Jewish traditions and rituals help to ease the grief following a father’s death

June 13, 2012

The author is a contributor to The Washington Post's local faith leader network.

I am not sure I am a woman of faith. I pray at a minyan (a prayer service) daily and have always enjoyed the ritual of Kabbalat Shabbat, by which Jews greet the Sabbath Friday nights, but I struggle with the notion of faith- the serene acceptance of God’s unyielding power. 

My Grandma Muriel was a very faithful Catholic, attending Mass every day.  She believed with her whole heart that if God did not want her to die, she could lie down in the middle of Lake-Cook Road in suburban Chicago, and she would survive.  But my father is the reason that I grapple with my faith today.  On June 27, it will be six months since the Chicago police called to tell me he was on his way to the emergency room.  He died that night. I have spent the time since then struggling with my faith while simultaneously embracing religious ritual.

This is my first Father’s Day without him, and an overwhelming five- and-a-half months have passed since that phone call.  I am blessed with a devoted circle of friends who have enveloped me like family during the Jewish periods of bereavement: Shiva, the seven days of private mourning after the funeral, Sheloshim, the first month after the death, when Jews wear a torn black ribbon to make our mourning public, and Shenim Asar Chodesh, the year after a parent has died.  As I grieve, I recite the Mourner’s Kaddish daily, and after this year, I will mark the anniversary of my father’s death by reciting this prayer. These Jewish rituals have provided a path through my grief.  Though my father was a lapsed Catholic, he faithfully saw to it that I learned the building blocks of a Jewish life, schlepping me to and from Hebrew school, synagogue and summer camp, and thereby preparing me to cope with his death. 

As I grieve my father, it is at a monthly Friday night Shabbat service that I am most able to connect, to grieve and to heal.  Metro Minyan, a growing prayer group for 22-39-year-olds led by Washington Hebrew Congregation’s Rabbi Aaron Miller, has given me a spiritual home. If my faith exists, it lives with this traveling community, which meets in a different Metro-accessible location each month.  At Metro Minyan, I am surrounded by my friends and peers lifting their voices in joyful song, and I feel the presence of something greater than myself or my community. 

Metro Minyan is one of the few minyanim I attend where I am asked to share my father’s name before I say Kaddish. Each month my voice gets a bit less shaky and I hope by the December gathering I’ll be able to say my father’s name in a full clear voice. I know that if I had no faith, this prayer would not grip me the way that it does, particularly at these monthly meetings.  Kaddish is not about death, but rather about praising God for creating peace and reaching out for something sacred. Surrounded by this holy community, I feel a sense of calm I find nowhere else.  Here, my prayers and this community heal my broken heart and shape my still unsteady faith. 

At Metro Minyan, I am filled with a sense of belonging that I so desperately need in this time of mourning.  We are creating rituals that speak to me as a young, progressive and religious Jew while holding fast to many of the liberal traditions that shaped my upbringing. I give thanks and pray for the peace I need to heal and the strength to make my life whole. I pray not for the steadfast faith of Grandma Muriel, but for the quiet commitment to my religious rituals, life and community that my father, Patrick, instilled in me.  May his memory be for a blessing.

Catherine Heffernan is a resident of the District and a graduate of Brandeis University.

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