After death, what remains? Rabbi Steve Leder discusses his book The Beauty of What Remains: How Our Greatest Fear Becomes Our Greatest Gift.
Steve Leder is an American rabbi and leader in the Jewish community. He has been named a top ten most influential rabbi in America by Newsweek. He recently sat down with Spirituality & Health to discuss his book The Beauty of What Remains: How Our Greatest Fear Becomes Our Greatest Gift.
“Ultimately, death is not about death, but about life.”
S&H: One interesting insight from The Beauty of What Remains is that actively dying people are not afraid of dying. Can you explain that idea and offer some thoughts on why this is so?
Steve Leder: Not once in my 34 years as a rabbi have I ever been with someone who was actively dying and who evidenced any fear. I think the reason is that when it is really a person’s time to die, the process feels completely natural and right.
That is not to say we don’t fear death before then or that it is a fearless process for those who witness the death, but for the dying themselves, when it is really time, there is nothing but peace.
What are some of the main ways that your father’s death reshaped your views on death and dying?
The main thing I learned from my father’s death is how non-linear grief is. I often say that anyone who thinks the shortest distance between two points is a straight line does not understand grief.
Mourning my father has taught me that grief comes in waves, sometimes close together, sometimes quite far apart, but when a wave hits, it requires a respectful pause and a reckoning with our feelings.
Another important thing I have learned since my father’s death is that the dead really do live on in so many beautiful ways. I have continued to learn from, discover, laugh with and about, and feel, my dad’s love many, many times since his death. The death of a body is not the death of a person.
[Also read: “Ceremony Before Death: A Living Memorial.”]
Can you offer some advice for people who are being forced to support dying loved ones at a distance during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Something is far better than nothing. Facetime, calls, emails, Zoom, etc., they all matter. There is a Yiddish expression I am fond of, “A bissel iz a plotz,” which means “a little is a lot.” I find this to be particularly true when expressing kindness, even if only from afar.
What changes would you like to see to the current laws surrounding death and dying?
Our laws in California are pretty good, but that is not true everywhere. I would like to see a national compassionate death bill that allows the dying, with all the appropriate procedures and protocols in place in California, to have access to medication to end their lives if they have a terminal illness that is causing them great suffering.
When the time comes, how do you think you will apply your learnings about death and dying to your own dying process?
That time has already come. We all need to be prepared. I have purchased cemetery property and done all of the necessary preneed decision-making and documentation with the cemetery and mortuary. I have an estate plan in place including medical directives, and perhaps most important of all, I have written my ethical will to my children.
This is something I discuss in the book and consider to be one of the most important things we can do to prepare for our eventual and inevitable death.
You’ve said, “I’ve heard too many stories, real stories, to dismiss the possibility of an afterlife.” Can you share an especially potent story about that? How has the time you’ve spent with dying people altered your perspective on the possibility of an afterlife?
I was walking around a golf course one evening in Palm Springs and really missing my dad. He and I had walked around that course countless times while he was alive. Just when I was at my lowest, I walked by a home on the course with the words to “You Are My Sunshine” carved on a big sign and hanging on the patio.
It was the song my dad used to sing to the five of us kids when we were very little. Perhaps that was just a coincidence, but even if that was so, I still felt my dad’s presence in a very real and beautiful way.
[Also read: “Visits From a Mystical Messenger.”]
Is there anything else you’d like to convey to our readers?
Ultimately, death is not about death but about life. Nothing makes us appreciate and enjoy life more than the reality of death. The more we understand and embrace that reality, the more we will cherish and celebrate life!
Read our review of Steve Leder's The Beauty of What Remains.