People in our Kehillah come from all sorts of backgrounds, and so do their families. Each will approach serious illness and death in their own way. This is not intended to be a ‘how to’ guide, but rather a source of comfort and help, drawn from Jewish traditions, at a time when most of us will be looking for guidance.
Try to be with the dying person, and to arrange things so that as much as possible they are not alone. Simply being nearby, or holding a hand, speaking, singing, and being a reassuring presence. This can be hard, so it is good also, to take time out for fresh air, something to eat or a nap. Listen. Talk about what is on your own mind. Do not be afraid to say goodbye, or to talk about your feelings. Many people, both carers and the seriously ill, find it comforting to read from a siddur or prayerbook. You may find there prayers for those caring for the dying, and prayers to say on their behalf. These include, in Orthodox prayerbooks, the final confessions of the dying person. The final confession appears in shorter from in the Liberal Siddur Lev Chadash.
If children are part of the dying person’s life, then do not be afraid to tell them what is going on. Allow them to visit, and show them how to behave with the dying person. Try to arrange for an adult to pay attention just to the children, someone who can judge when a child is overwhelmed and needs to be taken away from the situation.
Judaism tends to favour active attempts to treat the sick, but once a person is expected to die within a very short time, no more than three days, then we recognise that the person is at the doorway of death and should not be disturbed. This is a time of being nearby, watching, and waiting. For recognising the approaching end, and for doing whatever we can to bring our physical and earthly relationship with the dying person to an end in away that leaves both feeling able to part.
It is customary to recite the shema for the person at or near to the moment of death.
We do not arrange a funeral until after the death. This can feel strange, as if a death is expected it can be hard not to think ahead. Nevertheless, Jewish funerals can be planned very quickly once someone has passed away.
Once the person has died, it is customary to cover them with a sheet, and to light a candle near to their head. These simple actions mark the simple truth that the soul no longer inhabits the body, but the light flickers on.