Jewish Mourning: You Are Not Alone

Just when the death of someone close can heighten our sense of isolation, Jewish rituals place us within the context of family, friends and community.

For the past year, Susan Jerison, marketing director forJewish Women International (JWI), headed to her synagogue’s minyan almost every day. She was there to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish, which requires a quorum of ten.

The minyan, says Jerison, allowed her the space and structure to express her grief after her mother’s death. She found solace in a community of people who shared similar circumstances. “When you lose a parent, it’s an incredibly lonely feeling,” says Jerison, 50, of Bethesda, Md. “There is a hole there that nobody can fill. But through the presence of the people in the minyan…I was not so alone.”

Though she did not initially plan to attend regularly, she kept coming back to the minyan. Her Hebrew and prayer skills improved, and she created new relationships and friendships. “People knew I was there and for what reason I was there. I don’t know where my friends are every day, but I knew where the people in the minyan were. I knew if they were out of town. We developed a community that doesn’t usually exist in our fragmented lives. We were going through the mourning process together.”

At their core, the rituals of Jewish mourning convey a powerful premise: You are not alone. Just at the point when grief leaves us feeling bereft and isolated, rituals draw us back, placing us within the context of family, friends and community and giving us a path to hope, healing, comfort and inspiration.

This has been true since ancient times. Rabbi Anne Brener, author of Mourning and Mitzvah: A Guided Journal for Walking the Mourner’s Path Through Grief to Healing (Jewish Lights), points out that when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, mourners walked through a separate gate and then along a distinct mourner’s path. Members of the community greeted them with special words we still use today: “Ha-makom yenachem etchem b’toch sheár avelei Zion viyerushalayim…May The Place [a name for God] comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” Hamakom is both Hebrew for “the place” and a name for God.

“The existence of the path confirmed that it was okay for mourners to be out of step with others. The fact that they were singled out kept them from being invisible, unsupported or ashamed,” says Brener, adding that Jewish mourning customs today continue to instruct the mourner and the community to create “a place” to acknowledge the mourner’s status. “When someone stands for kaddish, it teaches people to recognize that grief is present,” she says. The community’s response of Amen “is like the tether on a hot-air balloon holding the mourner to the ground while he or she travels to the uncharted spaces of mourning. The community maintains the connection to life itself.”

Brener understands horrific loss firsthand. She was 24 when her mother committed suicide. Three months later, her 19-year-old sister (and only sibling) was killed in a car accident. Brener tried to deal with the tragedy alone: She ran away from her hometown of New Orleans and tried to distance herself physically and emotionally from the trauma she had experienced.

“I put myself in challenging and risky situations, looking for a sign that I was really alive. I moved to a town where I knew no one. I hitchhiked. I took a raft trip through the Grand Canyon. When the cold water hit the back of my neck, I felt nothing,” she writes. Six months later, she got caught in the current swimming in the Umpqua River in Oregon. “I realized I was going to drown. I thought sadly of my beloved father, whose losses had already been so great,” she writes. “I took a deep breath and let the current carry me downstream.”

The surrender brought relaxation, and she found the strength to swim to shore. Yoga and therapy helped her to heal further and, in 1981, she began studying in the Jewish communal service program at Hebrew Union College. She was ordained in 2008. When her father died, 20 years after her mother and sister, Jewish ritual comforted her.

Unlike contemporary society, which views someone who does not bounce back quickly as “maladjusted,” Jewish perspective embraces the opposite. Taking the time to return to the rhythms of life lets mourners honor their loss and contemplate what it means to be human. “We have an illusory understanding of mortality until our lives are shattered by loss,” says Brener. “Life becomes more miraculous when we realize it’s limited.”

“Judaism really knows what people need when someone dies. It’s built into the rituals,” says Muriel Jorgensen, 59, a freelance editor from Teaneck, N.J., whose husband, Max Feuer, died of a massive heart attack in 2002 while teaching a graduate class in computer science. “First there is shiva [seven days of mourning at home], then sheloshim [30 days during which you can return to work], then 11 months of kaddish if you lose a parent. It’s a very wise system.”

“So many people came for the minyan during shiva,” Jorgensen recalls. “Having my friends with me was helpful. I remember I couldn’t make decisions and people made them for me.” The sense of the community coming together in support was more comforting to Jorgensen than the prayers themselves. “It was a relief there was something fixed to do, but I was in no state to appreciate the words themselves. I was angry at God. Max wasn’t with me anymore.”

Jorgensen also appreciates Judaism’s sensitivity to the mourner’s state of mind; people at the shiva house are encouraged to follow the mourner’s lead. Unsolicited well-meaning comments can cause distress to the mourner. One of Feuer’s students who had tried to administer CPR described to her in detail what had happened in class. “I didn’t want to know about Max’s last breaths,” Jorgensen says. “The student was trying to tell me Max was not alone—but he was expressing his own need.”

But Judaism understands that sometimes being in the midst of a celebratory community during the fresh stages of grief is too painful. “I was invited to a wedding, but it was clear I couldn’t go because it was not permitted during Sheloshim,” says Jorgensen. “If I didn’t have that structure I would have said, ‘I’m not up to it,’ instead of saying, ‘Jewish tradition says it’s not appropriate.’”

