I just got off the phone with my mother who reminded me that tonight is my grandmother’s yahrzeit. My grandmother was a European woman who lost her entire family in the Holocaust and worked hard to build a life in Brooklyn for her children. She was a warm and nurturing person who took the time to just “be” with me. She passed away very suddenly when I was 13. This was my introduction to the pain of loss.
Rituals help us to build resilience and give us a structure to get through life’s transitions – both happy and painful ones. It has been noted that just as the week of sheva brachot enables the bride and groom and their families to transition from the intensity and joy of the wedding to the rhythm of daily life, shiva acts as a bridge for the mourners to continue on with life after a loss. Generally, when it comes to the loss of a loved one, the intense pain lessens over time but it does not fully go away. And so, Jewish custom provides us with a way to mark the yahrzeit, the anniversary of death, as a mechanism to acknowledge this loss. But is it just about marking the loss of a loved one once a year?
Over the course of the past two and a half years both my husband and I lost our fathers — our Abba and our Dad. Both of our mothers live in Jerusalem and have deepened their friendship and connection with one another since the losses. And so, we were grateful when — after some significant deliberation and some prodding from their grandchildren — they agreed to fly together to join us on a family trip this summer to Zion National Park in Utah.
Like many families we make an effort to periodically take our kids away for a family vacation — a well-known oxymoron. When the kids were young the family vacation was relatively easy to coordinate. Now, just getting everyone to agree on a date is far from simple. This year we were 19 people from babies to great-grandmothers. Booking the flights, renting a house large enough to accommodate everyone, bringing in enough groceries for the week (the nearest supermarket was 1 1/2 hours away), renting four vans, five car seats, shipping kosher meat and cheese, not to mention trying to plan activities and an itinerary that would be suitable for four generations proved to be quite challenging. But as summer approached it looked like things were coming together.
In an effort to engage our children — and to keep us sane — we assigned to each married couple one evening of the trip to prepare dinner and organize a night activity for the group. Our youngest, who is 19, was paired with his grandmothers. We were all excited about the trip and mindful of the significance of having our mothers join us. But we also anticipated that, in some ways, it would be hard: it was going to be the first time that we would all be together on vacation without our fathers. And we wanted to somehow acknowledge this in a meaningful way.
My father-in-law used to say that we are all links in a chain that connects us on a personal and national level. From a psychological perspective this idea always resonated for me. What allows us to mourn the loss of a loved one is our ability to hold on to and to connect with the memory of that person. As a child psychologist, I often help children who struggle with separation anxiety. Developmentally, what enables a child to separate comfortably from her parents is the child’s ability to internalize her parents, remember them and know that she can conjure them up in her mind – even when they are not physically present. It is only once children have developed this secure internalization of their parents that they can feel safe separating from them. Similarly, it is through our ability to ‘hold on to’ our loved ones and to our many memories of them deep within us, that provides us with the comfort and connection following a loss. A very prevalent custom that we have when we leave a shiva house is saying the formula: hamakom y’nachem etchem b’toch sha’ar avelei zion v’yerushalayim. Most people understand the word hamakom, the place, here to mean G-d: that is, “G-d should comfort you amongst the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” When I sat shiva for my father I felt that hamakom, the place, in addition to referring to G-d, was also referencing that deep place within each of us where we have internalized the loved one who is physically gone. For me it was then — and continues to be now — that place where I have internalized my father, that provides me with the strength and comfort in dealing with his loss.
In keeping with this idea we thought to use this family trip as a means of highlighting that makom — that place, that internalization of our fathers, in each one of us across the four generations of our family — as a source of comfort and continuity.
My father was a scholar of Mishnah and seized every opportunity during his life to share his love of Mishnah — not only with his family, friends and many students — but also with the shopkeepers and random taxi drivers in Jerusalem where he lived. My father-in-law was a mathematician and throughout his life he enjoyed regaling his children, grandchildren, friends and students with riddles and mathematical puzzles. These unique passions provided us with a tool to hold on to their memories and highlight the family continuity for our mothers, ourselves, our children and grandchildren. So we tasked each of the couples — in addition to preparing a dinner meal — with the job of presenting a Mishnah and a riddle over their dinner.
And every night as we sat together at a very large round dinner table with both of our mothers, our children and grandchildren, enjoying the food, reminiscing about what we had done that day on vacation, struggling to solve the riddle and listening and discussing a Mishnah we experienced a broad range of emotions. We felt a deep sense of sadness seeing our mom’s sitting at the table without our dads by their side. The void created by their absence was painful. Yet we also felt the comfort of their presence. The conversation inevitably turned to what Grandpa would have thought about this or how Sabba used to love talking about that. We felt grateful that through the riddles and the Mishnah we had been given a way to connect to that makom — the inner place within each of us – where we have internalized the love that our fathers gave us during their lives.
Of course, that makom means different things to different people. But ultimately it is that makom, that place inside of each of us where we can hold on to that person’s memory throughout our life. May that makom be a source of strength and support to all of us …beyond yahrzeit.
Tamar Z. Kahane, Psy.D.
The Kahane Center for Developmental and Psychological Well-Being