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. 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.

        1. 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.)

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

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