Mourners relate to mourners

On a bright Thursday in August of 2014, my wife and I attended a beautiful Israeli wedding. It was a lovely outdoor wedding at ‘the Moshav’. We still remember the year of the event because it so happened that my wife was pregnant with our daughter at the time.

The chuppah (wedding canopy)

The bride was an olah (immigrant to Israel) from England, and the groom- an oleh from the USA. The sweet couple’s faces radiated sheer, loving contentment. Both of their families had flown in for the occasion, and they too exuded a glowing, collective warmth and welcoming joy towards all of us in attendance.

As per Jewish tradition, friends and community members hosted meals to honor the young couple for seven days following the wedding. These were the traditional ‘sheva brachot’ (seven blessings) meals prescribed by Jewish tradition, which holds that for seven days following the wedding, the bride and groom are to be treated like a queen and king and are to be invited to the home of a different friend or relative every evening for a large, celebratory meal.

That week sped by, and the following weekend arrived. The young couple and their parents went off, as planned, to spend Shabbat together in the Golan, near Lake Kinneret for some peaceful away time. The Golan offers countless fantastic hiking trails, and the newlyweds were so looking forward to exploring the luscious green mountains.

Early the following week, we learned that the groom’s father had died in a hiking accident.


I had met the groom in 2010, and we had studied Torah in the same beit midrash (house of [Torah] study) for two years. Afterwards, we had him over for Shabbat when he was off duty from the IDF, which he joined after completing his Torah studies and repatriating to Israel; and we shared Shabbat meals with him and his wife on several occasions.

He was among the gentlest and most earnest people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting, and I always enjoyed our interactions; but, having said that, we had never been especially close… although part of me hoped that we might become better friends once it became apparent that we had both decided to make our ways in Israel, away from our families in the USA.

His father’s unexpected death, following upon the heels of his beautiful, joyful wedding, rocked me. I couldn’t fathom his pain, nor the inky clinging shadow that would hang forever over his wedding memories.

Back then, before my father died (July 2018), I had almost no understanding of Jewish mourning traditions, which I would only become familiar with a few years later during my own kaddish journey. I understood the basics only vaguely.

Having been raised in a secular family, I hadn’t yet grasped how expected and normal it is in traditional Jewish culture to visit mourners during the week following the funeral (this is called ‘shiva’) to lend support. I didn’t appreciate how helpful it is to assist mourners in forming daily prayer quorums so that they can recite the mourner’s kaddish, the recitation of which requires that ten adult Jews be present. I felt incredibly awkward… who was I to intrude upon his grief? What consolation could I possibly provide?

I recall that week being very busy for me at work, and I suppose that I could make excuses as to why I didn’t pay my friend a shiva call, but ultimately – I simply didn’t know how to act appropriately. And… perhaps I was afraid of facing him in his grief.

Regardless, I didn’t pay a visit.


I could give other examples of my inability to relate to the grief of others, for I had encountered many who had lost parents, siblings, and even children… but suffice it to say that those memories of my obtuseness have taken on a particularly sharp, stinging aftertaste in the 2+ years since Papa’s death.

Towards the end of my first year of mourning, I confronted this change in myself:

Disconcertingly out of sync, perceptions jumbled, receptors misfiring, I remain immediately near but never fully within the self I’d always known, receiving on an unfamiliar, piercing wavelength.

Slowly, slowly, I have come to understand
this: My pulse has been attuned to loss.

-Me, ‘The Skeptic’s Kaddish’ #47, June 23, 2019

I’m being somewhat hard on myself, as is my tendency, but I am aware that what I’ve described is not entirely unlike any other major life-changing experience. Let’s take parenthood, for example.

While I’ve always enjoyed playing with children, babysitting, and working at various children’s summer programs, I never much cared to hear parents chattering excitedly about their offspring’s developments. Little Mary started walking? Great! Little Ahmed drew a car? That’s… wonderful… Little Hannah won the state spelling bee? … Hooray! … that’s…

I never much cared to hear parents chattering excitedly about their children’s developments – until I had a daughter; and suddenly, everything about child development was interesting. I could compare notes with other parents for hours. I could relate to their prides, their anxieties, their excitements…

That’s also how it is when you lose a loved one. It’s the club that nobody wants to join and nobody can quit. After Papa died:

… friends and family reached out to me in love. I was struck at how many of those conversations shifted away from my own father’s death, towards the piercing memories, the simmering hurts, and the irrecoverable losses of my comforters.

-Me, ‘The Skeptic’s Kaddish’ #9, Oct. 5, 2018

Parents relate to parents; mourners relate to mourners.

52 thoughts on “Mourners relate to mourners”

  1. I loved this post, Ben. A really heartwarming read. Also, I like how you talk about your traditions regarding marriages.💐❤️

    1. yeah, but traditions are… really wrapped tightly around my experiences as a human being. I can’t really separate my identity from my perspective. Thank you 🙂

  2. A beautiful post regarding jewish traditions. Thanks for sharing. I wish to make two points here. Shiva in our religion is the name of a deity. Secondly, in some parts of our country, groom and bride are hosted by respective close friends and well wishers before the wedding.

    1. Yes, I know that Shiva is a diety.

      In the Hebrew/Jewish tradition, the word ‘shiva’ is a form of the word ‘sheva’, which is the number 7. That why the initial period of mourning lasts for 7 days 🙂

      1. Yeah, I confused myself because I’m rushing around this morning to get ready for Shabbat, which starts when the sun sets; and I had just written a post about the seven days of meals for newlyweds (which is not called ‘shiva’).

        However, those seven days of meals for newlyweds are called ‘sheva brachot’, which means ‘seven blessings’ – so you can see that ‘sheva’ is 7 🙂 – same word.

      2. It is now clearer. I was a bit confused how the wedding and mourning were clubbed together. But thanks a lot for your subsequent clarification that made it absolutely clear. You are so nice a person, David. Stay blessed!!

  3. Ah! You write like you are talking to me, one on one , so I can bond and connect and understand your drift. Very honest , that’s what I like about you, Ben. You are as real as they come. It’s refreshing to come across someone like you. Feels like family.

  4. This is so so true. It’s not until you are steeped in one experience that you sort of learn to acknowledge others who are going through similar experiences. But I wouldn’t blame myself or you for that matter. It’s normal, you cannot see what you have never seen yourself even if it’s right next to you. 🖤

  5. Another wonderful post, David!

    As I am quite introverted myself, reading about the ritualistic aspects of Jewish life makes me feel both respect (that traditions are taken so seriously), and also a kind of fear that I wouldn’t be up to scratch if I were trying to observe these traditions myself. I would be constantly worried about doing something wrong, perhaps offending someone.

    I suppose there is a kind of freedom from this in the Christian faith, however, because I believe that upon receiving Jesus as Lord our posture moves from that of a striving sinner to one who is graciously and completely accepted by God. So in that sense, my fear about not being ‘up to par’ is comforted by my faith, as long as I am focused on the Lord.

    I love your overarching point that one becomes interested in certain facets of life only when one faces them oneself. Becoming a parent must have been such a challenge, as well as everything else I am learning you have gone through. I get the feeling you have a strong character, though. I think this is reflected in your honest and straightforward writing style (which I agree with yassy is refreshing!)

    Love you, friend, have a wonderful day ❤️

    1. yes – this is actually one of the more interesting things about various religions from my perspective!

      on the one hand, there are central universal themes (otherwise we’d have difficulty understanding and getting along with one another), but, on the other hand, there are, obviously, philosophical differences that inform the guidance according to which we live our lives.

      that’s why I try to be as clear as possible about where I’m coming from – so that readers can relate as best as possible to my perspective (rather than assuming things based upon their own experiences and banks of information, as is most natural).

      Shabbat shalom to you! 🕯️🕯️

  6. I really like the way you write things so clearly. I love that you share what you learn and experience in the Jewish tradition, especially interesting since you were raised secular. What a beautiful way of coping with loss, and also the description of your own loss and learning through that. I miss my own “mommy” so very much more now that I am back in my homeland. Hugs, and condolences for your loss. And yes wow, that joyful marriage followed by the tragedy… very difficult to process. Hugs.

      1. It was in January and it was of natural causes (she was in her late seventies) but quite sudden (an aneurysm). And yes that’s why for sure. And the fact that now I really have to deal with all of her things, i.e. the physical remnants of her life. Haven’t done it yet but it is imminent… never easy I don’t think.

      2. Oh. wow.

        My Papa was 70 years old when he died unexpectedly of pneumonia. On Saturday morning, he told my mother that he was having difficulty breathing, and she drove him to the hospital. Several hours later he was dead. It was very sudden… I found out that he was at death’s door when Shabbat ended in Israel at sunset that Saturday (I don’t use electronics on Shabbat so I found out when I turned on my computer to find a message from my younger brother in the USA).

      3. Oh wow equally… and thank you for sharing your story. My mom’s was a bit similar except that it was on a Tuesday, my dad found her in the morning after she’d collapsed in the night, she was rushed to hospital but died unconscious some hours later. I also didn’t find out till the next day, mainly because my dad couldn’t find my phone number. In a way that part was a blessing since there was nothing I could have done from so far away — I lived in Europe at the time. I did come immediately to help with the aftermath, but it was a relatively short visit, filled with the love of close friends and family (what a blessing that was) and luckily, just before the covid lockdown. We have now moved back to be closer to my dad.

        Hugs and thanks again.

  7. I wish we had traditions like this among Christians today for the very reason that you appreciate them. Not as something to force on people but to expose them to the reason for the tradition. Like the tradition is the wallet that holds the money/meaning value. Grieving is such a lonely isolated thing where I come from. People are “saved” so they don’t need to bother visiting people going through grief to “earn points” with God. What!? Sorry if I sound bitter but I would honestly fake having known someone better then .I really did just so I could cry with someone who was struggling with why they were the only who cared that their loved one was gone. It’s pop Christian bullshit. But maybe the tradition wouldn’t change anything because in the end only those who are or have mourned “get it”. That’s the kind of person I want around when I’m grieving. They are like the fellow soldier who was with you on the frontlines and in the trenches and who once back home they know what you’ve been through and you can talk about it or not talk about it. No need to constantly explain or apologize. They know what it’s like to wake up and slowly rerealize that someone you love is gone and how it hits you like a Mac truck for a long time. They would write something like this:
    “I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
    What hours, O what black hours we have spent
    This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!
    And more must, in yet longer light’s delay.
    With witness I speak this. But where I say
    Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament
    Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent
    To dearest him that lives alas! away.” Gerard Manley Hopkins
    Yesterday a fellow autism mom poured out all her grief in a blog post and the comments from those of us in her shoes were just: “I get it.” “Me too.”

    1. Melanie-

      I think you’ll really appreciate this tidbit about the tradition of visiting Jewish mourners after the funeral:

      On the one hand, the door is supposed to remain unlocked during visitation hours so anyone who wants to show support can come in.

      On the other hand, visitors are expected to remain completely silent until the mourners address them. The idea is to let the mourners do the talking about their feelings and their memories of the deceased… for visitors to insert themselves as little as possible into the mourners’ words and only ask open questions.

      And – when the visitors leave, there’s a simple phrase that they traditionally say, which is standard:

      “May God console you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem (Ha’makom yenahem etkhem betokh she’ar avelei Tziyonvi’Yerushalayim).”

      See more here: https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/jewish-words-of-comfort/

      1. Thank you. This is perfect. It’s already turning into a blog post. Thanks for letting me 🤮in your comment section. I feel much better now.

      2. Hey, David do you know where else this name for God Ha’makom is used? Is it only in this saying? Or is it in certain contexts in the Tanakh (sp?) I’m just wondering cause I’d like to get an even better understanding of what it means. Like in Psalm 34 David says “G-d is close to the broken-hearted” Any idea what name for God is used in the Hebrew? Like I’m not doubting that “Mourner’s need to inhabit the here and now” but I want to understand better “why”.

      3. So… I don’t think Hashem is directly referred to as the ‘Makom’ in the Bible. I’m pretty sure that particular name was a rabbinic contribution (Talmud and later). As you can read at this link, it’s likely that this particular name of God was derived from the episode of Jacob’s ladder.

        Also, we use ‘Ha-Makom’ during the Passover seder, and the very renowned Rav Soloveitchik (ZT”L) offered an explanation for the meaning of this name, which you can read at this link.

      4. This is incredible!🤩I can think of so many scriptures that support this and these explanations just make that clearer. It also gives clarity to what I was trying to say about the fact that when I stopped chasing religious experience/chasing God through religious activity and lip service where my heart was not engaged and by no choice found myself among the sick (my children) I started experiencing the immediate presence of God. Like Jacob saying “surely God is in this place”. Maybe less about me learning a way of listening and more about my location. Both are important I think.

  8. Melanie-

    I think you’ll really appreciate this tidbit about the tradition of visiting Jewish mourners after the funeral:

    On the one hand, the door is supposed to remain unlocked during visitation hours so anyone who wants to show support can come in.

    On the other hand, visitors are expected to remain complete silent until the mourners address them. The idea is to let the mourners do the talking about their feelings and their memories of the deceased… for visitors to insert themselves as little as possible into the mourners’ words and only ask open questions.

    And – when the visitors leave, there’s a simple phrase that they traditionally say, which is standard:

    “May God console you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem (Ha’makom yenahem etkhem betokh she’ar avelei Tziyonvi’Yerushalayim).”

    See more here: https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/jewish-words-of-comfort/

  9. My granddaughter is 9 and starting to ask about the Jewish faith. Her dad is Jewish, but she only sees him on weekends and I don’t think he teaches her much about it, so I relay what I learn to her. Thank you for a caring and enlightening article. ❤️🦋🌀

    1. Thank you for reading, Sheila 🙂

      Over Shabbat, which ended a few hours ago here in Jerusalem, I was talking to a friend about enjoying the process of clarifying things about Judaism to open-minded, interested people 🙂

  10. Very relatable. People don’t comprehend the depth and breadth of life-altering events until they’ve been through it. Thank you for sharing.

  11. This is so well written, but I struggled with this post, and not just because of the gut-punch of the groom’s father dying so soon after the wedding. (Tragic, and beautifully written). My parents are living and I am not a parent (and likely never to become one), so I relate to nobody. I do go to shivas for friends and community members (went to my first socially-distanced front-lawn shiva on Sunday), make meals for the mourners (admittedly, I am not an amazing chef, so this might be more aveira than mitzvah), check in on mourners and ask how they are doing months after the fact and I try really listening. As for parents, I used to be nicer and make meals (back when I still thought children were in the cards for me). These days, I’m mean and bitter. I say Mazal Tov and stop putting any effort into the friendship, which usually dies of neglect soon after.

    1. There are very empathetic people who can relate to others that have gone through experiences, which they themselves have not… but they do not represent the majority of humankind; and I am definitely not one of them… I mean, broadly speaking, I do try to be nice to others… but I just know that I couldn’t relate to mourners before my father’s death in the way that I do now.

      1. I think you are generally right. And I don’t count myself among those very empathetic people either. But relatability based on common lifecycle experience has its limits as well. If I ever have children, say, through adoption (btw, I’d be overjoyed to adopt, but that’s an unlikely scernario too), my experience will still be incredibly different from those who had children naturally in their 20s. In spite of the common ground of children, there might be little which we’d relate to, at least in the short-term. Or, in the case of mourning, losing a parent as a child is a different experience from losing a parent as a teen, which is different from a young adult, which is different from an older adult. There are similarities, sure, but also differences, and these lifecycle experience also vary wildly depending on the individuals.

        I think it’s better for everyone, regardless of situation, to focus on developing the empathy to relate to others.

      2. that’s an unlikely scenario too

        😞

        I think it’s better for everyone, regardless of situation, to focus on developing the empathy to relate to others.

        Yes, that is certainly the ideal. 💯

    2. Regarding the children… is adoption a consideration of yours? Or surrogacy? In today’s world… I feel like more alternatives exist than before. (just thinking out loud – I hope you don’t mind.)

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