Necessary Mourning: Healing the Loss of a Parent through Jewish Ritual
[Ed. Note: Ms. Abraham-Klein is the author of a new book that explores mourning. The book was just published (October 2016). The following is an essay she wrote for Expired And Inspired, explaining how her interest in the topic came about, what brought her to write this book, and how her father’s journey through death, and her own path through mourning, has affected her. — JB]
The Soul Slowly Seeps Out
My entire childhood, my parents staunchly refused to let any of us to have an animal in the house, particularly a dog, and I really wanted a dog. My siblings were much older than I. They moved out when I was young and I grew up as an only child. I needed company. So as a gift when I was eight years old, my brother Gideon broke the house rule and brought home a cute and rambunctious blond mutt that I named Ashi. I had no idea how to care for little Ashi or how to housebreak him. My brother returned to university and I was left with an untrained dog. That did not last long, especially when Ashi peed and pooped all over the house, particularly on my parents’ expensive Persian carpets. My mother quickly demanded that Gideon return home and remove this dog. Gideon found a new home for Ashi and I never saw him again.
Many years later, well into my adult married life, when my father was dying of cancer, he finally shared with us that he did like dogs, but had hid that fact from us to avoid the responsibility of taking care of one. When I adopted my cocker spaniel after my marriage, my dad came clean about his own childhood pet dog, Ursik. I think the name I chose, Ashi, a Persian-sounding name that I had never heard before, was just as comical as Ursik. I can only imagine that somehow my dad and I were subliminally connected through the funny names we chose for our dogs—I was linked to my Dad in more ways than I realized. It was sweet, I thought, and it humanized my dad for me. As my father was slowly dying, he would easily share his life stories with me. There were no filters between his ego and thoughts; he just let everything flow. On the one hand, I felt like it was his way of making peace with himself and with me, and on the other it was if he wanted me to be a witness to his life. He wanted me to remember, cherish and learn his life so that I could share it.
My relationship with my father in my formative years was nearly non-existent. He was the patriarch, a mover and shaker in the illustrious gemstone business with offices worldwide, and a benefactor to many Jewish organizations. This led him to live six months of the year in New York and the remaining six months in Thailand. Being raised in a traditional, loud Sephardi home where entertaining family and guests was the norm, I felt like part of the landscape—lost to the opulent background of grand marble halls and spiral staircase.
I grew closer to my father when he developed multiple myeloma, a cancer of the white blood cells that eats away at the bones. I watched him living in tremendous pain, regularly taking oxycodone. As the disease progressed, he became infantilized due to his lack of independence. Something about his vulnerability and his suffering made me see him as a sweet old man, not the father who was too busy to show up for my high school graduation.
As my father spiraled toward death, he shared more of himself, his childhood in Afghanistan and Pakistan, his married life to my mother in India, and his business life in Thailand. The filters of his thoughts were lifting. The line between consciousness and unconsciousness were blurred. There was something very poignant about this for me. I knew he was dying: He was in hospice and had outlived his doctor’s prediction of three to nine more months. I felt that this slow, steady seeping out of the soul was a natural process. It was God’s way of easing my father, and us, into the transition of his death, rather than having it come as an abrupt shock.
A few months prior to his passing, he was lying in agony on the living room sofa. My mother gave him morphine for the pain, but probably too little to help. My father’s bones were fragile, and he also suffered terrible tooth pain. He explained that it was a shooting pain that gashed at him to the point where he could not talk. His agony compelled me to do something more than morphine. I ran out to the drug store, purchased a heat pack and applied it to his cheek as I massaged his hands. He perked up a bit and said that he was feeling relieved. Within minutes he fell asleep. This process showed me how in times of deep pain and despair we need tender, loving care. Somehow, being a part of my fathers’ pain and relief redeemed him of all the sadness and disappointment I felt at not having him around in my formative years.
Reflections on my father’s Death
My father passed away on the 9th of August, 2014, at his home in New York (13 Av, 5774, in the Jewish calendar; this is the date we memorialize his death every year). He fought multiple myeloma bravely and with dignity, and rarely complained about his pain or his impending death. When my sister reached me in London, where I was traveling, to let me know that my father had died, my initial reaction was shock. That was followed by centering myself to make burial arrangements and to write the eulogy. Although I was in a mental fog, focusing on the burial arrangements felt like I was in a safe container, shielded from the outside world. The next phase was the intense, week-long process of “sitting” shiva (the seven days of the most intense mourning), first with only family and then with our comforting visitors. Having them surround me was like a warm embrace. At shloshim – 30 days, we entered a new phase of the grieving process, and the frame widened with more activities I could participate in—for one; I could cut my unruly hair, an activity that had been off-limits in the immediate aftermath of the death. My family and I arranged to have a large dinner gathering in a hall and memorialize my father with stories and prayers. At the end of the year-long mourning process, we organized my father’s death anniversary (yahrtzeit), in Israel at his graveside with my family members and first cousins from my father’s side.
The process of mourning throughout the year was systematic; intense at first and then gradually easing. Every year at the death anniversary, we hold a special commemoration for my father, gathering friends and family for a meal, lighting a candle, reciting Kaddish – the Mourners Prayer, and donating to charity.
I know that my father mourned for his own parents in the most complete way he could. While he did sit the week of intense mourning (shiva), observed the customary (shloshim) 30 days, and even recited the Mourners Prayer (Kaddish) for his parents for 11 monthsI decided to opt out of all parties that had live music for the year and follow the traditional way of mourning. Whenever there was a festive event that I could not attend (and there were many that year), that was the time when I had to confront the mourning. I felt separated, quarantined from everyone else, and while it was not pleasant, it was necessary. I knew that my isolation was not designed be a punishment, but more like a “time out” to reflect on how my dad could not participate. We were both consoling each other at a psycho-spiritual level. Through the confinement, I connected and reflected. The time-bound Jewish way of mourning, with all its psychological insight, created a means for me to carry my father within throughout the journey. The laws of mourning freed me from social norms and expectations, allowing me to focus on memories of my father, in order to move forward in life in the most meaningful and holistic way possible.
One of those ways was through writing. It is a wonderful companion to a loss, when we feel alone. Writing my book Necessary Mourning has been cathartic. It has clarified my thoughts and deepened my appreciation of the process of mourning.
I share these Jewish ritualistic pearls of wisdom with you, along with my own journey in the book, because they are the birthright of every Jew, no matter what your Jewish affiliation. Even if you are picking up Necessary Mourning and perusing it after the death, there is still a wealth of benefit embedded in these Jewish traditions. I share with you the necessity of mourning.
Dahlia Abraham‐Klein is a published cookbook author, Silk Road Vegetarian: Vegan, Vegetarian and Gluten Free Recipes for the Mindful Cook (Tuttle, 2014) and Spiritual Kneading through the Jewish Months (Shamashi Press, 2015). She has been conducting Spiritual Kneading challah classes privately and at synagogues of all denominations, teens and adults in her Long Island, NY community since 2010. Her latest book, Necessary Mourning, (October 2016) is available
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