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In graphic memoir, children’s author aims to show adults what they don’t see about death

Jews measure mourning in time, and it was seven months from the day Marissa Moss’s husband Harvey was diagnosed with ALS to the day he died. Then seven days of sitting shiva in his memory, 30 days of memorial prayer, one year of grieving before unveiling his gravestone.

And it was 15 years before Moss published a memoir, documenting the anguish of that time. Now, she’s telling others what those rituals of Jewish mourning meant to her.

“I think Judaism is really good about giving you a place to put your grief,” Moss said last week during a visit to Adas Israel in Northwest Washington. “Americans are not like that. They want you to buck up — ‘You’re okay now.’”

Part of the problem, Moss said, is that American culture isolates death from everyday life, cordoning off the messy experiences of illness and grief in hospital rooms and nursing homes. Most people don’t see the ill or bereaved until they become the mourner themselves.

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With her memoir “Last Things,” published last month, Moss becomes one of a growing group of writers attempting to expose these hidden yet universal processes. From tell-all bloggers posting about every stage of sickness and death, to Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg’s “Option B” published after her husband’s untimely death, Moss joins in to illustrate grief — in her case, quite literally.

A prolific children’s book writer best known for her popular “Amelia’s Notebook” series, Moss has been telling stories through a mix of words and pictures for decades. But when she first sat down to create a memoir of Harvey’s illness, she only wrote prose.

Publishers balked.

“People said the writing is beautiful. It’s very powerful. But it’s so sad. Can you make it less sad?” Moss said to the audience at Adas Israel. (One person in the room called out, “Hell, no!”)

She could not make it less sad. Eventually she realized something she could do, though: She could draw it.

Painstakingly, panel by panel, she drew hospital rooms, Harvey’s ventilator, her own frazzled attempts to care for her rapidly deteriorating husband and her three young sons, her boys’ troubled faces as they watched their father die.

“It’s a way of telling a tough story in an accessible format,” she said about the graphic memoir. The finished product resembles Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home,” or Roz Chast’s “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant,” among a few other noted attempts to bring the graphic novel’s format to a memoir’s weighty material.

Moss hopes her book will introduce older women, who have most often had the experience of being caregivers, to reading graphic novels. And she hopes to provide teenagers, who already pick up graphic novels, with a true-to-life story about the emotions young people deal with when someone they love is ill.

“One of the reasons this book has a lot of vivid details is because I’m telling you all the things I wish someone had told me,” she said at Adas Israel. “The narrative we’re given as Americans is that illness ennobles you. We have the ‘Tuesdays with Morrie’ narrative. … You feel guilty about it. You’re not having these ennobling thoughts.”

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Instead, Moss’s book confronts the ugliest consequences of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, both physical and emotional. To her listeners at the synagogue, that wasn’t a surprise. The group she spoke with has the most intimate knowledge of death and grieving — the bereavement committee, a volunteer team that handles everything from funeral arrangements to the ritual washing of the body to sitting with the body round-the-clock until burial.

“This committee, I feel, is the bedrock of the synagogue,” said Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt, speaking about the aid that the volunteers provide to strangers in some of the worst moments of their lives. “The amount of quiet love that it takes to do this, it’s astounding to me.”

Edie Hessel, who runs the committee with her husband, Arthur, said that many of the most traditional Jewish funeral practices have come back into style. The previous generation of American Jews often picked funeral practices foreign to Judaism — stately caskets, flowers, sometimes even viewings of the body.

Now, even many nonreligious Jews are returning to tradition when their loved ones die. “What I’ve experienced is that people at this time really want to do what’s right for their loved one. And they fall back on tradition,” Hessel said. “If you look at the Jewish immigrants who came to this country in the 19th and early 20th century, they wanted to be American, and the way to do that was to copy what their neighbors were doing. They lost something that was really valuable. The Jewish traditions around death and dying are so psychologically appropriate for how people feel.”

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At the bereavement committee’s dinner, Arthur Hessel peppered Moss with questions about her experience going through those traditions after Harvey’s death, so their committee could learn. She recalled synagogue members at her own Berkeley, Calif., congregation who took care of all the funeral arrangements when she was too stunned to handle it, and she found great meaning in the week of sitting shiva, the recitation of the mourner’s prayer and the unveiling of Harvey’s headstone at the end of the first year without him.

“I had no idea how much Jewish ritual would help with the grieving,” she said.

“There are good deaths,” she told the committee, “and you’re helping people have them.”

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Jewish conversations about mourning often sound drastically different from other religious conversations, because Jews don’t typically express any certainty about an afterlife. Holtzblatt said that as a rabbi, she encourages mourners to imagine different possibilities based in Jewish writings — that the soul might reunite with God as energy or light, or might return to nourish the Earth. But she can’t offer assurances that a loved one is in heaven like other religions’ clergy. “I never lie,” she said. “Which means: I have no idea.”

Moss said she likes what Jews say instead: “May his memory be for a blessing.”

That’s what she has kept in mind as she committed her grief to the page, one cartoon panel at a time. And as she watched her children grow up without their father — the younger two, who were 6 and 10 when Harvey died, graduated with degrees in international relations and physics from Johns Hopkins University last week. “Harvey would have wanted to see it,” she said, breaking down in tears when she told the Adas Israel members about the graduation ceremony.

“May his memory be for a blessing,” she repeated. “What you have left is the memories. And they do bless you.”

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