Let Go – Yom Kippur Memorial 5776

This post was originally delivered as a Yom Kippur sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in 2015/5776 as part of a series entitled “The Simplest Things.” You can hear audio of the sermon through the Kol Hadash Podcast.

Last November, a 29 year old woman named Brittany Maynard died in Oregon. She had a BA in Psychology, an MA in Education; she had taught and traveled in Nepal, Vietnam and Cambodia; she had been married for two years, and she had incurable, inoperable brain cancer. Facing the imminent end of her life, Maynard decided to make the most of her limited time, and she became a passionate advocate for so-called “Death with Dignity” laws – that’s why she moved from California to Oregon, to take advantage of such a law. We are willing to save our beloved pets unnecessary suffering; why not people? There were some who questioned her decision to end her life, but they were not her family or the people who knew her best. And if they were able to let her go on her own terms, perhaps the rest of us should as well.

If one of the simplest things we can say at the end of life is “Let Go,” it is also one of the hardest. It is not easy to accept our own mortality – I once saw a comic strip that described the various stages of becoming an adult, and it described separate steps for “you realize that death is real” “you realize that death is permanent” “you realize that death will hi everyone” “you realize that this means you too.” It’s also hard for us to accept the mortality of others. Life is a terminal condition, but we do not know how or when that will come true for us or for those we love. I’ve seen people on respirators for months who finally get off of them and have a modest recovery with full awareness and personality. It’s NOT a miracle, or at most it is a miracle of modern medicine. But that possibility is just one reason that letting go is so hard – “but what if?” always lurks in the background of our hopes.

A commentator once quipped that Europeans accept that death is inevitable, while Americans think that death is optional. It’s the paradox of modern medical success – we live longer than we ever have, and we are able to cure so many more conditions that would have killed us in the past. Only 50 years ago, you would refer in a whisper to someone having cancer, because there was practically nothing to be done – all you could do was let go. Today the survival rates for 5 years after diagnosis are over 50% for Leukemia, Colon cancer, and non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and 5 year survival rates are 90% or higher for cancer of the breast, skin or prostate. No wonder we are so resistant to a final and terminal situation which we cannot treat, since we can treat so much. We now live long enough to play what I call “aging roulette” – what secrets does your future hold for your golden years? I say it all the time when I visit people in hospitals or in hospice: getting old is not for the young. On the other hand, the only thing worse than getting older is NOT getting older. And if THAT happens, letting go becomes that much harder.

“Let go” is hard to say and to do because it feels as if we are betraying our love to be complicit, in any way, in their death. The fear of losing them for good, losing them forever, losing them for the rest of our lives in the only world we know, that fear can be even stronger than how much it hurts us to see them in pain. We think we are helping them by inspiring them to fight, to resist, to demand more life until the bitter, rejected end. Quoting Dylan Thomas, we “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” And yet, just as sometimes not helping is truly helping, sometimes not fighting is what the truly brave choose to do.

There is a genius and a generosity to the institution of hospice: accepting what cannot be changed, making the best of the time one has left, reducing pain and softening the landing as much as possible. Death with Dignity laws have produced surprising results: of those individuals who go through the two doctor opinions and finally receive that written prescription, only some of them actually fill the scrip, and of those who do fill it, only some of them actually use it. The ability to have the option, the possible control if things become too much, is what gives comfort to them and their families. They are willing to let go when the time is right, when they decide.

We have to be willing to tell ourselves, “let go,” we have to be able to hear our loved ones when our loved ones say, “let go.” It takes tremendous courage to face real human mortality directly, honestly, immediately. Yes, I know that someday I will die, but chances are not for another 40 years at least. When I see people who know how they are going to die, and a general idea of when, people who still read the newspaper every day and who still talk to their children every day and who still complain about the food where they’re staying, I’m inspired by their courage. If they are willing to say to me, “let go,” who am I to argue? It may be that, 40 or 50 years from now, I will be saying the same thing to someone else. I’ve seen how it’s done, and how beautiful it can be.

Learning from Trees” by Grace Butcher

If we could,
like the trees,
practice dying,
do it every year
just as something we do-
like going on vacation
or celebrating birthdays,
it would become
as easy a part of us
as our hair or clothing.

Someone would show us how
to lie down and fade away
as if in deepest meditation,
and we would learn
about the fine dark emptiness,
both knowing it and not knowing it,
and coming back would be irrelevant.

Whatever it is the trees know
when they stand undone,
surprisingly intricate,
we need to know also
so we can allow
that last thing
to happen to us
as if it were only
any ordinary thing,

leaves and lives
falling away,
the spirit, complex.
waiting in the fine darkness
to learn which way it will go.


About Rabbi Adam Chalom

Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in north suburban Chicago. He is also the Dean for North America of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.
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1 Response to Let Go – Yom Kippur Memorial 5776

  1. Pingback: The Simplest Things | Shalom from Rabbi Chalom

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