Monday, September 2, 2013

The Jewish Way of Mourning


My pursuit of happiness has been interrupted this past month with the sudden, and unexpected, death of my mother, Harriet Carole Gaba Drissman (Chana Tziril bas Teibl). She was 73, between her Hebrew and English birthdays - young by today's standards. Definitely young by my standards.

Many people have asked me what happened; if it was expected. I've tried to find the simplest answer for them: she had chronic issues but they aren't what caused her death. So NO, it wasn't expected. I know they are asking because we try to understand death and to get some sort of grip on it, but I'm not sure repeating the same information, over and over, to dozens of people is helping me.

What is helping me? 

I suppose it is the Jewish approach to mourning. Seven days of Shiva, 30 days (Shloshim) - which continues for 23 days after Shiva ends, and then 11/12 months of mourning (for a parent).  Some mourn for 12 full months, but others only mourn for 11 months (because we don't want to acknowledge or feel that our lost loved one would be waiting to get into heaven for the full twelve months).

I dreaded the funeral and I'm still not up to speaking about it. But Shiva was mostly helpful to me (it’s different for everyone – some do not find it helpful). I got to see whom my mother touched by speaking to them, laughing with them, joking with them. I heard stories that I hadn't heard before.

My baby brother's married friend got pregnant. As soon as she found out she was having a baby girl, my mom went shopping and dropped off baby clothing to the girl's mom (my mom's bank teller) and wished her a hearty congratulations.

My friends had a baby girl 10 months ago. When she was born, my mom went out and bought them an entire set of Little Midrash Says. They read it to her on a regular basis. That way, they thought of her and she has been with them each time.

I really didn't look forward to the end of Shiva. Partly because I liked hearing the stories and seeing all my nieces and nephew, but partly because I wasn't ready to face the "new normal." I'm still not ready but I don't have much of a choice.

The First Week, Post-Shiva
This week, the first full week after Shiva, has been ridiculously difficult. I miss my mom. At every moment I am a breath away from tears. I keep expecting her to walk in with her wobbly walk, silver cane, and a smile on her face. I can't text her anymore. I can't call her anymore. All I have left are my memories, my photographs, my videos, and one of my last texts from her, "xoxoxo."

In some ways, Shloshim is much worse than Shiva. At least at Shiva, there were people around telling stories of my mom, my brothers and sister were around, my husband was there, everyone was taking care of me and making sure I was eating and drinking.

Shloshim sucks. My siblings have returned to their lives, my husband is working, and I am home. Alone. Doing nothing but try to convince myself to shower and get errands done. I think of my mom all the time.

My Shloshim for my mother ends at Rosh HaShanah. I can't cut my nails, listen to music, buy new things, wear new clothing, accept gifts, and cannot shower or bathe for pleasure. I cannot attend social events or social gatherings.

My nails are getting long and making typing difficult. I am pregnant and will need new maternity clothing in the next few months. I have friends who are celebrating birthdays and baby events. But I'm okay with all of that because the restrictions are forcing me to address my great and terrible loss.

I have lost many people in my life, more than most. But they were never someone for whom I had to sit Shiva on low, uncomfortable chairs for a week. What I learned from those losses -- the hard way -- is that I need to confront and address the loss or the loss will overwhelm me and my crippling emotions will be uncontrolled, popping up at random times.

Each day people and friends call and text me to see how I'm doing. I don't answer the calls; I'm not up to it yet. Other friends are urging me to take the time I need, that everyone recovers at a different pace. When I have a bad day (or night), I text friends and cousins I know who have experienced the same loss. 

I don't smile like I used to, but I know eventually that will change. Eventually, the memories that make me cry and miss my mom the most are the ones that will make me smile the biggest (or so I’ve been told). I'm not there yet.

But I'm grateful that I had her for 35 years. I'm grateful that she attended my wedding and walked me down the aisle, on the beach, barefoot, with my dad and me. I'm grateful she knew I was pregnant and expecting at the end of January. I'm grateful that she saw ultrasounds of the cutest baby ever (her words). I'm grateful that I got to live with my parents and get to know them for years after I moved back home. I'm grateful I inherited some of my mother so that I can remind others of her.

I can't ignore the pain - I'm spending lots of time at the hospital because my husband's grandmother is sick. I can't ignore the pain because others I know and care for are going through more pain than I am. I can't ignore the pain by distracting myself with happy, laughing children. I want to so badly... but I can't ignore the pain.

I'm grateful I have this time forced upon me. I am now sitting at home, going through photographs of my mom so I can put together memory books for my siblings, my dad, and the grandkids. I am making a list of the things my mom loved, like polka dots, reading historic romance novels through her father's magnifying glass, painting, and playing Scrabble (she beat me in our last game).

There are some things I don't understand about Judaism. I'm not sure I understood this before I lived through it. But the 7/30/365 is really helping so far. I can only hope that the remainder of the Shloshim and the year is just as rehabilitative as it can be, considering the circumstances.

The Second Week, Post-Shiva
Ups and downs. I was warned that every day is going to suck, just some less than others. I spent her birthday with my girlfriends at the pool, recovering in the sun. I haven’t been outdoors all summer since much of it was at a hospital.

