Planning for the ultimate future
February 28, 2011
Image borrowed from an online provider of wills.
Is there a bracha for finishing the difficult work of estate planning? The formal term -- "estate planning" -- doesn't begin to hint at the emotional and spiritual challenges of thinking about, and planning for, death. This is work that Ethan and I have been doing of late. Not surprisingly, the whole process feels different now than it did almost ten years ago, the first time we engaged in it. Now we have a fifteen-month-old son, which changes everything.
"Are you afraid of dying?" my therapist asked me last week. I thought about it for a moment and told her that I am not. I don't know what comes after this, but I have faith that this life isn't all there is. And I feel certain that, whatever comes next, there's a cessation of suffering. I have some fear of dying, depending on how it happens; I don't want to suffer. But I'm not afraid of death. It's a journey into something we can't know. A passage, like birth. I've been blessed to be present for some deaths which have felt like powerful moments of opening. I'm convinced that there's nothing to be feared about death.
What I am afraid of is loss. I have a hard time facing the reality that people I love are going to die. I'm blessed to still have my parents; I can't really think about losing them, ever, even though I know that someday I will, because everyone does. I can't really think about losing Ethan, even though I know that could happen too. And I can't think about (God forbid) losing my child -- both because of the anticipation of my own grief, and what I know would seem the quintessential unfairness of a life cut too short. No: thinking about my own death is far easier than contemplating any of those.
After my strokes, a few years ago, I remember my spiritual director at the time counseling me through meditations aimed at facing the prospect of my own death. I hope that, before I go, I have the spaciousness to do the emotional and spiritual preparation which will make the passage fruitful and manageable for me. That's work I'll need to do in the realms of yetzirah and briyah, emotion and consicousness. But in the world of assiyah, the world of action and physicality, preparing for death means "estate planning." Legal documents and memoranda about the disposition of property. The formal legal language can be distancing; I have to remind myself sometimes what we're really talking about.
It's hard to think of losing my spouse, and it's hard to think of our son growing up without either one of us. But it does feel good to have done the work of thinking through what would become of Drew, who would care for him and how, which of our possessions (his father's ancient Commodore PET, my rainbow tallit from Jerusalem) we would specifically want for him to inherit. It's an interesting exercise in thinking about what we own and which of our possessions have emotional and spiritual significance -- and in thinking about the family and the communities of which Drew is a part, and the networks of love and support which we hope would sustain him if something happened to us.
One way or another, this seems to me to clearly be an opportunity for spiritual work. If anyone reading this has stories about the emotional and spiritual valances of facing mortality, "estate planning," or preparing for what comes next, I'd love to hear them.