For the week ending 9 January 2010 / 22 Tevet 5770

To the Better End

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: C.
Dear Rabbi,

I am compelled to ask a question about my mother. She has been a person who during her lifetime has had periods of depression. As a child, I remember when her father had a heart attack and I was about 6 years old, she went through a severe depression that scared me and I never forgot it. Now she is 82 and has broken two hips, been in rehab, and since my father died, had once again been so depressed that she has hurt herself on purpose. She believes in G-d but never goes to services. She is entirely selfish at this point, consumed with her maladies. I have helped her all through this past year of broken hips and rehab, and now assisted living. It has taken its toll on me physically and emotionally, but spiritually, I feel blessed that G-d has given me the opportunity through her to do good deeds. I really have nothing to gain other than spiritual uplifting. What will happen to my mom when she dies? I talk to her about some of the mystical beliefs of Judaism, but she is only superficially interested. Will she be happy in the afterlife? I have spent my life trying to make her happy, (impossible). I feel sorry for her now, and yet on some level I wish she would just leave me alone. Am I wrong to think that? I will still be here for her (even though I have set boundaries) until the end. Yet I pray the end won’t be drawn out for all our sakes. Is there anything I can do to make sure she dies and goes to heaven or is it out of my ability?

Dear C.,

I greatly empathize with your mother’s suffering, and how difficult it must be for you on so many levels, as is palpably felt in your emotion-charged question.

You raise several different points, and I’ll try to address them one by one.

It sounds like your mother has been plagued by depression for much of her life. So much so that it seems to have become a source of trauma for you as well. The reasons for depression are many: some physiological or psychological, others spiritual. The former should be treated professionally – medically or with therapy. The latter are nearly impossible to know exactly what’s the cause or why they come about. Only, in general, the more a person is connected to G-d, the healthier a person will be emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. I’m impressed how your own strong faith in G-d seems to be helping you through these very difficult times. So stay strong and G-d will see you through it.

Of course, you can’t fault her for being preoccupied by her maladies and consumed in her suffering. Certainly it would be better for her on all planes if she were able to maintain a more positive attitude, but given her disposition and age, that would simply be expecting too much. So as difficult as it may be for you to be around her, you should still try to distract her from her suffering as best as you can. This might include taking walks, doing activities, reading stories, doing crafts, showing her pictures of the family (particularly of children) and anything else she enjoys. I feel it important to note that this is not for what you gain from it, and not only for the opportunity to do good deeds of chesed (lovingkindness), but primarily because you are obligated to care for your mother – period.

There is really no way of knowing what it will be like for any individual after death. I understand you’d be comforted to think that the afterlife would put an end to your mother’s suffering. In general, that’s true. But suffering in this world and in the next has a purpose and is ultimately beneficial for a person. Every soul needs to undergo spiritual purification, and that process is not always pleasant. Still, you should try, as it seems you do, to orient her toward belief and even practice. This would certainly ease her return back to G-d. Perhaps you can encourage her to perform even simple mitzvot like saying the Shema, giving charity, and lighting Shabbat candles.

Regarding your feeling on a certain level that it would actually be better if she were to die, that is a very normal and natural feeling. You should not feel guilty for entertaining those thoughts and feelings. Still, of course, Judaism prohibits doing anything to shorten life, and you should not even pray that G-d release her from life here. We have no idea what G-d’s reasons and plans are regarding how and how long one’s sojourn here is to be. You must let things run their G-d-given course, while praying for her well-being.

What is in your ability is to help ensure she “goes to heaven” when she passes over by doing the type of things I suggested earlier. And when the time comes, do your best to ensure that her journey progresses according to the Jewish laws and customs concerning death, burial and mourning. These are Divinely-given and inspired practices that are precision-designed to set the soul on the right course toward goodness, tranquility and joy with G-d. And just as important as all that is, you should realize also that your relationship with your mother greatly increases in magnitude once she has passed over, and that every good deed and mitzvah that you and her other descendants do elevate her soul higher and higher to the better end.

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