Sooner or later, death claims someone we love. Especially in this time of advanced medical technology, there is frequently a length of time between diagnosis and death which presents both opportunities and burdens for family and friends. How do we treat someone who is dying?
First and foremost, it is important to remember that a person even on the verge of death (known as a gosess or gosesset in Hebrew) is considered a living person in all respects. And while it is permissible under Jewish law to discontinue extraordinary efforts to forestall an inevitable death, nothing may be done artificially to hasten an inevitable death. Obviously, this prohibition would preclude the introduction of drugs or chemicals which would poison or arrested the body’s functions. Not so obviously, unnecessarily moving a failing person, even for comfort’s sake, is not permitted, lest the onus of the death rest on the well-meaning care giver.
The corollary to the prohibitions is the expectation of all appropriate care. One must not leave a dying person alone; the final passage in life can be frightening and lonely. Everyone deserves company. A dying person should be comforted through prayer, psalms, soothing conversation or favorite melodies. And visitors should never discuss the patient as if he or she could not understand the conversation.
Touch is also very important. Holding the hand of a dying person is an act of great compassion and reassurance, much like holding the hand of a child or the arm of a frail person who is crossing a street. The only care to be taken is not to give the impression of hastening death, for example, by closing the person’s eyes.
Perhaps the hardest ritual to perform with or for a loved one is the vidu’i or confessional. In it, the gosess asks God for perfect healing, but if such healing is not to occur, that death be gentle and considered an atonement for any transgression committed in this world. The dying person should also forgive all who may have wronged him or her, and conclude with Sh’ma. The standard version of the vidu’i is available from our office, but if the moment presents itself and you do not have a copy, these general guidelines will more than suffice.
Upon witnessing a death (or upon hearing of a death), you should tear a garment and recite a brakha. The appropriate blessing begins with the usual formulation and concludes dayan ha-emet , acknowledging that God, as Sovereign of the universe, is the True Judge.
Only then should funeral arrangements begin.