One of the most unsettling things about struggling with a parent's death is that life outside the hospital or hospice is still moving rapidly forward. There are deadlines at work, children to take to soccer practice, bills to pay. And for some people, especially those who don't consider themselves connected to a specific religion, grappling with the death of a loved one can come with the added challenge of trying to make peace with what it all means on a cosmic level.
Author Bob Morris faced these questions while preparing for the deaths of his mother and father, Joe and Ethel. His mother died in 2002, after more than a decade of being ill. His dad passed away a few years later. Morris writes about the what it was like to say goodbye to these two dearly loved ones in his latest memoir, Bobby Wonderful: An Imperfect Son Buries His Parents.
Morris was raised in the Jewish tradition, but had stopped attending synagogue regularly by the time his mother died. He identifies now as a spiritually minded person, but not as someone who follows the doctrine of a specific religious tradition.
His dad had a similar outlook. Morris said his father lost his faith in God after watching his wife's health suffer for years. One day, while Morris and his brother were sitting around his dad's hospital bed, a rabbi stuck his head in the door and asked if he could come in.
Morris' brother welcomed the religious leader into the room, even though Joe declined. Morris calls the experience that followed a "profoundly beautiful" encounter unlike anything he had expected. The rabbi led Joe in a meditation that asked him to look back at the lovely things he'd accomplished in his life.
Filmmaker Jeff Scher has created a visual interpretation of this meditation:
"That's religion at its best, when it uplifts you, when it's not telling you to pray to God, or think in this way," Morris said. "When it gives you a way to look at living as beautifully as possible. For me, the beauty and comfort of religion that helps the mourning children comes not from strict [doctrine], but what lies beneath that, which is transcendence."
HuffPost Religion chatted with Morris about the experience of losing his parents.
It seems to me that the world’s religions have death "figured out" in a sense -- they have rituals and theology that gives followers comfort about the departing loved one’s soul, for example. What is it like for someone who is "spiritual but not religious" to approach death of a parent?
Even though I was trained as Conservative Jew and had had a bar mitzvah and then gone on to further study, that wasn’t a part of my life as much at the time of my parents’ death. But I was able to light shabbat candles in the room of my mother before her death. And when she died, I was able to call the family synagogue, where my brother and I had no affiliation at that point, and have them take over and give form to rituals that we didn’t have to invent, that have been there throughout history. To be able to go to a funeral and have a rabbi pin a black ribbon on your lapel to indicate you’ve torn your clothes, to have a rabbi who is prepared not only to speak about the deceased but also offer prayers of mourning from a little mourning book that I still find quite beautiful.
A lot of my generation, and getting into the younger age group as well, we don’t like to think that we’re completely material, earthbound people. So all of these things are a tremendous gift and comfort that religion can provide when you’re facing something that’s never happened to you before. Religion provides some kind of a structure when you’re not yourself. And you’re not yourself when you’re dealing with this.
There are phrases that people who are religious sometimes use to comfort those who are mourning -- things like, "He/She is in a better place" or "God just needed another angel." Did these ever phrases frustrate you? What are the words of comfort that you felt really did help?
"God has another angel" is sweet, but the other things that people say at times like this, they mean absolutely nothing to me. One of the things I talk about in the book is how one yearns to just be with the deceased parent a moment longer in the days and weeks after a death. If you don’t have a traditional belief in God, but you believe in spirit, what does it mean that God had a plan? That means nothing to me.
But if a person who is comforting a mourner like me says, "I’ll never forget the time your mother picked me up at the library because my car broke down, and we had the most wonderful lunch, and she skipped her beauty parlor appointments" -- that would be something special. Because even though we weren’t a spectacular family, I think the love and the spirit that was in between all those dark places was strong and spiritual. To me, that’s a form of spirituality that I do believe in.
Did the whole experience change the way you think about God?
Not about God, but about religion. I think that it does have such a profound place around families of the dying. I do believe this is a religious book, because nothing is more profound than being there when you see the spirit of a person leaving a body. There is something there that leaves them when they die. What is this other thing that leaves them? Consciousness, maybe.
Aside from the religious rituals, there are also many social/cultural practices associated with death -- like people bringing food and paying visits at the hospital. Did you find these as intrusions, or did they help you grieve? What would you tell friends and family who are trying to be show their support, but are actually causing more harm than good?
Everyone’s going to address that in a different way. I’m not speaking for anyone but myself. For me, the whole thing is just a nightmare, unless you’re wealthy and you have an assistant designated to being in charge of it. It seems all we were doing was answering calls and receiving flowers and food. On the other hand, it is a sign that the community is taking over and taking care of you so that you can be cushioned. Some people might also say it’s a distraction, talking with all these people and inviting them to the funeral. It leaves some time where you’re so distracted by planning that the full impact doesn’t hit you until everything’s over and you’re done writing thank you notes.
I didn’t really want anybody around in the very last hours of my parents in the hospital. I know that’s selfish, because if these people wanted to be there, they should be there. It’s tricky territory. I think people should be very careful about presuming that their presence is needed and wanted, and let the immediate family who is mourning set the tone.
What advice would you have for the spouse or partner of someone who is going through the process of saying goodbye to a parent? What is a good way for them to care for the carer?
There’s a lot of listening that can be done with a spouse. The loveliest thing a spouse can do, other than making logistics easier by not being anything but incredibly encouraging about giving the most care you can, is just listening. I remember being able to talk about my dad a lot to my spouse and how much that meant to me. I was so lucky that they had met and that they understood each other.
In the book, you talk about the difficulty of maintaining a balance between caring for loved ones while continuing to participate in life outside that space. There seems to be a lot of guilt associated with making that choice. Did you find a good way to negotiate that with your parents and with yourself?
Yes. I think the goal of the book is to give others reading it who may be going through something similar, who are caregiving for older parents, permission to take care of themselves. I was pretty keen on not letting the devastating years of my mother’s illness or the last terrible year of my father’s life to completely take me down.
One of the things I tell my readers is that there’s a spirituality in happiness. One of the most profoundly happy things that I would do with my dad was sing with him. I got a hold a of a lot of good sheet music and I learned to play. I played in the lobby of the assisted living home where he lived. Instead of speaking, sometimes we’d just sing. I also figured out that I wanted to take drives with him, along this area of Long Island, the North Shore and Great Neck, there are beautiful places to drive. I think the key is to find things that you can do with them that aren’t just dutiful, but something you really enjoy doing in their presence. There were many times when I was visiting my dad where I’d burst into tears of joy because we managed to find that beautiful hour. If you asked me if God was present in any of this, it would be in those times.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Also on HuffPost: