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Mourning My Mother, Finally

For years, I tried to forget my mother’s suicide. Then a yahrzeit notice made me face the past.

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Memorial Day

Without ritual and prayer, grief for a lost loved one has no place to go. But can a convert to Judaism observe yahrzeit for a non-Jewish parent?

My Mother’s Loving Silence

A Holocaust survivor, she nurtured me with silence. This Mother’s Day, I’ll mourn for her—quietly.

On Mother’s Day in 1972, my mother took her own life.

Although I was just 17, I was the oldest of three children, so my father relied on me to help him keep our family together. The combined responsibilities of school and caretaking proved to be an effective form of anesthesia, helping me forget her death, as well as the way her disintegration had darkened my world for almost a decade before that. Once I was away at college it became easy to live as if nothing bad had ever happened. I stored away my sorrow in the almost-perfect hiding place that distance and time provide. I attended to my studies, graduated, pursued a career, and married. And I did all I could to make sure that my mother and the circumstances of her death were no longer part of me.

When I decided to have children, I let my capacity for self-reliance carry me along. I gave birth to a beautiful, healthy daughter and two years later, to a beautiful, healthy son, and I jumped into motherhood. I was enraptured by my children, goofy in love with them, aloft with delight. My own mother was a forgotten subject. Thoughts of her didn’t fit into my crayon-colored world.

That held true with the exception of one day each year: Mother’s Day. The clash of public expectation and private history upended my cheer. Even before I had children, I’d had to wall off the anguish it provoked in me in order to acknowledge my stepmother and mother-in-law every spring. After my children arrived, each Mother’s Day became a struggle against the lump in my throat, as I responded to their sweet attentions and handmade gifts. The contrast between the happy hurly-burly in my home and the clenched emotions inside my heart always left me drained. In the middle of the night, I would lie awake trying to remember how to forget about my mother.

My children grew up and went to college. I got divorced and made other changes to my life, including fulfilling my long-held desire to convert to Judaism. In April of the first year of my study for conversion, I found an envelope in my mailbox. It was a letter from the synagogue I had joined, signed by the rabbi I was studying with, announcing my mother’s upcoming yahrzeit. I stared at the paper in my hand, totally flummoxed. How did they know my mother was dead? How did they even know her name?

Then I remembered the form I had filled out for membership and the questions I had absent-mindedly answered about my parents. I appreciated the synagogue’s gesture, but I was alarmed at the prospect of acknowledging my mother’s death in this solemn and reverent way. It seemed inappropriate, but more than that, it interfered with my desire for amnesia.

So, without researching it or checking with anyone who might have corrected me, I determined that her suicide and the fact that she was a non-Jew were enough to excuse me from observance. I sent in the suggested tzedakah and did nothing else, repeating this minimal response each of the following three years. The Hebrew calendar dates for my mother’s yahrzeit, like the dates for Mother’s Day, were always moving around, uncoupled from May 14, the date of her death on the civil calendar. Since both the yahrzeit and the civil calendar date were my own private anniversaries, they were easy for me to disregard. That left Mother’s Day, which I decided was enough to have to contend with each May.

But in those intervening three years, having completed my conversion, I did take part, on behalf of others, in the Jewish rituals for death and mourning. My fiancé, who is Jewish, lost his father, and for the first time I observed or participated in tahara, shiva, sheloshim, kaddish, and the unveiling. The following year I sat beside my fiancé in shul as he stood to say kaddish to mark his father’s yahrzeit, and I watched as he lit the candle at home. He knew that I couldn’t do the same for my mother, and he didn’t push. I think he knew I needed time.

Because we are middle-aged, there have been many shiva calls for us to make for contemporaries who have lost parents. Participating in shacharit is particularly moving to me—entering the home of a grieving friend in the hush of an early morning, saying prayers together, sharing the weight of the moment in an intimate setting. We made such a visit at the end of March this year. Walking home in the cold spring air, I thought about how much I had come to admire the way Judaism structures its rituals for managing grief and remembering the dead. I found the rituals beautiful in the abstract, and in the particular. I saw the value and importance of marking time, establishing prescribed ways of paying respect, and having the community participate. I marveled at the wisdom in the words of the kaddish, which makes no mention of sadness or death but instead is filled with praise for the creator of the universe and with requests for peace and life’s goodness. In the midst of these musings a fact popped into my head: May 14 of this year would mark the 40th anniversary of my mother’s death. I wasn’t immediately sure what to do with the significance of that piece of arithmetic, but it resonated and remained with me, waiting to be addressed.

Near the end of April, a letter arrived from my synagogue, announcing that this year my mother’s yahrzeit, the 22nd of Iyar, would fall on May 14. The convergence of civil calendar anniversary and yahrzeit date seemed to me to be a command, and I was prepared to obey it. There would be no more excuses, no more resistance, no more effort to forget.