I’ve started eating again, which pleases my husband. I lost five pounds the week of Shiva and he got nervous. My appetite has returned, but this time baby prefers meats and heavier dishes. I still think of my mom, but I’ve started speaking about her out loud instead of avoiding verbalizing my thoughts. I still want to cry, even now.

I continued going through my photographs on my laptop and found a video I took of my sister’s little girl. My mother was in it and she spoke. It was probably only 5-7 seconds of her speaking, but IT HAS HER VOICE. Last week I already couldn’t remember her voice and I was horrified. I felt that, when I found this video, some of my prayers were answered. I felt a little better.

**                        **                        **

Because my husband’s grandmother is in the hospital and we didn’t know the outcome, his mother and sister flew in from Israel. They have been here all week and at first I accompanied them to the hospital. I only did that a few times because I realized it was too soon for me. It didn’t help that she was in the same room that my mother had been prior to being transferred to ICU. Sitting there, knowing all the nurses, seeing another person I care about sick… I stopped going.

I went to synagogue with my dad and when they collected names of sick individuals (so they could say prayers for them), he automatically said my mother’s. My heart broke all over again and I cried. I seem to have a harder time at synagogue – I haven’t gone one Shabbos without crying and needing tissues. I have been looking forward to Rosh HaShana more and more this week. I need to get rid of this year; it has been way too difficult for me. I need a fresh start. I prayed for a relaxing Shabbos, one where I might be able to breathe, and after Shabbos received bad news. My brother’s father-in-law passed away suddenly on Shabbos morning.

The Third (and last) Week, Post-Shiva
My brother now is hosting Shiva again, the second time in a month. Once for his mother, once for his father-in-law. I went to the funeral and was a mess. I avoided the cemetery for two reasons: (1) it wasn’t emotionally healthy for me to go; (2) Jewish custom dictates that a pregnant woman shouldn’t go.

I went to Shiva this morning. Everyone in the family was there, and I know most of them relatively well. Some from college, some through my sister-in-law. It was horrendous pain all over again. I lost control and my headache returned with a vengeance. And unfortunately, we now have another something in common: we have both lost a parent at too young an age and so suddenly. I’m reminded harshly of the great and terrible pain of losing my mom, of all the future memories I am now cheated out of, of my children knowing her in person. Eulogies I heard at the funeral suddenly transposed into eulogies for my mom. Staring at the pine box in the front of the room reminded me of my mother’s pine box.

**                        **                        **

I think again of Rosh HaShana coming up (this Wednesday night). It will cut off our Shloshim and we will move into the third phase of mourning for my mother, the year. This year has been challenging, to say the least, and I have only two more days to gather and hold this grief to me. My brother hasn’t yet shaved, my nails are still long, and I still avoid music if I can.

Somehow, life still continues on without her. My husband goes to work, the post office still delivers mail, phone calls from solicitors keep coming to my dad’s house. My father replies, “Harriet is deceased.” They say sorry and hang up. I open mail to my mom and call to cancel appointments explaining that she passed away three weeks ago.

My wonderful husband and I started cleaning and organizing the house, and I’ve decided there’s nothing more cathartic than manual labor, sweating, and the smell of cleaning supplies.

I miss my mom terribly. I miss everything about her. My dad and I spent today together at Greenfield Village and I kept thinking about how she would have gotten around the museum, what job she would have liked best there (she occasionally talked about becoming a docent there and dressing up in 18th and 19th century clothing), how we would have gone into the millinery store together. I didn’t mention any of that. I’m sure that my father was thinking it too.

Instead, he and I tried forming new memories. We walked around together, read signs, got strawberry lemonade slushies, took some photographs (I stole some of him), and, at times, just walked together in silence.

Life is not the same without my mom. It will never be the same again. The hole in my heart is still the same size and the edges are still tattered and bleeding.

But I keep looking forward, thinking of my dad, my sister and brothers, my in-laws, my nieces and nephew, my baby that my mother was so terribly excited about. I keep thinking about my husband, with whom I celebrated one year today.

My mom always had a smile on her face, and if there’s one thing I can try and learn from her, it’s to smile… if for no other reason than to keep them wondering what you’re thinking.

So my Shloshim is almost over, and I think I’m in [slightly] better shape than I was three weeks ago. I’m not ignoring the pain; I’m not suppressing it. I don’t know how healthy I am, but I’m doing what I can to embrace the pain, because next week will be a new step in mourning even though the hole will still be there.

I continued with my artwork, took new photographs this week, will start sketching and painting again next week. Continued with my Scrabble games so that maybe, just maybe, I can attain the same ranking that my mom did. I call my sister and go see my brothers. I text them more regularly to tell them I love them dearly. I talk to my cousins more than I used to and hug my aunt and uncle whenever I see them.

I end Shloshim with the Jewish New Year. The shofar will blow and I will cry (my mom loved the sound and so do I), but we will get a fresh start and a clean slate – one we badly need. Hopefully this coming year will be one of health, new life, success, and joy for me and those I love.

As for those you love, hug them. Call them. Text them. Tell them how you feel. You never ever know what tomorrow will bring.

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