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The Unofficial Mourner

I thought Jewish law left no role for me to grieve when my fiancé’s brother died. Now, I finally can.

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(Tablet Magazine)

Around the time of Rafi’s second yahrzeit last fall—two days before what would have been his 30th birthday—I cried for two days straight. At first, I thought maybe I was having some bad days at work, but the timing couldn’t have been more obvious. I was grieving. I was sad. I was angry. I tried to find books about loss, but none of them related to me. I didn’t lose a parent. I didn’t lose a sibling. I lost a would-be sibling. I lost the dream of the older brother. I lost the sweet, carefree time after Elie and I were engaged when everything was supposed to be beautiful replaced instead with sleepless nights in the ICU.

Around this time, I met someone who had known Rafi in college. “Did you know Rafi?” she asked me. The innocent question could not have been more painful or jarring. It hit the core of what it means to be an unofficial mourner. My relationship was not clear, the pain or loss that I feel was not obvious, or even justified, to others. I felt defensive. Did I need to prove my relationship with Rafi, or furthermore, did I need to prove why I was grieving? Surprised by the question, I answered emotionlessly, “Yes, we had been friends for the past five years,” and quickly changed the subject.

When I searched online for Judaism and mourning, all I found were rules for the “official mourners.” I was left feeling alone and lost.

Anxious for some guidance, I asked a rabbi, a friend of Rafi’s, for sources about nontraditional mourners. He guided me to Talmud Tractate Shabbat 105b and Moed Katan 20b. Not having studied Talmud since college, I asked Elie if he would study the texts with me. What we found was actually quite comforting. There seems to be clear consensus in the Talmud and Shulkhan Arukh (Jewish code of law) that if one is present when the soul departs the body (i.e., at the time of the death), one tears one’s clothes regardless of one’s relation to the deceased. There is an acknowledgement of the need to grieve and take on some traditional public mourning practices even if the deceased is not an immediate family member: a grandparent, an in-law, an almost in-law, a best friend, or a fiancé.

Why should I take on the obligations of mourning? Is it an acknowledgment of my own need to grieve? Or is it simply an acknowledgment of my relationship to my husband? The text doesn’t say.

To me, that ambiguity was—and continues to be—my reality. I am grieving for Rafi, a friend, a would-be brother-in-law, and for the pain that it has caused my partner and husband. I am sad that our future children will never know their uncle and that holidays and special occasions will always be bittersweet. Elie and I have learned how to support each other and understand that we each grieve and mourn differently. At times, Elie is my support, when I miss Rafi.

Now, when Yizkor starts, as it will again this weekend during Shavuot, I will stay. Whether it’s out of solidarity with Elie, or for myself and my own status as an unofficial mourner, I don’t know. All I know is that it feels right.


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Talia Liben Yarmush says:

This a beautiful and moving piece, and I hope it serves to bring some others comfort as well.

Thank you for this beautiful piece, and the opportunity to remember Rafi z”l – a wonderful teacher, leader, and friend.

Thank you Rob for posting this on Facebook. May his memory be for a blessing.

Thanks for this wonderful article. I just lost (last week) a very dear friend and former teacher, and have been struggling with how to mourn and commemorate him.

A poignant, bittersweet and inspiring essay to start this Shabbat/Shavuot weekend…thank you so much, Anya,  for sharing your feelings with all of us. As a long-time friend of Rafi’s parents, I think about the depth of their loss often. You found the words that are usually impossible to express.

Thanks, Anya. After my half brother Eli passed away almost a year ago in a car accident, any form of mourning I approached beyond that of caretaker of the nuclear family was considered a selfish one. The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss by Dr. George A. Bonanno gave me permission to be resilient professionally, while I had absolutely no idea how to mourn substantively away from the family, geographically and spiritually. Mourning without an outlet is a lonely place, and mourning a sibling or child is an especially anarchic state for everyone. Jewish law aside, I don’t believe there are any rules in the grieving process, though it behooves each mourner to act consistently with universal love, which entails absorbing the loner into the profound catharsis.

Sorry for your loss.  Never mind what the law or even some Rabbi says. Do what’s best for you after giving it your sincere examination.

You have movingly set forth why you feel the need to mourn.  We have so many ways to mourn.  For example, anyone can say Kaddish if moved to do so.  But, particularly since it is your family’s custom not to say Yizkor until you lose a parent and must, I urge you not to stay in for Yizkor.  Your chance to do so will come soon enough, believe you me.

latenight20009 says:

Customs evolve, particularly those based in large part on  superstition, i.e., that somehow being present  for Yizkor if one’s parents were alive would threaten their lives.

In many communities, congregants are urged to stay:  to witness/offer support for those who are saying Yizkor – or to say that prayer for those who had no  one to do so: AIDS victims, Holocaust victims….  — or, as implied here, to mourn those one needs to mourn, family member, teacher, friend, whether or not they fit one of the traditional categories. Remember, the prayer asks God to remember, even as the mourner does.

MosheManheim says:

Jewish law is not a culpret.  Judaism allows for mourning and grieving in a variety of ways.  Jewish law poses no restrictions to expressing grief for a loved one.  I believe Mr. Manning’s editors have atempted to create a conflict that does not exist.

Mike Schwartz says:

Thank you for sharing this beautiful, heart-wrenching, heart-warming story

anitaredner says:

Anya, in your sharing of this incredibly difficult experience and personal journey to mourn for Rafi within Jewish tradition, you also gave all of us the gift of learning about a very special human being.  I believe that there is great power in sharing memories of people who were beloved to you: it is healing for you and it gives others the ability to appreciate a life beautifully lived and to carry the shared memories of the special person in our hearts.  I understand your journey, as I chose to officially mourn several very special people in my life who didn’t fall into traditional categories: my beloved grandmother, who could not be officially mourned by my physically and mentally disabled mother; my nephew who died tragically at age 21 and had parents who could not say kaddish in a minyan in their rural town of few Jews, and my father-in-law, who treated me like a daughter for more years than my own father was able to since my Dad lost his life when I was 21.  Each of us has to find our own way, and I commend your willingness to explore Jewish texts to help find your answers.  Finally, as one of the many adults who nurtured your journey to adulthood at Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston, it is an honor to see what a thoughtful and caring adult you have become.

Iris Ailin-Pyzik says:

My mother, who had a far more Orthodox upbringing than I, used to say that it would be a mitzvah to say Kaddish even when one was not obligated to do so, since there were so many who had no one to say it for them.  However, she could not bring herself to do that.  Like the author,  I was sent out of Yizkor services until my father passed away.  When I reached the p0int where I had yahrzeits for both of my parents, I decided that I would say Kaddish at any service I attended, and I continue to do so.

I still feel (from my parents’ superstitions) that I would not be comfortable attending Yizkor until formally obligated, but saying Kaddish for a ‘close one’ is certainly a mitzvah.

(My mother also forbade us to run around the house in our stocking feet, saying one did this while sitting Shiva.  I always felt it was simply a way to avoid having to deal with very dirty socks…)

william lebeau says:

Dear Anya,
Thank you for having the strength to write this magnificent teaching and to be an inspiration to all of us.  I often think of Rafi (z”l) — of his spirit and the Torah he taught by his loving embrace of life. 
Bill Lebeau


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The Unofficial Mourner

I thought Jewish law left no role for me to grieve when my fiancé’s brother died. Now, I finally can.

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