Learning to Mourn – Yizkor 5780

November 22, 2019

I wonder how we learn things.

When I was a kid, learning was what happened in classrooms… and I was not overly interested.  I had no problem learning more generally at school though.  At recess when a new variant of kickball was introduced, I was focused on every detail.  When a friend pulled out a floppy disk from his backpack with a new computer game on it, I couldn’t wait to fire up the Apple II Plus, slide the floppy disk in and hear the drive spinning.  I was about to learn something unbelievable on the Oregon Trail or in Castle Wolfenstein.

Learning from books was a necessary part in order to do the more serious learning from my friends, our games and the adults whom we observed.

So, how do we learn?

More specifically, I have been thinking, how do we learn to mourn?

It is an interesting question – How did you learn to mourn?

There are multiple ways. We have learned to mourn according to Jewish customs.  We have been influenced by American culture.  We have learned how to mourn from bits of information acquired at Religious School decades prior.  We have seen movies which portray a shiva home or kriah, the tearing of clothes or a ribbon, or placing earth on a casket.  Maybe we have seen a reference to the quiet work of the chevra kaddisha, the group who ritually prepares a body for burial.

We absorb information in lots of small and subtle ways… but when the time came, did you feel you knew enough when you needed to mourn?

Most of us feel unprepared to mourn and yet we don’t spend much time actually thinking about how to do it or what we want to get out of it.

The ‘how’ can be a rabbit hole for many.

The ‘how’ of mourning is actually the easiest thing to learn but not necessarily the most important or profound.  ‘How’ to mourn are ritual questions:

  • Do I need to cover mirrors in the house?
  • How long do I say kaddish for a parent and is it different for a sibling? And what about for an uncle?
  • Can I go to a Mystics or Nats game during the time I am saying kaddish?

The ‘how’ of rituals are easy.  Judaism has volumes and volumes of law books describing in great detail the do’s and don’ts of mourning.

For the ‘how’s’, I remind people they should follow Jewish laws in mourning in a similar way they apply it to their normal life.  For people who live a life completely devoid of an awareness of Jewish law and then want to be extremely strict at this moment, their mourning observances usually ends with a sense of disappointment.  They peter out from attending services 3 times a day to recite kaddish or they have not built a community around them to attend shiva minyanim in their home.

In contrast, I suggest to people they take their current level of observance and turn the dial up a few notches.  They should take on and be intentional for observances they can maintain over the 11 months of mourning for a parent and maybe even beyond.

Details of Jewish law are part of the ‘how.’

What motivates us about these rituals is important to explore too.

According to an article in The Forward, Philip Roth, the great Jewish American author, forbade Jewish rituals at his funeral last year.[1]  The article describes:

Roth had originally looked into being buried next to his parents at the Gomel Chesed Cemetery in Newark, New Jersey…. However, the area surrounding the Jewish burial ground had in recent years become rife with crime, and Roth was unable to find a plot next to his parents…

Instead Roth decided about 10-15 years ago to be buried at the Bard College Cemetery, where he could be near his friend Norman Manea, a Romanian-Jewish author who works as a professor at the college… Roth was also friends with Bard College President Leon Botstein, who is also Jewish.

Blake Bailey, Roth’s biographer, reported, “He said he wants to be buried near Jews so he has someone to talk to.” …(But) Roth “expressly forbade” any religious rituals from being part of his funeral.  The biographer continued, “There was no metaphysical dimension to Philip. He just flatly refused to believe in it. He thought it was fairy tales”.

So maybe we decide rituals by who we want to talk to for eternity.

Far more difficult than the ‘how to do rituals’ question is ‘what can I learn from these rituals?’.

These are different types of questions.  Rather than focused on the details of how to do a ritual, this is focused on how does it speak to me.  How will I be moved or supported or different because of Jewish mourning practices?  These types of questions ask, how does Judaism add value to my life, how does Judaism sustain me at a time of loss.

