During the last moments of life, the go-sess, a person very near to death, has an opportunity to verbally make peace with a lifetime of accomplishments and shortcomings through the Vidui prayer. Normally associated with the alphabet-worth of misdeeds recited on Yom Kippur, a final Vidui is said to confront mortality with a measure of comfort. It is a mitzvah to say Vidui, and it is a mitzvah to help someone say it.
Unlike Catholic last rites, which are said - in part - to secure a place in heaven, the Vidui acknowledges the imminence of death, recalls a life of both goodness and missteps, and asks that the good be remembered and the less-good forgiven. In some versions, the go-sess asks God to shelter those who are left behind. The prayer book text may serve as a starting point for words from the heart.
Sephardic Jews have a custom to bid gather a minyan, a group of ten adults, before saying the Vidui.
Generations of Jews have chosen the Shema prayer as their final utterance. This central prayer of Judaism proclaims God’s oneness: Listen oh Israel, Adonai, Our God, Adonai is One. Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad. God is acknowledged as the source of all, the Source before whom we are all equal.
A Blessing for Loss
At a moment of a loss and upon hearing the news, God is traditionally remembered as the True Judge whose verdict, though hard to understand and harder still to accept, is ultimately righteous. It is perhaps the hardest blessing to say, and many Reform Jews choose not to say this blessing at all.
Those who choose to say the blessing can draw from the traditional text:
Blessed are you God, Sovereign of the universe, the righteous judge.
Children, parents, spouses, and siblings are the group of mourners who normally say this blessing. Those who witness or are informed of a death may choose to make this blessing in an abbreviated form: Baruch Dayan Emet - Blessed the righteous judge.
Ancient Bereavement Customs
Stiff upper lips and keeping up a façade of calm are not part of the Jewish mourning tradition. The Jewish community adopted several customs to inform neighbors of their duty to begin caring for the mourners among them.
A medieval custom, still practiced by some today, had mourners pour out the water that had been stored in their homes, sending news of the loss flowing through the streets. Water was thought to act as a barrier against the spiritual forces that accompanied Death.
Neighbors would also see the open windows, which mourners left ajar to assist the departed soul in its heavenward ascent.