If someone especially dear to you has died in the past, you know that we never really stop mourning them. The absence of a loved one eventually becomes a kind of presence of its own, an ongoing awareness that that person was an important part of our lives and is no longer with us. Healthy grieving after months and years have passed is not overwhelming, but the sadness is there, and sometimes it is sharp.
The Yizkor service is usually attended only by those who have lost a parent or a close relative, although if you are remembering someone who is not a relative but dear to you, you are welcome to attend. It is an opportunity to let your guard down and grieve, or simply to attend as a respectful remembrance of the dead. Some attending the service will be recently bereaved; others may be remembering someone who died long ago. Some people cry a little. Some sit quietly and respectfully. You are welcome to let the memories come and to let emotion come with them – no one goes to Yizkor to look at other attendees.
There is a tradition among Ashkenazi Jews that a person with both parents still alive should stay away from the Yizkor service, lest the “Angel of Death” be attracted to one’s parents. However, if you need to mourn a sibling or a friend, there is no official rule against going to Yizkor; just be aware that if both your parents are living and known in the community, someone may warn you about the superstition!
Yizkor provides a safe space for us to mourn while honoring the memory of the dead.
Mourning is a time like no other. Someone with whom we had a close connection has died, and our world is out of balance. We have spent years depending on that person, or supporting that person, and interacting with that person and suddenly they are … GONE. On top of that, there is much to do: arrangements must be made, legal requirements fulfilled, and all while we are stunned by the news.
For American Jews, it is particularly confusing because as with many things, we are pulled in two directions. American secular culture largely avoids mourning, and encourages us to be self-sufficient individuals, bravely getting on with life with as little disruption as possible. The dominant Christian religious culture suggests that loved ones have gone “to a better place.”
Jewish tradition takes a different path. It structures mourning as a staged process undertaken by those who are closely related to the deceased: children, siblings, parent or spouse. This definition of “mourner” can be updated to reflect the needs of all kinds of families, but the principle behind it is that we recognize some relationships as especially close. If you have lost someone whose absence will significantly alter your life, then consult with your rabbi for help in following the Jewish mourning process.
1. ANINUT is the time from the death itself until the burial is completed. This is a time of concern for the body of the person who has died. Because it is so important in Judaism to treat the body with respect, the mourners have no responsibilities other than to make the funeral arrangements. They are relieved from other ritual requirements, and all social niceties. They are also assumed to be in deep shock and mourning, and friends should be available to assist if need be but should not intrude. Persons in aninut do not go to work, and are not responsible for other commitments. They may tear an article of clothing and then wear it during shiva, or pin a torn ribbon to their clothing, to express their feelings of loss.
2. SHIVA begins at the moment the body is safely laid to rest, and continues for a period after that, usually a week. (For calculations for the exact length of shiva when holidays are near, consult a rabbi.) Mourners in shiva remain at home, and friends help them with the necessities of life. Friends visit to offer comfort. (For more about the mitzvah of a shiva visit and what to say to a person in shiva, see Five Tips for Shiva.)
If you are the mourner, it is OK to ask for what you need, even if what you need is silence. When you are sitting shiva, you are not entertaining. People may come to the house, but you do not have to look nice or have a neat house. It is OK for other people to do your dishes and to bring food to you.
Often American skimp on shiva, saying that they need to get back to work, or they don’t want to be any trouble. If you possibly can, let shiva do its work. It can be boring and uncomfortable, but its purpose is to allow you time and space to mourn. You have suffered a loss. It is OK to take time to acknowledge that loss.
3. SHELOSHIM is the 30 days after burial, including the seven days of shiva. At the close of shiva, mourners leave the house again. Gradually, mourners will return to the routines of life.
4. MOURNING A PARENT goes on even longer, for eleven months or a full year, depending on local custom. One says Kaddish for the parent.
5. UNVEILING the tombstone (matzevah) is a ritual that became common in the 19th century, when close family gathers at the grave to unveil the marker and read Psalms and Kaddish. Timing of the unveiling depends on local custom: in some communities it is done at one year, in others at the end of sheloshim, and in others, at any convenient time at least a week after burial. It is traditional to visit the graves of loved ones, and to leave a stone on the tombstone as a sign that someone has visited.
6. YARTZEIT is the observance of the anniversary of the person’s death. (The first yahrzeit is observed at the anniversary of the burial; after that, it’s the anniversary of death.) Mourners say Kaddish for the person and it is the custom in some places to burn a yahrzeit candle. It is an opportunity to remember the person, and if the feelings are still there, to grieve in the arms of one’s community.
7. YIZKOR is a memorial service attached to the major Jewish holidays. It means “May [God] remember” but really, it is an opportunity for us to remember, and to have an opportunity to feel the feelings that may come up with memory. Yizkor takes place as part of services on Yom Kippur, on Shmini Atzeret, on the last day of Passover, and on Shavuot.
It takes time and effort to rebuild our lives after a significant loss. Jewish tradition allows us the time and space to fully mourn, then put away mourning for a return to life, all the while honoring the memory of the deceased. Remember that if you have to deal with people who want you to “get over it” and get back to work or social obligations, Jewish mourning is a religious obligation as well as a psychologically healthy approach to dealing with loss.
May you be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.