are not; because we know that discussing the reality of death and dying can be particularly difficult when trying to maintain positivity facing a difficult and possibly terminal illness; because we are human and have always searched for ways to avoid death, Rabbi Weber, Rabbi Stern and I will be holding a 3-part class on Sundays, October 18th , October 25th and November 1st about “Difficult Conversations.” We will be discussing aging in ourselves and our loved ones; the blessing of open communication; and preparing for the inevitable funeral arrangements.  We hope that you will join us. As the title implies, these are very difficult topics but we will all be confronted with these realities at some point. I hope you will choose to share your wisdom and experiences and learn from others as well.

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