You know those expressions you think might be true but you’re not really sure? And then, by virtue of living your life, you become really sure? For me, one of those was that Judaism gets mourning right.
Don’t expect mourners to function for the first few days. And don’t try to console them. Just show up. Bring food. Don’t expect anything from them. Be quiet.
Cover the mirrors. When I got home from the hospice the day my mom died, I caught sight of myself in a mirror and thought, “Holy shit. I sat in a restaurant looking like this.”
Certain mourning practices are supposed to be done for 30 days, but children mourning a parent get a year to get it together. But we’re not supposed to take longer than that. After a year, the mourning becomes destructive rather than constructive. In secular terms, destructive grief is called complicated grief and seems to go along with unresolved conflicts, things left unsaid, feelings left unfelt or unexpressed.
A year ago, I couldn’t have made any sense of constructive grief. But, like seeing how Judaism gets mourning right, I see now how grief can be constructive. I have learned things, things I really wish I didn’t know, at least under these circumstances, but things I’m grateful for nonetheless.
Like that some people show up and some people don’t show up. Grief helps you know who your people really are so you can spend your energy loving them as best you can. And grief helps you stop giving quite so many fucks about those other people. Because ain’t nobody got time for that.
Like that nobody has time to spend on anything that doesn’t bring joy. There are obligations, of course, things we have to do to make our lives work, like paying the water bill and wheeling the trash can out to the curb. But when we really tell the truth, there are a lot fewer of those than we think. 82 days: the number of days between getting the phone call that had me get on a plane to South Carolina and watching my mother take her last breath. 82 days is not a long time.
Like that grief burns things away. Things that once seemed important, critical, things that seemed worth expending a great deal of time and energy on, now just don’t warrant much attention. And grief offers opportunities for creation, for considering things newly. I find myself making small choices that make me feel like I’m honoring my mama. I wear her jewelry. I’ve grown out my nails and am growing out my hair. I serve good food to people I love on her china. I tell people I love them.
Another Jewish mourning ritual is the lighting of a yahrzeit candle every year on the anniversary of a parent’s death and letting it burn for 24 hours. More observant mourners fast on that date, or at least abstain from meat and wine. More observant mourners also probably live somewhere other than Eugene, Oregon, where the population of observant Jews might not top 100. Finding a yahrzeit candle required a bit of effort. But I don’t really think this ought to be easy.
Yahrzeits are observed using the Hebrew calendar, so tonight at sunset I’m going to turn on the little LED tealight I found at Target. Because there’s absolutely no way John is going to let me leave a candle burning all night. And I’ll say the Mourner’s Kaddish to myself like I’ve done very other day since her memorial service. And I’ll remember my beautiful mama and be grateful for uncomplicated grief, for getting to spend almost all of those 82 days by her side, for things being as difficult as they ought to be, and for being strong enough to stand in the difficult stuff, held up by people who love me and people who love her.
May G-d make peace upon us, and let us say: Amen.