What mourning taught me

My father A”H passed away in early June. It wasn’t sudden-sudden, but it was sudden enough. He wasn’t young, but he was certainly not old enough. We loved him and we let him know it, and that we were going to be okay, and he shouldn’t worry about us as he approached his end . . . but that probably wasn’t enough either, for he cared and worried about us so much. Yes, it was tough. It is tough. I miss him so much. I wrote a little bit about this, for a general audience, here, but it’s a sliver of the crust of the matter.

I’m not posting this to eulogize my father here, or even to write at length about how he, who was not religious, and never became religious, did so much good in raising his children as Jews that he has left behind so many frum descendants K”EH. Part of the reason for that is that it is too painful, though I do think it would be a good topic down the road here. So many of our parents need to know how it is that, contrary to how some of them feel, frequently BT’s are not rejecting their values: Many of us have made the choice we did because we were acting on those values in ways they did not have the opportunity to do, given their time, place and situations.

For now, though, I wanted to share a few thoughts about something really kind of neat — yeah — that I learned over the course of shloshim — the thirty day period of intense mourning following a close relative’s passing. Mainly, it’s this: The Torah is amazing.


The Torah is amazing in many ways, but if chas v’sholom [Heaven forfend] it gave us nothing but instruction in how to mourn (which are by and large rabbinical enactments), it would still be phenomenally brilliant.

Here are some of the things I didn’t know that I know now, because of how Chazal [the Sages] arranged the Jewish way in mourning:

  • People who extend themselves to comfort a mourner by traveling long distances or taking time off from work or otherwise inconveniencing themselves to attend the funeral or to make a shiva call are seen by the mourners as having expressed a statement of love and caring that is so exquisite, so precious, that … I can’t really describe it. But it is very, very great.
  • Observing shiva in as close to the halachically prescribed way as possible, under the circumstances, does not make the hurt go away, but it is a phenomenally powerful tool that actually “makes” mourners focus, not on “cheering up” or distraction from their pain, but on a full, complete and evolving appreciation of the person they loved and lost.
  • Shiva is utterly exhausting. And there will be repetition. But the “story” we each told on the last day of shiva, while entirely consistent with what we said in the hespedim [eulogies] and on the early days afterward, was so much richer, deeper and logical than when it started. It was stunning to me to be part of, and yet to observe, this process as we listened to each other and embroidered each others’ respective narrative threads into our own thematic focuses. We came to understand, in a week’s time, so much we didn’t know that we knew about who our father was, why his life mattered so much and how his death teaches so much. We came to understand our responsibility as his survivors.
  • The way in which our community coalesces across “political” religious lines and springs into action to support a mourner’s needs during this period is a wondrous and Godly sociological phenomenon. For BT’s, who feel so “left out” so often while others in our communities enjoy the support of large extended families and lifetimes networks developed through school and other experiences we don’t have, this experience can be very uplifting indeed.
  • The main thing I kept wanting to say — and, being me, I finally did say it — was that, “This is so amazing… it would just be so perfect if Dad could be here with us to experience it.”

    And yes, we truly believe he was. And he is.

    Thank you.

    7 comments on “What mourning taught me

    1. Dear Ron,

      You have my most sincere condolences on your loss. I am still in the middle of the sheloshim, and I am trying to get my bearings. It would be helpful to me if other bloggers might consider talking about how they came to cope with the death of their loved one. I look forward to reading your respective responses.

    2. maybe (i hope!) that experience, of realizing how many people care and how many will reach out even to a mourner who is not neccessarily even a close friend, is meant to be part of the experience.

      the whole thing – of sharing my memories of my father, of realizing that people came to hear and to learn from whatever pearls of wisdom i might cough up – transformed my father’s memory out from just my personal space beyond, into the public domain. maybe this was particularly so for me in my situation, because from all those who came to pay a shiva call, almost no one but my immediate family had known my father at all. when you think about it, this transformation from the private sphere to the greater community is pretty fitting. not only was it meaningful for me to be able to share about him, but it also brought the lessons i took from his life and from his death into a greater consciousness. just as he had moved into a different existence, the lessons from his life also transcended their former limitations (my own head) and became something that everyone could learn from.

    3. Thank you both for your comments. DY, you do seem to have had, and still have, a parallel experience to mine — I guess a lot of people do.

    4. i too sat shiva for the first time this year, for my father.

      and you have captured so well many of the feelings that crested over me during this time as friends came to share in my grief. due to the fact that my dad lived in Eretz Yisrael at the end of his life, i could not make it there in time for the funeral. my son was to be married exactly eight days later – so practical considerations had me sitting “all by myself” in my city. i was stunned at how people (not all of them my closest friends even) reached out to me and just listened. their presence, their questions and their supportive gestures helped me refine my feelings about my father, about his passing and about the legacy he left behind for us. as you have said, even with the repetition of many of the thoughts that ran through my head that week, the message that lingers is so much richer because of the process. and all that support in itself was a loving embrace that i am not likely to forget.

      at this particular time of year, i feel that shiva and shloshim changed my experience of the three weeks and tisha b’av. it wasn’t so hard this summer to refrain from taking those long hot showers every day during the nine days because i refrained (except for erev shabbos) from that luxury for a whole month; because i am still in the year, i did not go back to listening to music or wearing new clothes after tisha b’av – but i gained a new appreciation for the toned down approach. on tisha b’av i found myself thinking, now i can grieve better, because on my level, grief is more real to me. less esoteric, less external…

      may we share only simchos

    5. My own father was niftar 25 years ago, on 31 May 1985 (11 Sivan). My mother was niftar 16 years ago, on 9 July 1994 (Rosh Chodesh Menachem Av).

      I was four months pregnant when my father died. When my son was born five months later of course I named the baby after him. I hope that my father can somehow sense from Gan Eden how the child named for him has grown into a wonderfully responsible, caring adult. In addition, there is also a grandchild named for my father.

      Despite knowing that they were not frum, my FFB children have only good memories of their grandparents, my mother and father, remembering their love and concern for their grandchildren.

      The son named for him learns in the Yeshivas Mir in Yerushalayim. My father’s mother cried over the fact that they came from Europe to America and the family (like many other Jews who came to the U.S. in the early 1900s) gave up its frumkeit. My paternal grandmother would have gotten great nachas from having my father or his brothers learning at the old Yeshivas Mir in Poland. Somehow it almost seems like a kind of cosmic tikkun, that the boy carrying my father’s name is studying Talmud as my father A”H might have been doing seventy-five years ago if things had been different.

      The pain has lessened over the years but I still think about them every day. The nechama or consolation comes from seeing their grandchildren and great-grandchildren growing up with good memories, bearing their names and carrying on their traditions of goodness and kindness.

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