Both Jerison and Jorgensen also sought guidance from the community of writers and scholars—how-to handbooks, philosophy books, recollections—as well as from rabbis and knowledgeable friends. From Ari Goldman’s book Living a Year of Kaddish, Jerison gleaned that reciting kaddish was a way of anchoring oneself in a present community, as well as to generations past and future.

“Losing my parents altered my view of myself—and of them—in ways I had not anticipated,” Goldman writes. “My year of mourning, for all its hardships, became a time of insight and growth.” It was also a time of “mentoring and modeling” for his own children. “For me, kaddish was as much a chain as it was a prayer. It was a chain that in some way continued to connect me to my parents, and will some day connect me to my children.”

Goldman describes the various minyanim and the minyan-goers who filled his year of mourning. “Every one of the people I got to know in my year of kaddish has stayed with me. Each experience shaped me…each person and each experience helped mold my consciousness about life and death and prayer.”

Sherry Husney, 56, an occupational therapist in Great Neck, N.Y., is sharing her year of mourning for her mother with four other recently bereaved women who attend the minyan together. They now meet once a week for breakfast. “We all had the same feelings of loss when we lit the first candle on Chanukah or celebrated a family simcha. It’s like our own support group.” Husney also finds healing in learning and leading prayers, chanting Torah, and reciting psalms to honor the memory of both her parents: her mother was a professional singer and her father, a pharmacist, was a lay cantor. “I feel I am keeping alive a tradition that was important to them,” she says.

Though the experience of grief is universal, losing a parent at a young age is particularly poignant. Deena Fox, 29, lost her mother, Bev, to breast cancer two years ago. “It’s a different experience to be a young person grieving a mother who died at 55 instead of a mourner who is 55 grieving an 80-year-old parent. On the one hand, my own loss deepened my compassion for other mourners’ losses, but it also took away from my compassion. I sometimes found myself thinking, ‘You still had a mother when you were my age.’”

At any age, the companionship of friends is irreplaceable. Fox recalls that eight of her friends flew into Chicago for the funeral. “Thinking about that still makes me cry. It wasn’t convenient or cheap for them to fly in, but I needed them. They were so supportive.” Two weeks after her mother’s death, Fox moved to Washington, D.C., to start a fellowship at the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law. She had already searched out places to recite kaddish. The egalitarian independent minyan where she felt most comfortable only meets on Shabbat, so during the week, she usually went to afternoon Orthodox services. Her experience with reciting kaddish as a woman led her to begin working on a book, tentatively titledTogether in Loss: Jewish Women Mourning.

“Kaddish gave me something to do,” Fox says. “It was a time of day that I set aside to think of my mother and of my loss. I often cried in those moments when I focused on my grief, though I then headed back into the world and carried on. Knowing that I had those moments built into my days freed me from feeling pain all the time.”

“If anybody is interested in what Judaism says about life, all you have to do is look at mourning customs,” says Juliet Spitzer, 51, a singer, songwriter and educator from Bala Cynwyd, Pa. Twenty years ago, Spitzer was among a small group of rabbis and educators who founded the Reconstructionist Chevra Kaddisha of Philadelphia, a “holy society” that washes and ritually prepares the body for burial. Even at the cusp of death, Judaism ensures that a body is not left alone and unattended. For Spitzer, the child and grandchild of Holocaust survivors, the process is far from morbid; it is, in fact, uplifting. “General culture anesthetizes the death experience, but I place myself in proximity to it,” she says. “The entire ritualized process from death to burial reflects Judaism’s understanding of the sanctity of life.”

Spitzer finds visceral comfort in tahara, cleansing the body, and feeling that the person she is preparing for burial is not “a mistreated, unidentifiable anonymous body. Proclaiming the beauty of every single soul is one of most strikingly profound responses to the Holocaust I can imagine.” Biblical verses are recited while purifying the body with 24 quarts of warm water and then dressing it in simple linen shrouds. For days, even weeks after the tahara, the awareness that life is a miracle stays with her. “The breath I take after an exhale is the only thing that separates me from the body we prepared for burial. He took an exhale and never took another inhale and I take one exhale and another inhale and exhale. It’s that basic yet profound.”

Only one of Spitzer’s grandparents survived the Holocaust. Her death was an “excruciating loss” for the family. Yet, Spitzer recalls, the moments the family spent time together during shiva were some of the most deeply joyous of their lives because they felt so connected, even around death. They shared stories and memories—“Granisms”—such as the fact that her grandmother would keep melba toast in her pocket, just in case.

Sharing memories—not necessarily happy ones—brought the family closer together. “I’ve come to understand that in Judaism, the notion of joy is not about elated happiness, but of deep connection,” says Spitzer.

While tahara reflects concern and respect for the dead, afterward, Jewish mourning rituals are all about the living. Many mourning customs meld the physical and emotional, acknowledging public separation from the deceased while gradually immersing the mourner back in life. Upon hearing of a death, the mourner tears a garment, an act which requires effort, mobilizes energy and demands the release of emotion at a time of numbness, Brener explains.