These are transformative questions.

Answers to these questions are not described in the law books of Judaism.  But I assure you these questions are answered time and again by people who have gone through the mourning process.  Judaism offers us direction at a moment of being overwhelmed.  It structures supports when a mourner often feels alone.  It honors the deceased with every detail.  It makes you feel a connection to community when a powerful instinct is to want to hide and be alone.

But too many people do not learn of these practices until they are in crisis and then upon reflection afterwards.  So, here is my premise, if mourning practices are worth doing… then they are worth knowing about before you need them.

Let me tell you about a boy that recently learned about mourning.  It was just a few weeks ago here in the sanctuary.  Rabbi Werbin was officiating the service which allowed me to visit different things happening in the shul that morning.

I was standing right over there when a 6 year old boy came up to me.  I have known Eli, not his real name, for many years.  His parents bring him regularly to shul for services and many activities.

Eli came up to me and had a problem.  He told me his goldfish had died that week.  “Buddy, I am so sorry to hear about your goldfish.”

Eli told me about the fish, how he had fed the fish regularly but not too much and he died.

As an overlay, I know one of Eli’s parents has been undergoing cancer treatments during the past year.  Sometimes the parent feels sick and cannot be as energetic with him or his sister.  So I was aware that this discussion may have other meanings.

“Rabbi,” Eli asked, “when you get onto that stage over there, can you say that prayer for my fish?”

“You mean the bimah?”

“Yes, the bimah.  When you get onto the bimah, will you say the special prayer for when someone dies?”

I assure you, this is not a question rabbinical school prepares you for.  I had a flash of reading the names allowed – We remember Jacob Shwartzberg, and Matilda Cohen, Elinor Levy and Fin the Goldfish. Again, the name has been changed to protect his identity.  I did not think that would go over well.  But this was a sincere and important moment for Eli.  I did not want to push him off.

His dad told me he had been waiting for Shabbat for 3 days so he could ask one of the rabbis.

“The Mourner’s Kaddish.  That is the prayer you are talking about Eli.  The prayer is to honor someone who has died.  Someone we loved.”  I continued, “Tell me how you are feeling after your fish died.”

I was ready for emotions, sadness, tears.  But kids will always surprise you.

Eli responded, “I took care of him and everything… but I only knew him for 2 weeks so I am ok.  I just thought it would be the right thing to do.”

I contained my laughter and told him I had an idea.  When other people are standing to recite the prayer, he should stand too and think about his goldfish.  His dad could help him with the words if he wanted.

Eli liked the idea and had a huge smile on his face.  For Eli, this was a moment for Judaism to help express how he was feeling.  It was a chance for Eli to do, as he said, ‘the right thing.’  He learned because he had observed how people had stood for this special prayer.  He asked questions and became empowered to do it himself rather than just having a rabbi do it for him.

Eli can teach us many things.

It is important because while someone else may do the rituals, you must work through your own grief.  Mourning cannot be outsourced.

After the ritual period is over though, we continue to realize the emotional ripples of loss in different ways.

I believe it is often appropriate for mourners to have at least a few sessions with a mental health professional following a closely associated death.  These might be individual sessions or with a group.  The lessons learned and insights gained at this vulnerable time can be very important.

Grief support groups come in many forms.  In our own community, JSSA, the Jewish Social Service Agency, has many resources available to people.[2]  Many of these grief support groups are free of charge.

Let me tell you about another resource – Camp Imagine is based in New Jersey.[3]

When Tracy Crosby’s husband died unexpectedly, she suddenly became a single mom to four young children.

“The hardest thing in the world is to tell your children that they’re never going to see their other parent again,” she said.

Her children would cry a lot at bedtime because they missed their dad. Crosby worried about how they would cope long-term.

(According to this CNN report,) Nearly 5 million American children will lose a parent or sibling before the age of 18 and studies show they are at greater risk for depression, anxiety, academic failure and lower self-esteem.

