My aunt does not have much longer to live, and she is openly speaking about her fear of death. I am like a son to her because she never had children, and I am going to visit her, perhaps for the last time. Can you give me some guidance? How do you allay the fears of a person who is soon to leave this world?
Do you know what is the most scary thing about dying? It is not the pain of death, not the possible torments of the afterlife, not the unknown that lies beyond the grave.
Our biggest fear is that we will be forgotten. It is terrifying to think that we may leave this world unnoticed. It would mean that our whole lives, all we ever achieved, our every dream and ambition, success and failure, all amounted to naught. The world will go on without us. That we cannot face.
This fear may be intensified in someone who has not been blessed with children. At least leaving a child in the world means that you have made some lasting impression, you have set in motion an eternal process of rebirth, there is some sense of continuation. But if someone leaves no children then even that sense of continuation seems lost.
But it is not lost. A Jewish proverb says, "The children we leave behind are our good deeds." The positive impact we have had on those around us is eternal. Every good deed we do, however insignificant it may seem, makes a permanent mark on the world. And the goodness accumulated over a lifetime of moral living is a force of positive energy that leaves a lasting impression that can never be lost.
When you meet your aunt, let her know that she will be remembered. She may never have painted a masterpiece, she may have made no new discoveries or invented new technologies, she may not have an airport named after her. But she has achieved something far more permanent than all that. The lives she touched, the impact she had on you and your family, the wisdom she imparted and the goodness and warmth she brought to the world, these will remain long after her soul has gone to higher places.
Tell her some of the things she has taught you that you will cherish, and thank her for the love she showed you. Assure her that you will say Kaddish and memorial prayers for her after she passes on. And tell her the words of our sages: "If you teach Torah to someone else's child, it is as if you gave birth to them." We have physical parents who brought our body into the world, and we have many spiritual parents who nurtured our soul. Your aunt was one such parent, and for that she will always be remembered.
I just read "Why We Fear Death" (below)--and while I think the advice given by Mr. Moss is lovely and will no doubt be comforting to the aunt involved, I cannot say that I agree with Mr. Moss's conclusion that "Our biggest fear is that we will be forgotten." That certainly isn't true for me.
My biggest fear is that I will no longer be around to enjoy all the pleasures of life: eating, drinking, being with loved ones, going to the movies and the theater, attending lectures, reading, watching TV, swimming, writing articles, giving speeches, communicating with family and friends, telling stories, sharing experiences, looking at beautiful vistas, and laughing. What can Mr. Moss tell me to assuage the fear of giving all that up? And for what? As far as I'm concerned, to go into nothingness.