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