Funeral homes usually offer a “sanitized” version—a black ribbon the mourner cuts and pins onto his or her clothing. “It’s an incredible metaphor for the trauma of separating from the deceased,” Brener says. Mourners are encouraged to help shovel earth onto the casket when it is lowered into the grave. The sound of the earth striking the casket “breaks the heart—and that’s what brings healing,” says Brener. “The deep feelings take us to places where we lose control, and only then is it possible for healing to come in.”

After the completion of sheloshim, says Brener, she was reluctant to remove the ribbon, so she decided to extend the visibility of her mourning to the whole year. She also created different colored ribbons for different “statuses” along the path: for instance, green for those observing a yahrzeit (the anniversary of the death) or another significant date associated with the loss; or blue for those going through divorce or ending a relationship. “Other people acknowledge the ribbons and that gives the bereaved validation and solace,” she says. “Without the burden of covering up their brokenness, mourners are able to attend to their deeper emotional and spiritual needs.”

She warns that painting an untrue picture of the deceased in the funeral oration (hesped) is destructive. “The belief is that you can say only good things about someone who’s died. That freezes the conversation and prevents healing.” She posits that the grieving process is like a conversation: Shiva helps mourners find their voice; they express it and find healing through the kaddish and continue to speak to the person they lost through times of memorial like yahrzeit and Yizkor (memorial service during holidays). “Everyone dies in the middle of a conversation,” says Brener. “Our task is to find out where we were in the conversation and to maintain it.”

Judaism doesn’t deny the excruciating questions mourners ask at a time of great loss. Elizabeth Ressler, 53, of Great Neck, recalls “sitting down and writing forever” when her son Justin, 14, died in a tragic accident in 1997. “I wrote down all the questions I had. I wanted to know how this could happen. As if I had the answers it would bring him back. I didn’t realize what you find out wouldn’t change things.”

Today, she attends Yizkor, and on Justin’s birthday and before Rosh Hashanah, she visits both his grave as well as a blue spruce tree his classmates and teachers planted in his memory at the middle school. “Time is not a healer, but it makes the scab harder. I think about how my son would want us to live.” Some people tend to treat those who lose a child as if they have leprosy, she says. “Society is not taught to deal with death. It’s an important part of living.”

The intense 11-month period of kaddish has no official closure—a void that Paula Jacobs noted while she was reciting kaddish in 1999 for her father at Temple Israel of Natick, Mass. Jacobs, a writer and teacher, created a ceremony that the synagogue adopted. Congregants and non-members who recite kaddish regularly at the minyan receive a daily siddur in memory of their relative. The inside cover is autographed by each member of the minyan. The congregant is also given a Shabbat siddur that is placed in the sanctuary.

The ceremony offers mourners the opportunity to reaffirm their connection to the community, and concludes with the singing of the words of Psalm 121: “I lift up my eyes to the hills. Where will my help come from?” In poignant thank-you notes, the minyan-goers have expressed the importance of having something tangible as a memory of the year of mourning. “They say that they can’t bring back their parents, but they think of them every time they use the siddur,” says Jacobs, a baby boomer whose one-year-old grandchild was named for Jacobs’ father.

What happens when people don’t have a community? Rabbi Tamara Miller of Washington, D.C., helps unaffiliated men and women from all denominations navigate the path of mourning without a built-in community. Many find her through her website (www.rabbitamaramiller.com) or through the outreach center, the Capital Kehillah, she led for eight years. They are often young and have not joined a synagogue or are empty nesters and have let their synagogue membership lapse.In some cases, the funeral may take place in their hometown, but they want to recite kaddish or have a memorial service where they currently live. “They are looking for a proper Jewish funeral and burial. Or they can’t figure out where to say kaddish. Or how to get a minyan. They don’t feel comfortable going to a synagogue they don’t know. They have good intentions, but they don’t have a community to help them follow through.”

Miller directs them to funeral homes, the JCC, even a Unitarian church that allows its hall to be used. She offers them guidance on the rituals. “I try to impart a sense that these Jewish practices are good therapy for their souls. Every death can lead to a spiritual awakening. I encourage them to respect the wishes of the deceased.” She has found that people know a great deal about Jewish mourning practices, especially the kaddish. “They know it’s an important prayer and they are supposed to say it. They have a genetic memory about it. Some recall their father saying it for his father and they want to continue that. They may not know every word, but it’s like a mantra they’ve memorized, a postcard they send out to the person they have lost.”

Last year, Miller harnessed the power of the Internet to gather a minyan for her own father’s yahrzeit—which coincided with a blizzard that shut down all synagogues and public transportation. “How could I not have a minyan?” she says. She put up an SOS on the Internet bulletin board of her co-op: “Looking for 10 Jews for kaddish for my father.” The response was incredible, she says. “We got 15 people. They were mostly young. Some were older. They were Orthodox, Reform, gay, unaffiliated. They came to support my desire to say kaddish. Two women asked to say kaddish for a brother and a grandmother. We created a loving, supportive community. I said to my father, ‘Okay, Dad, I did it. Neither snow nor sleet kept me from honoring you.’”

From Jewish Woman Magazine