Mourning My Way: Creating a Custom Path to Healing

During this disorienting time, I’ve felt so grateful to be part of a tradition that offers so many opportunities to feel held and grounded.
May 13, 2021
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Shortly after my father died, a little over a month ago, I spoke with an Orthodox rabbi who gave me some advice that surprised me. “Most of the rituals surrounding mourning are customs, not law. It’s impossible to mourn the way people did a thousand years ago when our lives are so different. Mourn in the way that feels right to you,” he advised.

It was ironic how comforting these words were to me — he was giving me permission to do Judaism my way. After all, I am a rabbi at an organization called Judaism Your Way. I spend so much of my time encouraging the families and individuals I work with to do Judaism in a way that is meaningful to them. When I share this advice, I often see a sense of calm come over their faces. For the first time, I was experiencing that calm myself.

In Judaism, the period leading up to and including the funeral is focused on kavod ha-met, honoring the deceased. Once the beloved who has died is buried, the focus shifts to nichum aveilim, comforting the person in mourning. As I moved into this phase, I noticed that some Jewish mourning traditions brought me great comfort — they worked with doing “mourning my way” — and some simply did not.

The first tradition that worked for me was the act of Kriah, which begins prior to burying the deceased. The word Kriah means “torn,” and the custom is that the mourner tears a garment to physically demonstrate how they feel no longer whole because they have lost a loved one. The custom is to wear this torn garment during the week following the funeral, except on Shabbat. Many mourners decide to tear a piece of ribbon, which they can attach to their clothing.

In rabbinical school, one of my teachers spoke passionately about the power of using a garment for Kriah over a ribbon. His teaching made me feel committed to trying out this custom; I just didn’t know I would have the opportunity quite so soon. I selected a shirt, one that I bought for my mother-in-law’s funeral nine years ago and had become one of the staples in my wardrobe. I couldn’t imagine wearing the same shirt essentially every day for a week, but it turned out to be quite comforting knowing what my mourning “uniform” was. By the time the week ended, I was almost not ready to change into something else, but the act of taking it off was actually quite powerful.

Another tradition that has been helpful to me has been attending a daily minyan, a prayer group, and reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish, a prayer associated with death but actually speaks of glorifying the name of the Divine. Being able to attend minyan virtually has been one of the silver linings of the pandemic. During the week following my Dad’s funeral, friends and family members offered support. After this period, I began joining daily minyanim around the country, depending on the time that worked for my schedule. As a working mom with two little kids in Denver, it would have been nearly impossible for me to attend a minyan daily if I needed to attend in person.

Not only have virtual prayer opportunities made it accessible for me to say Kaddish every day, but for the first time, I really resonated with the phrase “traditionally” used to comfort mourners: “May the Holy One comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” As I stood for Kaddish with people all over the country who are remembering their loved ones, I felt that I am in good company among these mourners, and that brought me comfort.

For the first time, I really resonated with the phrase “traditionally” used to comfort mourners.

One area where I needed to do Judaism my own way was thinking through exactly how I would do shiva. The word shiva comes from the root word meaning “seven” marking the week following the burial of a loved one, but it also comes from the root “to sit.” The idea is that those in shiva do not leave their home for a week. While they observe shiva, ideally, they sit either on the ground or on low stools as a sign of their state of mourning.

Typically, shiva is a time when friends and family gather in the home of the deceased or a mourner to offer comfort and support. Due to the pandemic, the practice of having others come to my home was not an option. I knew that I didn’t want to feel isolated during shiva, and I also wanted to be as safe as possible. What felt best to me was having one friend a day come over and go for a masked walk with me. Although I was not physically sitting, the conversations I had on the walk, I imagine, would have been the same if I was. These walks reminded me how much I was cared for at a time when it felt like the world had fallen open beneath me.

The Shulchan Aruch, a 16th century code of Jewish law, forbids mourners from joyous entertainment. As such, there is a tradition that mourners refrain from listening to music, especially live music. One of my dad’s hobbies was playing folk music on guitar and banjo. When it came time for shiva, I felt a deep need to listen to music that my dad loved. Here was an area where I needed to do Judaism my way. Over the week of shiva, I learned to play mandolin songs that I remembered my dad playing when I was a child, and I listened to some of his favorite music on repeat. These moments were often when I felt most connected to my dad in the month following his funeral.

There is a tradition that when the week of shiva ends, the mourner gets up and goes for a short walk outside, demonstrating that they are slowly re-entering the world. Since I’d already been going for walks during the week, this beautiful tradition felt less appropriate for my reality. So after participating in a morning minyan on my final day of shiva, I went for a long walk with my dog and came home to cook a fancy breakfast for my husband, children, mom and step-dad. I don’t often cook elaborate meals, but I felt drawn to the kitchen that day, and I suspect it may have been because my dad loved to cook. Some of the times I saw him happiest were when he was in the kitchen cooking for others. That morning, while preparing a family recipe, I truly felt my dad’s presence in the kitchen with me.

According to Jewish tradition, the period of mourning varies depending on one’s relationship to the deceased. When one loses a parent, the mourning period lasts a year. I’m just at the beginning of navigating the year of mourning my dad, a loss that came suddenly and unexpectedly. During this disorienting time, I’ve felt so grateful to be part of a tradition that offers so many opportunities to feel held and grounded. I will forever appreciate the rabbi who told me that sometimes these traditions might not work for me and that I should mourn my way.

Rabbi Amanda Schwartz is on the rabbinic team at Judaism Your Way. She received rabbinic ordination and a master’s in educational leadership from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2016.

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