To avoid that fate for her kids, each month Crosby takes her family to “Imagine, A Center for Coping with Loss”, where they learn how to deal with their grief with other children who have lost a parent, brother or sister.

“It’s really nice to have people listen to you who actually understand what you’re going through,” said Crosby, who has been going to Imagine for a year and a half. “It’s huge to have that support system.”

Mary Robinson founded the nonprofit in 2011 to create what she didn’t have after her father died from cancer when she was 14. As a result, her grades dropped, she quit her activities and became withdrawn….

“I really do this work to make sure other kids don’t lose years of their life to unresolved grief,” she said. “The death of a parent is really a trauma for a child. But it doesn’t have to leave a child traumatized if they get support.”

While I have focused on Eli and Camp Imagine, learning to mourn is not only for children.  As adults, we are confronted by the emotional strains and impact of loss more frequently.

And thus, have we learned to mourn?

Here are a few simple ways to learn:

  1. Go to shiva minyanim and bring your children. You do not have to be a close friend to attend. You are welcome and encouraged.  If asked ‘how did you know the family or the deceased?’  A perfectly good answer is ‘I did not but we both are part of the Beth El community. That is why I am here.’  What a wonderful response.  I want to be part of a community where that occurs and I am sure you do too.
    We learn by observing others. We can attend to offer support and also to learn how to mourn. What does it look like, feel like?
    Is a ‘shiva home’ a cocktail party where I can expect to eat… or is this a chance to bring food for the mourners so they do not have to be distracted by running to Giant during this intense period?  The right answer is the later – food is for the family, they are not hosting us in their home.  We are there to extend comfort to them.
    In the same way, conversations should be mainly focused on the family.
  2. Another way to learn is to attend a funeral. For the actual service, you may want to actually have a connection to the family. See how simple the service is, how beautiful it is.  It is not adorned by flowers or music.  Jewish funerals are simple because death will come to everyone, no matter one’s social status or bank account.
    For a service or shiva, I encourage children to come too.  I would say their age should be double digits on up.  You should gauge the maturity of the child but these are not things to hide or be scared from.  Death is inevitable so we should treat it as such. Death is also infrequent so we can transform it from a hidden experience to something that is part of life. Normalizing death also allows us to teach the emotions which ripple from death and which are also natural – sadness, loss, anger, confusion and more.  Sometimes, even a sense of relief is felt.  That is natural too.
  3. Finally, people say it all the time but it is just not true. Life will normalize but not back to the previous normal.  Without the parent or other family member, there will be a new   Passover will never be the same.  Birthdays, phone calls, visits.  After experiencing loss, normal is something new that will be created.  There is no going back to normal though.

Therefore, be sure to check in on each other after the family and friends return to their homes and people refocus on their own lives.  Realize the emotions of mourning are long lasting and often unexpected.  That is ok.

These are some of the things we need to learn about.  As we are about to begin the Yizkor service, I invite you to explain the service to your child rather than just sending them out for a superstition. I invite you all to stay so we do not become an unnatural community of exclusively mourners.

And I invite you to think about how you learned about mourning.  Is it working for you?  What do you want to get out of this experience?  Who can you reach out to for help processing the emotions of mourning?

Just like Eli did, consider the clergy a resource.  Let’s get a cup of coffee, go for a walk, or sit in our offices together.

I pray that those for whom we will recite Yizkor bring us inspiration, feelings of love and feelings of resolution.

Please turn to page 290 for the Yizkor service.



[1] https://forward.com/fast-forward/401911/philip-roth-won-t-be-having-a-jewish-funeral/

[2] https://www.jssa.org/get-help/adults-couples-and-parents/counseling/bereavement-support/

[3] https://amp.cnn.com/cnn/2019/03/14/health/cnnheroes-mary-robinson-grief-loss-death-of-a-parent/index.html