I’m Becoming Less Religious But More Spiritual

My father died last month.

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Now, please understand that it’s OK.  I am sad, but not devastated.  He died three months short of his 89th birthday, at home, surrounded by his family.  He suffered from dementia for the past four years and was really suffering the past few months.  Over those four years, we had the time to tell him how much we loved him, what a great father and husband he was.  I took him to lunch almost every Monday.  (He objected to that last sentence.  “You’re driving me to lunch; I’m the one paying for it – so I’m the one taking YOU to lunch!”).

So, I don’t feel cheated and devastated.  If he had died suddenly at the 55 – like his father and grandfather did – then I would feel entirely different.

My business partner and friend, Tony Rose, recently wrote a book with his daughter about lessons they learned from the sudden death of his son a few years ago, Beautiful Grief, (which will be available on January 30).   I’ve known Tony for over 30 years, and he knew my father for almost 50 years.  The grief I feel cannot compare to the grief that Tony and his family have felt and will feel.

But spiritually, something has changed within me.

It started a day or two before Dad’s death.  He was at home, unconscious, under hospice care.  One of the hospice care nurses – who had seen many people die – was telling us stories about what happens when people are about to pass away.  Their eyes open, they move – sometimes for the first time in years – they see for the last time.

One of my biggest fears over the past few years was that I wouldn’t be there when Dad died.  I travel a lot for business, and I worried I wouldn’t be there.  We live on the west side of Los Angeles; and with all that traffic, and your parents living on the other side of town, you might as well be on the other side of the world.

On the day he died, we were aware the end was near, but not how close it actually was.  We were all at the house.  I got sent to pick up lunch for everyone.  As I was walking out of the restaurant, I got a call from my sister: “Get back here as fast as you can.”  I broke several speed and traffic laws and got to his bedside as fast as I could.  His eyes were open.  He saw each of his – his wife, daughter and son – and died three minutes later.

The hospice nurse immediately turned to me and said, “He waited for you.”

Of course he waited for me.  He was that sort of human being.

But if you told me a year ago that was possible – that my father, in a coma, would wait for me to arrive before dying – I would have laughed at you.  I don’t laugh at it any more.  I was there.  I don’t just believe that happened, I know it happened.  That is spirituality.

That Saturday, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.  The sky was blue, the mountains clear as day.  It was his favorite type of day.  My wife looked outside and said, “See?  It’s a perfect day.  He waited for this day to go to heaven.”

That observation wasn’t about religion, it was about spirituality.

I run an HR outsourcing and workforce development business, which I started from scratch 15 years ago.  Over the past few years, I’ve come to realize the best business relationships are those where the relationship evolves from client to friend.  People take advice better when it comes from a trusted friend perspective than merely a paid vendor perspective.

(I have a client, who has also become a friend.  Last year, I said to him: “I don’t know how to introduce you to people.  Are you my friend, or are you my client?”  Ross thought about it for a moment and said, “I’m your fri-ent!”.)

Thus, some of the most meaningful expressions of empathy came from – of all places – my clients, and people I do business with.  I told the hospice story to the President of a company I’ve worked with for 10 years.  She not only understood, she told me her mother had been a hospice nurse for years and saw the same thing numerous times.  I never knew that.  I learned a lot about a lot of people.

Donations and flowers came from businesses that I hadn’t worked with in years.

Then there is Stephen Wise Temple in Bel-Air.  Stephen Wise is a large reform Jewish congregation, with multiple schools.  I’ve worked closely with them for about six years.  They are one of a handful of clients that I consider ‘transformational’, meaning they have changed me as much as I’ve hopefully changed them.  What I knew about Judaism before I met them was next to nothing.  But working with and coaching the clergy – the rabbis and cantors – have been revelatory to me. I’ve learned more than I’ve given; they have been a blessing to me.

I confided in the Temple’s Executive Director that my father was at home and in hospice.  Unbeknownst to me, she shared that information with the clergy and senior leadership team.  (It may have been shared without my knowledge, but as I was to find out, certainly with my blessing).  I was overwhelmed with the connections as the clergy reached out.  One Rabbi called me three times. The senior Rabbi, who happened to be in Europe, texted me repeatedly.  (I just got a follow up note from him yesterday).  I received numerous notes and e-mails.  You might say that’s nice – but that’s what they do for a living.  But I’d argue that’s what they do for their congregants.  But I’m just a vendor to them, or so I thought.

A couple of days before Dad died, I was talking to one of the Rabbis.  (I take the liberty of calling them “my rabbis”).  He just found out about dad and reached out to call me. He asked my permission to give a prayer for dad and all our family. He said, “no matter what happens it’s always hard, because we want our parents to be healthy and live forever.”  I thanked him and said, we need to schedule our annual lunch.  His response: “I would love that. And then you can tell me all about your Dad.”

From not knowing anything about Judaism a few years ago to that conversation a few weeks ago was incredibly meaningful to me.

Soon after my father’s Memorial Service, my wife and I went to Japan, on our annual trip to visit her family at New Year’s.  On my last day in Tokyo, we decided to pray for my father.  So we walked over to the Buddhist temple near her home.  I have prayed at Temples before and have been impressed by the elegance, simplicity and symbolism that are essential to Buddhism.

On that cold, clear day, we rinsed our hands and walked up the stairs towards the shrine.  We walked up to a table in front of the shrine where incense was softly smoking.  We put our hands together, bowed, and took a pinch of incense and added it to the smoking pile.  Then closed our eyes and thought about my father and prayed for him and all our family.  I cannot say I saw him, but I can say he was clearly and deeply in my mind.  The moment was incredibly profound.

I think about the eulogy I gave for my father.  It was at the Episcopalian church my sister and I grew up in.  It’s where I sang in the choir and was an altar boy in the 1970’s.  Even though much had physically changed in 40 years, there was still a comfort in being there.  We didn’t know well the minister who counseled us and led the memorial service, but she was amazing with my Mother and sister, and exceptionally comforting and compassionate to my family.

I think back to these events and try to tie them all together.   The friends, business colleagues, hospice care nurses and reaching out and genuine connections to three entirely different religions and I wonder: is it all about religion?  Or is religion just a beautiful avenue to spirituality?

Maybe it doesn’t matter.  But I feel connected to everything that has happened in the past month and then realized the common bond that all these events and connections and relationship have, which is found in the definition of spirituality:

“The quality of being concerned with the human spirit or soul.”

Maybe I was spiritual before all of this happened.  But I have now become more spiritual.

This article is, in some small way, my way of thanking everyone who reached out, who cared, and who caused me to think about spirituality in such a meaningful way.