Tuesday, June 13, 2017

From Mourning to Memory

It's been more than five and a half years since the death of my mother, Hilda Kessler, Hinda bat Chaya v'Yosef, may her memory be blessed and continue to live on. More than four and a half years have passed since I ended my official period of mourning and more than three years since I added anything to this blog. I haven't had anything to say on the topic of mourning since then. Indeed, when I look back now at this blog, it's difficult to even believe that I wrote these words. The psychic space I now occupy is so different from that which enveloped me as a mourner.

I do, however, have one more thought to add: the passage from mourning to memory. From being a mourner, with its daily kaddishes, obligations and prohibitions, to carrying on your parent's memory as you live your life. This was the subject of a talk I gave in shul on my mother's second yahrzeit, and what follows is a summary of that talk.

In this blog, I focused on the process of mourning and dealing with loss, to record my experiences, as a form of self-therapy, as well as to give voice to others coping with the loss of a parent. I am aware that my own experiences were the product of my particular circumstances: being a man, with the privileges and religious duties Jewish law bestows on men, observing the general requirements of halacha (Jewish law), praying in Orthodox shuls (synagogues), and living in New York, with easy access to minyanim (prayer quorums). I don't presume to speak for other people's experiences. Yet I have been amazed at how similar the experiences of mourners are.

My aim here is to track the passage from mourning to memory. The mourner, in a Jewish context, experiences various stages, as if passing through a tunnel that leads from one metaphysical reality to another.

There is Aninut, the period between death and burial, which neither halachically nor experientially is a stage of mourning. Rather, the primary sense is shock, for no matter how ill your parent is, and how imminent his or her death, nothing prepares you for the death of a parent. The focus during this stage is planning the funeral and burial. In this regard, it is quite helpful if you had a chance, as I did, to talk to your family members about what the funeral will be like (who should speak, etc.). I began writing my eulogy a few weeks before my mother died, and put the finishing touches on it on the airplane ride that took me to California from New York on my last visit to see her. (Of course, it is another matter if you have to first start dealing with burial arrangements for your parent.)

The next stage, the shiva, are the seven days that follow burial (in reality five and a half days, because half of the first day involves the funeral and the last day ends right after the morning prayer service). Shiva is when you first start to realize what it means to be a Jewish mourner. You begin reciting kaddish, about ten of them every day. If you are a man and the service is orthodox, you (if you so choose) begin leading services. You begin to understand that, in a Jewish context, mourning is public, as your home, your private space, becomes transformed into a public setting where people come and go at will.

I found shiva to be tremendously comforting as well as exhausting. You have little time for yourself. This is by design. You are in a vulnerable state so soon after your parent died, so it's best not to be alone nor have to deal with family or work obligations. You feel taken care of. In a paradoxical way, though your sense of loss is raw, shiva is the easiest period of mourning. You are surrounded by those who care for you and have the chance to process and articulate what your parent meant to you. I spent much of shiva reading and rereading words my mother had written and sharing them with my friends.

Next comes Shoshim, the first 30 days after the burial, seven of which is subsumed by the shiva. Shloshim is when you realize that you have joined a community of mourners. As someone in shul told me, "welcome to the club." You are not first person to have lost a parent, and you usually are not the only one in shul saying kaddish. If you are a man in an Orthodox setting, you begin to get used to the idea of leading the prayer service as a "chiuv." You start getting familiar with the words of the kaddish and the various points of the service at which it is recited. You are just beginning to deal with the psychological and spiritual aspects of grief and loss. Your pain, while still intense, is now mixed with the return to everyday life, your work, shopping, friends, etc. From the outside you are back to your regular life, but on the inside you feel something profound has changed within you.

On a halachic level, the next ten months are considered a single unit. But not so emotionally. During the first half year, you are getting used to the overwhelming nature of the kaddish obligation and the need to plan your day around the times of prayer services. The focus on the kaddish has both positive and negative aspects. It serves to anchor your mourning, constantly reminding you of your loss and giving you a psychic space to focus how your parent's influence continues to live on within you. On the other hand, its incessant repetition can be numbing and its recitation an end in itself rather than a means to support the mourning process.

The second half of the year, in my experience, was characterized by a growing acceptance of the loss and a clearer vision of life without your parent. This division is analogous to the first and second half of Tisha B'av: the first half of the day is imbued with deep sadness and restrictions on pleasurable activities while, during the second half, many of the restrictions of mourning are lifted and a sense of hope begins filtering in. Time during the second half of the kaddish year seems to move quite slowly. Even though you are moving toward the end of the period of mourning, you are by this point so immersed in the kaddish year that you feel it will never end.

At the end of 11 months, your obligation to say kaddish ends, though not the restrictions of mourning. The end of kaddish feels like a shock. For 11 months kaddish and mourning were bound up together. Now, for one month, kaddish is gone but mourning remains. I experienced the end of kaddish as a relief and a release: no longer a "chiuv," you don't have to go to shul every day. Your time is your own again. Kaddish is recited for 11, and not 12, months because of its theurgic nature: the idea that its recitation brings merit to your parent's soul, elevates it to Gan Eden and that to say kaddish for the full 12 months would imply that your parent's soul was not worthy to be elevated within 11 months. Whatever one's theological beliefs, the one month gap between the end of kaddish and mourning gives you a chance to shift your focus to living both without your parent and without kaddish. You are eased out of your mourning slowly, in stages, accompanied by the return to your private self.

The culmination and final stage of mourning is the yahrzeit, the year to the day after your parent died. It has the sense of a holy day, a sort of personal Yom Kippur, in which you confront your parent's life and death. It is a chance to get in touch with the totality of what your parent meant to you: the source of your life, the nurturing and life lessons learned, as well as the ending, all packed into one intense 24-hour period. You return to the kaddish and have priority over all others to lead the services. Different customs mark the day. Some fast. Others commemorate with a kiddush and a l'chayim. In addition to observing the yahrzeit day, I have made a practice of having friends and family over to my home on the Shabbat preceding the yahrzeit for a kiddush, to give words of Torah and to speak about my mother's life and my everlasting connection with her.

The year after your parent dies, mourning and memory are bound up with each other. Mourning is not a linear process, nor can its effects be anticipated or predicted. Feelings of loss and grief wax and wane, often unexpectedly, and without rational reason. And yet, in an overall sense, as the year gradually passes, mourning inexorably recedes, its intensity diminishes. As it does, memory of your parent begins to assume a more dominant place in your psyche. Memory comes from many places, from visitations of your parent in your dreams, from recalling their traits and what they would have said to you in various settings, in the transformation of self in which the legacy of your parent becomes metaphysically embodied within you. During shiva, shloshim and the first half of the year, loss and grief predominate. As the year passes, as the yahrzeit comes and goes, as your life continues on, mourning slowly recedes into the background while memory moves to the foreground. This metaphor is meant to suggest that mourning does not suddenly fall away the day after the yahrzeit, but that it assumes a less significant role in your emotional life.

I have traced the process from mourning to memory as I experienced it, while recognizing that these feelings are deeply personal matters. For all those who have lost a parent, I offer the prayer that these words offer a measure of solace and acknowledgement of common experience. May we cherish the memory of our loved ones and may they continue to guide us through our individual journeys.