This weekend, my husband’s extended family is gathering for an unveiling. In Jewish tradition, an “unveiling” is held approximately 11 months after someone has died. The tombstone is unveiled, the mourners gather again, and one more milestone in adapting to life without a loved one is reached.
This weekend’s unveiling is particularly difficult, because the loved one committed suicide at age 35 last summer. He was the same age when he died as my younger sister was when she died (of a chronic illness twelve years ago). Both he and my sister shared the same birth month, an interest in art and creative endeavors, and both struggled with mental health issues.
My sister’s death caught me unexpectedly – as did the suicide a year ago. Although she had been ill for well over ten years, she had seemed to be “doing better.” She was seven years younger than I; I did a lot of “motherly” things for her. We were closer than siblings – she felt like my first-born.
I am a convert to Judaism. My sister’s death was my first direct experience with Jewish mourning rituals.
It was strange – the funeral rituals I grew up with were more familiar than Jewish ones. As a member of a children’s choir over forty years ago, we had often been called on to sing at funerals. I knew the liturgy, music, customs, and things that people would say to us mourners. However, as familiar as they were, those practices no longer fit the person I had become.
Our Jewish practices allow for a “shutting down” period between death and the funeral – mourners are not expected to attend to the details of everyday life. I found it off-putting to help arrange for out-of-towners arriving for the funeral…. and downright weird to go to the grocery store.
I found myself resenting the well-intentioned “She’s in a better place right now.” I didn’t want her to be in a “better place:” I wanted her at the other end of the phone so I could talk with her. I didn’t want to be consoled – I wanted to express my grief and anger at a life cut too short.
It was hard to leave the cemetery before the casket was put into the ground. I felt we were leaving her body exposed, instead of tucking it in – as I used to tuck her into bed so many years ago.
But the hardest part was returning to my parents’ home after the funeral. We had only just begun to adjust to my sister’s absence – to begin to say aloud the unspeakable words – and suddenly there was no one there to listen, to mourn with us.
So I came home to a community that was willing to allow me to mourn in our Jewish way. We sat shiva for three days. I shared my grief and pain and silly memories with friends who were content to “just listen.” I went to minyan for 30 days to say Kaddish. When I visited her gravesite 11 months after she died, I searched for a pebble to put on the tombstone. I explained to the younger brother who accompanied me, that it was a Jewish custom, to mark that the person was remembered and the gravesite had been visited. The custom provided us both with a sense of comfort. He took to carrying a box of pebbles in his car, since it was so difficult to find them in this well-cared-for cemetery. It comforted me, knowing that he found comfort in one of my Jewish rituals.
This weekend, I’ll remember both: my husband’s relative and my sister, and think about lives cut too short. May their memories be for a blessing.