Note to readers:
These questions are a compilation of some of the many that I have been asked over the years by children who have lost parents and/or the surviving parent/stepparent of the children. Please pass this along to anyone on your email list that may find this to be helpful. May the dissemination of this column be a zechus for my father’s neshama, Reb Shlome ben Reb Yakov Moshe HaLevi Horowitz, whose yahrtzeit is today, Rosh Chodesh Iyar.
Dear Rabbi Horowitz:
How do I properly observe a yahrtzeit? What does the word yahrtzeit mean anyway? Are there special things to say or do? Is it OK to be sad or moody on this day or should I just “deal with it” as some people seem to be telling me? How should I respond when the adults in my shul greet me on the day of the yahrtzeit? I keep hearing the words “The neshama should have an aliya” from adults. What does it mean, and what should I do when people tell that to me? How can I get my friends to understand how difficult this day is for me, and how should I respond when they inadvertently make inconsiderate comments to me on this painful day?
Rabbi Horowitz Responds
The term “Yahrtzeit” is a Yiddish term that is literally translated as “A year’s time.” (‘Yahr’ means year, and tzeit is time). The term represents the anniversary of someone’s death and is commemorated by the children, siblings, spouse and sometimes parents of the deceased. The date of the Yahrzeit is calculated according to the Hebrew calendar.
The most common practices observed on a Yahrzeit are reciting kaddish, lighting a special memorial candle that burns for 24 hours on the evening before the Yahrtzeit, learning Mishnayos, and visiting the graves of the deceased.
Jewish tradition and hashkafa (philosophy) teach us that humans are a unique hybrid of a physical body and a spiritual neshamah (soul). When death occurs, one’s neshama takes leave of its body and ascends to the Heavens. At that time, he or she is judged for his/her actions and accomplishments spanning his/her lifetime. From that time onward, that neshama cannot improve its standing in the Heavenly realm. However, according to our Chazal (sages), the neshama receives a ‘review’ of its original judgment on its yahrtzeit – with the opportunity to elevate its status in Gan Eden. How could things change after one passes on, you may think? Because in reality, the books are rarely ever ‘closed’ on one’s life since the neshama almost invariably left a legacy during the time it spent in this world. Therefore, the secondary mitzvos they helped generate with their actions on this world still accrue after their death to bring merit to their neshama. For example, if someone donated siddurim (prayer books) to a shul during their lifetime, they get a mitzvah each time someone uses that siddur. The same concept would apply to one who helps start a shul, Jewish day school, or other chesed organization.
This concept most certainly applies to one who had children who lead meaningful lives – since they can bring merit to the neshama of the deceased for many years to come. This is where you come in. For children are the quintessential extensions of one’s years on this world. Therefore, many of the yartzeit practices revolve around children generating mitzvos that accrue to the merit of their departed parent. We learn mishnayos or other limudim in memory of the departed neshama. (Here’s an idea: For many years, I would dedicate an ‘extra-hours’ block of time all year long to learn a particular gemorah with the goal of completing it and making a siyum on my father’s yahrtzeit.) We say kaddish, which gets people to praise Hashem upon their response to our words. We take food and drink to shul so that people will make blessings on the refreshments that were brought.
With all this in mind, the phrase that you hear many people greet you with on the day of the yahrtzeit, “The neshama should have an aliya,” may be more meaningful to you. What they are telling you, especially those who knew your parent well, is that they, too, (obviously in a lesser sense than you) feel the loss of your parent and miss him or her. They are also expressing their sincere wish and hope that your departed parent will become elevated (aliya means ‘to go up’, as in getting an aliya in shul or when we say that one ‘made aliya’ when they move to Eretz Yisroel) in Gan Eden on this day. It is an expression of affection for your parent and for you, and a proper response would be to nod and say “thank you.” Perhaps if you are up to it, consider expressing to them that you really appreciate their well wishes.
I think that it is perfectly ok to feel sad, moody, confused – or anything else – on the day of your parent’s yahrtzeit. Just like people celebrate victories and successes in different ways, so, too, do people mourn losses in diverse manners. The yahrtzeit day is a very difficult one, especially for those of us who lost parents at a young age. It is made more complicated by the fact that it is a ‘normal’ day for everyone around us. Our friends at school – and later in life at work – do not understand that this day jars all sorts of unpleasant memories for us and it often feels like a scab was torn off a wound that had partially healed. So, I would suggest to you that if you just feel like you need some space to sort things out in your mind on the yahrtzeit day, it may be a good idea to take part of the day off and do just that. Try not to be critical of people who say silly or inconsiderate things to you. Many of them feel rather awkward, as they don’t really know what to say to you. Therefore, they may blurt things out that wind up doing the opposite of what they had intended.
I would love to tell you that the yahrtzeit day gets easier with the passage of time, but at least in my case, and those of my close friends who lost parents at a young age, it really doesn’t. I am writing these lines on the forty-fourth Yahrtzeit of my father, who passed away before my fourth birthday. And while the passage of time is a great healer for the ‘other’ days of the year, I have found that in many ways the actual yahrtzeit day gets harder as time goes on. Every year, on the evening of my father’s yahrtzeit, I tell my wife that I feel emotionally bruised and battered – like a truck ran over me, chas v’shalom.
One thing that I always tell teens and young adults who have lost parents is to reach out for help if you feel yourself bogged down by emotional overload. I would suggest that you please read my “Letter to Girls Who Lost a Parent” (click here) for more on the issue of reaching out for help and for some referrals. How bad does it have to be for you to reach out for help? I would say that you should certainly go for help if you feel that the trauma of your parent’s death is impeding your progress in school or in life. But I would recommend that you consider going for grief counseling, contacting Chai Lifeline (www.chailifeline.org, 212-465-1300), a Rabbi/Rebbitzen in your community, or simply a grown adult who lost a parent at a young age to help you better cope. Mental health professionals have made such progress in the past few decades in understanding the grieving process and in helping family members sort out their emotions. Not taking advantage of this knowledge that is readily available is almost like getting a root canal without Novocain or like a nearsighted person not using eyeglasses.
In the broadest sense, the best thing that you can do to honor the memory of your parent on the day of his/her yahrtzeit – and throughout the year – is to live a meaningful life. Having experienced wrenching pain at a young age equips you better than most others to be extraordinarily sensitive to others. You have sadly learned the value of time, the gift of life, and the opportunity that each day presents.
I give you my heartfelt bracha that you use these life-lessons to live a life of Torah and chesed, a life where you give and rarely take, a life where you heal and rarely hurt, a life where you leave the world a better place as a result of your words and deeds.
Living this type of life will bring eternal merit and kavod to your parent – and eventually to your own children.
Please forward this important post to teens/children/even adults who lost parents.