Earlier in the month we observed – and did not observe – the Hebrew date of Ariel’s z”l fourth Yahrzeit (anniversary of his death), since my son completed his life by suicide. My wife patched me in via WhatsApp video as she lit the memorial candle, since at the time I was in quarantine as a result of being exposed to someone who tested positive for Covid 19. The next day she visited the grave, planted new flowers, and spent time with our son.
I will not blame quarantine for not being emotionally connected to the Hebrew calendar. Rather, it is the trauma and the pulverizing sense of loss and shock etched into my heart that binds me to the Gregorian calendar date, December 17th – the day my son decided to end his pain by ending his life.
Following the rhythm of the Jewish calendar in a natural way is one of the many reasons why I love living in Israel. I feel connected to my people, history, land and especially Judaism’s customs, albeit not following halacha (Jewish law). Without any disrespect for tradition, observing the Hebrew date which changes yearly vis a vis the Gregorian calendar, detracts from my ability to mourn. As such, I follow my heart and not tradition. Today, December 17th, I, together, with our immediate family, will visit Ariel z”l, say kaddish (the Mourner’s Prayer) and sing “El Malei Rachamim,” (A traditional prayer for the person who has died). I will observe Jewish tradition, but only in a way that comforts me and helps me mourn.
During the past four years, I have been both comforted by tradition and alienated by it as well. The mitzvah (commandment) of shiva –sitting in one’s house for seven days in mourning as the community attends to all one’s needs – was incredibly important and helpful. The mourner is commanded to sit and mourn; the community is commanded to visit the mourner in silence. The shiva is a gift. I cannot fathom how people can lose a loved one and then go to work the next day. Consistent with the phrase “Ride Through,” which I started using as a message to myself and others that I can hold the sadness for my son and happiness together side by side, Jewish tradition asked us to get up from the shiva on the last day and to take a walk. What a beautiful and powerful concept that we are allowed to mourn, but not endlessly. We must sit, but then we must get up and return to the world outside the comfort zone of our homes and the support of the community. Judaism understood the importance of “riding through” long before I did.
Then, how could I feel alienated from parts of the tradition when I found such comfort and solace in the shiva? I will try to explain. My wife and I started saying kaddish for my son every Erev Shabbat, believing that we would be saying kaddish for the next 11 months. To our dismay, we learned that halacha requires us to say kaddish for only one month when mourning a child unlike the 11 months for losing a parent. My wife shared with me her decision to saying kaddish for 11 months. Tradition weighed me down, but I knew that she was right. We simply could not abide by tradition in this instance. I can only hope that the rabbis who made this law never lost a child, because it is just inconceivable that they measure loss by this hierarchy of family relationships. I mourn my father, but the mourning is natural because he died at the age of 92. That is the natural order of life. A son says kaddish for an elderly parent who lived a good and long life. Fathers are not supposed to say kaddish for their sons. That is unnatural. And, very painful. Words are simply inadequate to express this type of loss.
Conversely, I did not need or want to mourn 11 months for my father, as much as I loved and respected him. Consequently, I stopped saying kaddish at a certain point. While feeling strong, solid and grounded, my heart had a limited amount of emotional bandwidth. I was, and still am, grieving so much for Ariel z”l, that it’s hard to find the room in my heart to properly mourn my father. I have many friends who do not feel bound by Jewish law but would never consider going to weddings during the 11 months of mourning for a parent. Yet, I went to several weddings during the first year of mourning my father because I decided to celebrate his life in my own way.
I feel obligated to know Jewish tradition, but I also feel obligated to find my own way through grief, to follow my heart so I may continue in the healing process. I use the phrase healing process and not “heal,” because it is not a finite concept. Unlike what Elizabeth Kubler Ross posits in her important book, “The Five Stages of Grief”, acceptance, the last stage of mourning, is not something that has a definitive ending point. For me, grieving is a healing process, not a stage. As such, acceptance will always be ongoing for me.
I am in a process of healing, and during this process, I will continue to view Jewish tradition with great respect. And, concomitantly, I will follow my need and commitment to make decisions that are congruent with my own individual process of grief. Perhaps, this does follow tradition. On the way to the cemetery to bury my father, Rabbi Wernick from the Or Olam Synagogue, asked my mother a question connected to the burial procedure and my mother replied, “What is the tradition?” Rabbi Wernick unhesitatingly responded, “The tradition is that as your rabbi I am here to comfort you, so whatever you decide is what we’ll do.”
A Jewish tradition based on the individual needs of the mourner, is a Judaism that I will follow as I continue my journey riding through life.
May Ariel’s z”l memory be a blessing
יהי זכרו ברוך