I took the time to consult rabbinical teaching, which confirmed that converts could and should say kaddish for non-Jewish parents, and that Jewish law had long ago determined that since those who take their own lives usually suffer from mental illness, they therefore cannot be held responsible and are thus entitled to the mourning rites. Now, at last, I was ready. With a set time and a defined structure for remembrance, real solace appeared to be at hand.

I had been running away from my mother and her death for a long time, and for good reason. Suicide is traumatic, an act of physical and emotional violence. I witnessed how much my mother suffered for years—I knew she did what she felt she had to do to stop it. But that kind of suffering can be contagious, and I did what I felt I had to do to make sure I would heal, live, and thrive.

Enough time has passed, however, and my life as a Jew, and as part of a Jewish community, has strengthened me. I am ready to spend one day a year, my mother’s yahrzeit, to acknowledge her death and the lessons to be learned from it and, more important, to acknowledge the continuation of her life in me, my siblings, and her grandchildren. I am ready to stand and say mourner’s kaddish at my synagogue on Shabbat, to light a yahrzeit candle, to go to morning minyan on May 14.

And this year on Mother’s Day, I hope to end my annual recycling of sadness and instead to focus deeply and solely on the gratitude I have for my children and the gift that motherhood is to me.

***

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marjorie ingall says:

This brought tears to my eyes. Peace to you (and to your mother), Ms Blomquist. 

Jill Meyer says:

What a wonderful article, Ms Blomquist. Thank you for sharing your story. I hope both your conversion to Judaism and your renewed mourning for your mother brings you peace.

Siebenburgen says:

 I can understand you. Both your desire to protect yourself from that unbearable grief and the time it took you to acknowledge your feelings.

It will be 40 years next year that my twin sister ended her life and 30 years that her son, a gifted young law student, followed her example.

sarah jacobs says:

Thank you so much for writing this.  Mother’s Day cards make it all see so easy and straighforward.

As a mother, I’m still trying to wrap my head around the hostility of a mother committing suicide on Mother’s Day….and the burden given by that mother to her children… for ever.

I’m so happy that you are starting to find a way to make all of this complicated web that life and community is work for you.

I can think of no words that could possibly do justice to the words you’ve harnessed to convey the depth of your journey.  The closest I can find are Baruch Dayan Ha’Emet.

Dikla Hazony says:

An amazing article. You brought tears to my eyes… I hope you will never know no sorrow in your life. Love you and miss you very much!

Henk van Setten says:

A very recognizable and well-written account! I wonder if you know the semi-autobiographical novel A Tale of Love and Darkness (2002) by the Israeli writer Amos Oz? It’s (partly) about the suicide of his depressed mother when he was a child of 12. He may have something of value to give to you.
I come from a family that somehow is burdened with depressions: although we had wonderful parents, several of the children (including myself) had or still have to battle suicidal tendencies. One of my sisters killed herself in her early 30s, leaving behind a toddler of 4.
As a young student, I myself gave up on religion altogether (in fact, learning Hebrew as an obligatory component of my theology study was one of the things that caused the break, but that’s a different story). But I certainly will agree that the structuring rituals of religion – any religion – can be a great source of comfort and support. I like to see myself as an individualist and nonconformist now, but for me as a non-believer, that structural togetherness of religion – again, any religion – is something I will keep missing.
Henk (stayontop.org)

EvelynKrieger says:

May your mother’s memory be a blessing through your example and your children’s lives. 

navak says:

I am sorry for your mother, but as a convert, you are no longer related to your mother and you have no expectation to observe any yartheit for her.  It is not easy as a convert, but that is the way it is.

Iris Ailin-Pyzik says:

Navak is wrong.  Mourning rituals are for the survivors, not the dead.  For many years my own mother (of blessed memory) commented that the notion of saying kaddish even when was not obligated to do so, in memory of those who had no one left to say it for them, was a right thing to do.  Though she could not bring herself to do it, and though all those who she would be obligated to say it for had already passed away, so it was not an issue of one who had no obligation whatever (children whose parents were living, for example) to say kaddish, doing so.

Both of my parents are gone, and I have chosen to say kaddish at any service I attend, and I believe she would approve.

You certainly have the right to say it for your mother, and the notion that you are “no longer related” is preposterous.  While you may not be obligated to say kaddish, you may choose to.  Did you spring into being from thin air or in the manner that other religions believe their leader did?

Oudtshoorn says:

“No longer related to your mother”???   That is cruel and, as Iris Ailin-Pyzik writes, it is preposterous.   Observing Yahrzeit is a deeply spiritual and comforting ritual in which you have every right to take part.   The God of Navak does not seem like any God I have learnt about.

bezalelD says:

Thank you for your moving article.

I feel compelled to point out that Mothers Day in 1972 (Sunday May 14 1972)
fell out on Rosh Chodesh Sivan (1 Sivan).

Ilene London says:

My deepest condolences on your loss.  I admire the journey you have made to arrive at a point where you are able to acknowledge your feelings and honor your mother’s memory.

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Mourning My Mother, Finally

For years, I tried to forget my mother’s suicide. Then a yahrzeit notice made me face the past.

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