Mourning in the Morning
Yes. That’s a play on words. Is it appropriate? Well, in my family it kind of is. We deflect with humor. That’s not to say that the jokes always work.
At the same time, the statement is also true. During the day, and even late into the evening, I can distract myself and I don’t have to face the reality that Dad is gone. But in the morning, in those moments when I’m coming out of a strange dream and I don’t know what’s real and what isn’t, I notice a hollow feeling just under my sternum. And then I remember that Dad is gone.
Death is easy, mourning is hard
At the risk of sounding too glib, I feel like death is easy, but it’s mourning that’s hard. We don’t understand death and we don’t know what happens, but it seems like once we’ve wrapped our minds around death, then mourning is swept under the rug. You know, life goes on and you just have to pull yourself together. Do what you gotta do and move on. If you don’t move on, well, there’s something wrong and you should get some professional help. After the trauma of death, moving on with life should be easy, shouldn’t it?
I don’t know about other religions, but the Jews have an app for that (I know, terrible). There are a lot of traditions and rituals for all sorts of things, but the general principles of the one for mourning make a lot of sense. The relationships that call for these mourning rituals are: mother, father, spouse, brother, sister, son, daughter. Once the burial occurs, the family goes home and “sits shiva” for 7 days (shiva is based on the root for the word 7). Everything stops for them – no work, no taking part in their normal lives. The next milestone is the “shloshim” (30 days after the death). The family goes to the cemetery for the unveiling of the headstone and has a special ceremony. Every day for 11 months, the mourners say Kaddish (a prayer said when someone dies, which is not about death at all, but praises God). And then on the anniversary of the death and every year after, the mourner remembers their loved one and lights a candle that lasts 24 hours. (There are many, many other rituals and traditions, but this is not meant to be a primer on Jewish mourning.)
The basic principle here is that you are able to mourn and take note of every “first” without the person in your life – the first week, the first month, the first birthday, the first holiday, the first year. I like the principle, but I have to admit the format doesn’t quite work for me. Living in Israel and being 10 time zones away from my dad created a distance that is also felt in the mourning process. I didn’t see dad every day. I didn’t even talk to him every day or even every week. We just talked whenever. So the first 7 days was important to allow myself to wrap my brain around the fact that dad is gone, but I didn’t “sit shiva” in the traditional sense. My firsts will be the first time I want to call dad and tell him about something that happened, the first Father’s Day that I have no one to call, the first time I can’t call Dad on his birthday, the first time Dad doesn’t call me on mine, the first New Year’s. These will be the days that I feel the loss more acutely. As for my everyday life, Dad was distant before, and now he’s just a little bit further away – without any cell service.
This is a memorial candle that burns for 7 days – more on this in another post. This picture was taken on Day 5. I haven’t let the flame go out (even at night).
Jews also have some guidelines for those who visit the mourners. It’s common sense, for the most part. Be quiet. Let the mourner start the conversation. Listen. Share memories of the loved one. So while I didn’t shut down my life for a week and sit shiva in a traditional sense, I had what might be called a virtual shiva. My friends called and let me talk about Dad and they took the time to listen. Some shared their thoughts about how they dealt with death of their own fathers. Facebook allowed my friends from around the world to share their condolences. My close family in Israel came over and we shared memories about Dad. The whole process felt much more genuine to me than having a lot of people stopping by.
Thank you to all of you who sent good wishes.
It made me feel truly loved and supported.
Big virtual hugs all around!
My own process of mourning brought into much clearer focus the aftermath of a terror attack – and we’ve had quite a few this week. When it isn’t our loved one, we look at the political ramifications, figure out how to defend against it so it doesn’t happen again, celebrate the heroism of defenders, share briefly in the sorrow of the mourners. After the funeral, the press moves on and so do we. But someone actually died. That person’s family is grieving. They are going to go through all the firsts and that hole that was created in their lives will never be filled again. It will heal, but there will always be a scar.
The blessing of memory
While baruch dayan emet (Blessed is the true judge) and the Kaddish help to ensure that you don’t lose faith when you’re going through such a hard time, yehi zichro baruch (May his memory be a blessing) helps you to heal the scars in your heart. I find myself smiling at memories of my dad. I’m happy to hear about the memories of my dad from others. I’m slowly filling up that hollow feeling in my chest with good feelings and happy memories of my dad. I don’t expect that the empty feeling will go away entirely, but the memories will definitely be a blessing.
3 thoughts on “Mourning in the Morning”
Well – summarized and well – expressed. The memories can be as warm as the glow of that candle.
To give you a peek into another world of mourning, let me offer a condensed summary of my paternal grandmother’s passing in Taiwan. Mourning my grandmother in the little Taiwanese village where generations of my paternal family have lived was certainly a different experience and much more cathartic than the passing of my maternal grandmother in the States.
In Taiwan, it is of the utmost importance that everyone takes his or her last breath at home. You get a call from the hospital so that you can prepare a reception of sorts. The hospital ambulance quietly pulls up to the house with the dying having timed it just so he or she can take the last few breaths within the home. Why is this important? I imagine it’s because his or her ghost would be disoriented after death, and it’s better to have the soul tethered to the house than a hospital where they would have to figure out how to get home and possibly get lost in the process. It is generally believed that small children (some say five years old and under) can see these recently departed souls.
Here’s where every tribe adds its own flavor. The blended Hakka, Taoist, and Buddhist rituals called for much wailing, sleeping in the room where she lay in a refrigerator until the auspicious date of her burial, guiding her ghost to the afterlife, folding so many paper gold ingots for burning and paper lotus prayers for stitching to her burial blanket which would eventually be burned as well, remembering to set aside food for her at every meal, and saying good morning to her as we left the house and greeting her upon our return. These rituals are dying out along with my grandmother’s generation, but we treated her as if she were right there having her bon voyage party; she just left us to go on a different adventure. We all got a chance to properly say goodbye. We all got to wail. We all got a measure of closure.
There are rituals to be performed at a certain number of days after death and specific dates on the lunar calendar akin to Jewish traditions. I light incense where you light a candle. The warm memories, however, serve the same purpose, to help make that void a little less deep.
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Thank you very much for sharing this beautiful process! I hope the current generation in Taiwan learns to value and honor these powerful traditions.
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Some families have turned the mourning rituals into big business, so those traditions will continue in some way, shape, or form.
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