Ask the Rebbetzin: Illness and Consciousness of Mortality

Dear Rebbetzin,

Though still relatively young, I've run into some pretty serious health problems these last couple of years. What's hardest, strangely enough, is simply the consciousness of mortality these things bring. It blunts the great vitality I would certainly otherwise feel. I go around now as if always holding my breath. How should one keep to the great center at a time like this?


Dear Zed,

For the past ten days, I have been tumbling over words in response to your question and retracting them before I even set them down. I want to say the right thing, and I’m not sure there is a right thing to say. 

You’ve hit the mother lode here: living life fully with the knowledge that we will all - one day - die. 

I feel that I need to begin by saying that I am not a doctor or social worker and that the only license I have is in poetry.  I will try to respond, to the best of my ability, with what I believe is true in my heart.

First, I am so sorry that you have been struggling with health problems; I hope that you are allowing others to help you.  You should not bear illness alone.  Allowing others to be close in big and small ways is something that I have witnessed lift people during these times.

There is something, however, that you must face alone, and that is death.  You do not know when this will be, and it is a false sense of knowing to think that it is more imminent for you than for someone who has not had your recent health struggles.  We do not know.  None of us. We are all, as the poet Rilke said, living the questions.

A few years back, when I was suffering a serious panic around sleep, it was the knowledge of, as you put it, the consciousness of mortality that spread through my body - a physical pain - like dry-ice in my chest, leaving me wired and awake.  I had just had my first child, a daughter, and that sort of separation from her felt unbearable.  I had never before been so aware of the consciousness of mortality, and I did not like it. Not at all.

When well-intentioned people would ask, nonchalantly, “How’d you sleep?” I’d want to re-frame the question and pose it back,  “How does anyone sleep, Ever?’

Why weren’t people discussing this all the time?  How to submit to that unknown each night?  This collective letting go that was happening all around me, towards something that - at the time - felt so much like death? 

Eventually, I was able to construct rituals to help me face these necessary separations.  And to take in the words of poets and philosophers and artists who grapple with these same questions.  Art and humor are a couple of ways that we sublimate fear of dying. (Just think about almost every Woody Allen movie.)

A friend once described the love she received in her children's early lives - their small bodies slung over her shoulder, sleeping with a fist curled around her neck - as being paid in advance.  I think about this every morning when my children wake me with their warm bodies. Thank you God, thank you, thank you is the first prayer I make every day.

I have experienced days that I did not know how I would live through; I know that I will experience pain and loss again.

I breathe in as much grace and love as I can each morning. 

Exhale, Zed.  Going through life with one's breath held is no real way to live.
The great center is constantly shifting; the only thing I have learned to do is surrender. 

You are alive; this is vital.