People talk about the first year as though crossing that threshold is a thing. I used to hate it because it felt like there was an expectation that a person would be done grieving after a year. But I don’t think that’s it. I think it’s actually a hope for comfort. As if once you’ve made it a year, you will keep making it. You’ve proven to yourself that you can breathe, you can laugh, you can enjoy being her daughter even when she isn’t here the way she should be.
One year ago, on June 19 my mother took her last breath. I waited up with the rest of the family for the nurse to come and declare her time of death and call the coroner: the logistics of a person dying (humans are nothing if not organized). We gathered around the living room in a collective sigh – relieved her pain was over. Still, there is something unbelievable about death. I had to walk back into the room to see it again with my eyes and I wonder how many people before me have done the same thing; have needed confirmation after confirmation. Death simply doesn’t seem a natural state.
Stunned, I went back into the room I was sharing with my three children and I fell asleep an atheist. For the first time in my life I knew it was all a crock – a set of nice stories meant to soothe our feelings of futility. Any light was imperceptible to me. I could not imagine anymore that I would see her again or that the world was okay. It seemed only like a dark place spiraling faster and faster toward chaos. She was gone and I was alone. I cursed a God I didn’t believe in as I went to sleep for the first time without a mother. I noticed. It wasn’t the same. There is the world with your mother in it and the world without her. It was cold and unsafe.
The last year has been color splattered over grey with increasing confidence. A year ago I was surprised to wake up and find that I could smile. We made awful jokes and I laughed. In one moment I found myself feeling sorrow at her absence and the deepest gratitude. As time marched on, stubborn and persistent, I found more ways to hold these things together – the dark and light, the joy and pain. I learned that my arms are strong and when they aren’t…
Well, my people have arms. Good ones.
I’ve been so attracted to the Jewish mourning rituals because they include the idea that you cannot get through it alone, that you need your community to do it well: The aninut days surrounding burial when, according to Rabbi Margaret Holub, the grieving “border on death themselves.” The week of shiva where you are fed and held and not expected to be anything but broken. The month long shloshim where you begin to return to your rhythms, with care not to go about life completely as usual. And for those mourning parents, the year long period of reciting Kaddish – a prayer of God’s greatness – with people. You aren’t even allowed to say this prayer alone, you are required to say it twice a day with at least 10 people from your synagogue. Then finally, Yahrtzeit marks one year from the death and is recognized every year by a candle and a recitation of Kaddish.
Obviously, I’m not Jewish. I didn’t observe the rituals or recite an aramaic prayer every day and I don’t even know where the nearest synagogue is. But I related to this sublimely human impulse to mark time and honor the pain, to acknowledge that this is a drawn out and gradual process, and to provide some scaffold to climb back into life again, however changed.
Throughout the last year I have not been able to carry my grief by myself, nor have I been able to hold my faith. So my people came alongside me to do it for me. I’ve felt safe to doubt and rail and found agreement in surprising places. I’ve been allowed – even encouraged – to avoid any sanitization of something so obviously despicable, but to avoid writing off Love altogether. There has been this knowing, this trust, that yeah, love wins, babe, we’ll wait with you to see it, too.
There is this beautiful tradition for ending shiva. The mourner’s friends and family gather around her and walk her out her door and around her block to signify that she is reemerging into society, but she is not alone.
My community doesn’t have built-in traditions around mourning. My tradition provides no framing around death except that it’s not so bad which, frankly, just wasn’t cutting it and made me angry. So in that empty space we’ve made it up. My shiva was delivered meals and gifts and cards and babysitting. My shloshim was skipping Sundays and admitting that I wasn’t sure I believed in God anymore. My year was full of wrestling hard, trying to reorient, figuring out what fit where after the crumbling. Everything done with people around me who didn’t want me to do it alone.
This year, on the first anniversary of her death, some of my people gathered at my house and let me ramble about her dying, about this year, about my infatuation with these ancient acknowledgements of what it means to lose someone. I lit a candle next to her portrait and felt the weight of her absence, the absurdity of being one year without her. I also felt the closeness of people who care about this, about honoring the loss of her, about loving me.
During one of several silent spaces, I looked to my friends on the couch and said, “I don’t know what to do.” They replied in unison how more than okay it was, how I didn’t have to know. And isn’t that just too much? Isn’t that everything we are, the boiled down version of what it means to be human? That we look to each other, scared and broken for answers, that we meet those inquiries with compassion and kindness, that we admit to each other that nobody knows how to do this, but we’ll figure it out together?
My mother was a main support. She was a pillar of the Love she taught me was foundational, a touchstone to the fundamental truths of living. Since she died I’ve had to find where to put my feet, what I can hold onto. What I’ve found as I’ve reached my hands out in the dark is that there is no shortage of hands reaching back. I’ve learned that my mother’s love is still here. It’s in the people who love me, who will show up and do weird little ceremonies with me on short notice. Who will leave their phone on in case I need them, who let me come over puffy-faced at 10pm to talk about how much I miss her.
I blew out her candle at 11:30 – the same time her candle went out one year ago – and then my indulgent friends walked me down my street and back. Holding their hands in the dark as we formed a line across the dark road I knew it again. I felt foundation under my feet, truth in every breath: we are loved. We are love. And God’s love is my mom’s love is my friends’ love is life. The world is not safe, but it’s okay. And we’re not alone.
This year on June 19 I fell asleep a believer.
Mudhouse Sabbath by Lauren F. Winner has provided the basis for my (very limited) knowledge of the Jewish mourning rituals I mentioned.
This rendition of Psalm 23 is an absolute favorite of mine; the passage a favorite of my mother’s.