Jewish Journal

Mortality: Not A Topic To Be Ignored

by Lia Mandelbaum

July 21, 2011 | 1:37 pm

Portrait of my kitty and me, shot by Heather Landis

Whenever I am writing a blog, the content and message comes from a reflection on an experience and lesson, which I find deeply moving, powerful and of which I feel passionate.  As I seek truth, it is these experiences that open my eyes to feeling truly alive and present during my borrowed time on this earth. 

My birthday is approaching on July 22, and I will be 28 years old.  This birthday is especially profound for me because I feel more alive then ever.  Although I was alive and breathing, my spirit felt dead during many years of my life.  I was spending day after day being lost, lacking a purpose and passion for life.  I believe that there are people who can relate to this feeling.  Over the past four years I have worked incredibly hard to truly feel alive, and now that I do, I never want to go back to feeling dead inside.  The way I nourish my soul to feel alive is through finding meaning, purpose, compassion, and gratitude within my everyday experiences.

Lately I have been thinking about death and dying, and how incredibly important it is to understand and accept my mortality.  Definitely not a light subject, but I believe that by facing the terrifying reality that I will one day pass away, it will be powerful in helping me to open my eyes towards a new perspective and a greater sense of aliveness.  I find that within society, we go to great lengths to not talk about death, and it is really harmful that we do not integrate ourselves with the reality of it.  I find that the more I face death, the more I want to make the most out of this lifetime.  I want to be present and soak it in. 

I have been facing my mortality through studying geriatric social work while in school.  The other day in my policies and procedures class, we went over what happens biologically when we become elderly.  My grandmother, who is a very tough cookie, which I attribute to her learning how to survive during the great depression, has said to me numerous times “getting old is not for wimps.”  I found myself getting scared, yet inspired to lead a more healthy life, as my professor relayed in detail how our bodies begin to shut down over time, and the complications that occur. 

I am also taking the steps to become a volunteer for hospice.  I’ve heard from many people who have worked or volunteered for hospice, that they find it to be the most fulfilling experience.  My professor warned me that hospice work can be very sad since you often form real human to human connections as the people who are in the face of death have dropped their barriers. 

My professor asked me what my intention was in wanting to volunteer with hospice because she wanted to see if it was for the right reasons.  She said that people often volunteer because they want to see what they can get out of the experience, however it is really important to have the intention of wanting to see what you can bring to the patient, rather then what you can receive from them.  I told her that when I am around the elderly, it brings out the best in me, as I naturally shift into being fully present, patient, and have an open heart.  I feel unconditional love towards them, something I learned from my grandparents.  I truly enjoy hearing them share the stories and the history of their life experiences.  I find that their faces light up as they reflect and share. 

I also mentioned to my professor about a beautiful moment I had shared with my grandfather only a few months before he had passed away.  My grandfather had been battling Alzheimer’s disease during the last few years of his life.  The symptoms had gotten really bad really quickly towards the end of his life.  Since I lived in California I didn’t get to see him much, but I had heard from family members what was going on with him.  Before I went home to see him and be with the family, when I would imagine what it would be like when I saw him, I found myself feeling really scared to face him.  During this incredible moment with my grandfather, which I believe is one of the most special moments in my life, I was fearless and present, and the unconditionally loving part of me came out.  My cousin who was witnessing this moment, was amazed at how my grandfathers demeanor had totally changed, from being very volatile with outbursts of anger towards almost everyone (symptom of Alzheimer’s), to having melted with me and became the incredibly sweet man that I had always known him to be.  He looked at me with such loving eyes and asked me how I had gotten so beautiful.  I believe that my grandfather, who had witnessed me being so incredibly lost and in such great pain for so many years, was able to recognize my inner peace.  I am so grateful that he got to witness that inside of me before he passed away.  If I volunteer with hospice, I hope that I can bring comfort to the patient, as I exude the same fearless, present and supportive person that I had been with my grandfather.  After I told my professor my reasons for wanting to volunteer with hospice, she encouraged me to continue to explore seeing if it is right for me.   

My mom told me about how grandfather, before he got ill, used to read the obituaries every morning, and in his own sense of humor say, “just checking to make sure that I’m not in them.”  It wasn’t until October 3, 2010 that my grandfather would have his own obituary, right after passing away on October 1, 2010.  His memorial service was at Congregation Schaarai Zedek in Tampa, FL, and was held in the very sanctuary that he designed as an architect.  There were over 400 people there to pay tribute to the man who was known for having integrity and a big heart.  He was a silent leader, not needing to boast and be recognized for his talents and contributions.  As I spoke at his memorial, I talked about how my grandfather had left me a tremendously profound gift, which was to be able to witness the death of someone who had gotten to live a full life span with dignity and grace.  Up until his memorial, the only experiences that I had with death were tragic. Prior to my grandfather passing away, from 2007-2010, I witnessed 24 people loose their lives to addiction.  Many of them were close friends.  The number will climb.  My view of death had been very heavy, dark and scary.  I would panic when I would think about death.  My grandfather helped me realize that death didn’t always have to be tragic.  I realized that I deeply desired to leave a legacy like my grandfather had.  I began to shed my heavy fear about death because it transformed into something that could be a celebration of life instead of a tragedy.

I thought about what I would want my obituary to look like…

MANDELBAUM, Lia B.  Age 93, died Friday, July 21, 2077.  Ms. Mandelbaum was a licensed social worker and therapist.  She was a professor at the local university and was also the executive director of a non-profit, which was geared towards helping people from all walks of life, to have an equal opportunity and chance to lead a productive, healthy, purposeful and happy life.  She believed tremendously in the power of living from the heart and being vulnerable, and so she fearlessly wore her heart on her sleeve.  Lia was very genuine, grounded, and a role model to so many.  People felt safe to be themselves around her because of how she embraced the beauty in not being perfect.  Lia Mandelbaum has touched the lives of many and will be very missed.  She has left a legacy of great love, compassion, bravery, determination, and an amazing endurance towards making the world a better place, one day at a time.  Survivors include her partner and best friend of 60 years, her 3 children and 8 grandchildren. 

I ask you, the reader, to think about what you would want your obituary to look like.



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