The Unofficial Mourner
I thought Jewish law left no role for me to grieve when my fiancé’s brother died. Now, I finally can.
On Sept. 1, 2009, my fiancé Elie and I held our engagement party. His brother Rafi, who’d been my friend for years, came and delivered a beautiful dvar Torah, where he said how much he was looking forward to having me as his sister. Then he walked out of the party and fell down the stairs outside our apartment. He was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance and admitted to the intensive-care unit two days after that. Thirty days later—the day after Yom Kippur, the Day of Judgment when, according to Jewish tradition, God decides who will live and who will die—Rafi passed away.
Learning how to mourn for Rafi has been a long journey. He wasn’t technically my family member—yet—when he died, so the rituals that most Jews know, from saying the Mourner’s Kaddish to lighting yahrzeit candles, didn’t necessarily apply to me. But what rituals were appropriate for me to observe? I’d fallen through the cracks when it came to mourning as a Jew, not quite a relative, but certainly not a stranger. More than two years later, though, I’ve come to find my own place, and this weekend, when mourners gather to say Yizkor during Shavuot, I will stay in the sanctuary alongside the other mourners and remember Rafi, the man who would have been and should have been my brother-in-law.
Rafi was a late bloomer. He got by in a big public school in Gainesville, Fla., but really came into his own when he spent a semester of high school in Israel in 1999. The son of a rabbi, Rafi had a true love for Judaism, and when he went to Goucher College, he became president of Hillel. Rafi was a standout student at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s rabbinical school, and at Camp Ramah Darom in Clayton, Ga., where he was regarded as a kind of rebbe, having worked there for over 10 years and having served as a counselor, unit head, and spiritual director.
I first met Rafi in the winter of 2004. I was in Israel for a few weeks during winter break of my sophomore year of college and needed a place to crash. Elie, who was just a friend at that point, told me to contact his brother, who was living in Jerusalem. Rafi was spending a year post-college and pre-rabbinical-school studying at the Conservative Yeshiva, and Elie was going to be joining him for the second semester as part of his pre-college gap year. While it may seem rare for a 22-year-old to be excited about living with his 18-year-old kid brother, Rafi and Elie were more than brothers; they were best friends, study partners at yeshiva, and co-chefs in the kitchen.
One day, Rafi took two of his friends and me around the Old City of Jerusalem. Rafi had an intimate knowledge of Jerusalem and had made friends with some of the Old City’s more colorful denizens. That day, we had tea with the owner of a pottery store who offered to take us up to the Temple Mount (we graciously declined) and stopped by to say “hi” to Rafi’s hookah man. Even now, I can see Rafi, with his auburn curls, cargo shorts, and brightly colored polo, leading us through the Jaffa Gate, pointing out items in the shuk with characteristic enthusiasm.
After a year in Israel, both Rafi and Elie returned to the States to study at JTS, Rafi to the rabbinical school and Elie to the undergraduate college, where I was a junior. Elie and I began dating shortly after that. While Elie and I grew closer, Rafi and I did, too. Elie and I would double-date with Rafi and his girlfriend regularly over the next four years.
At some point, I learned that Rafi was suffering from x-linked hypophosphatemia, a form of rickets, a disorder that often leads to problems with softening bones. But we had no idea how severe the complications had become. Rafi was hospitalized a few times in 2007 and 2008 with anemia, but there was no indication that any of this would be fatal. Not even in his last year, when he looked weaker and seemed less steady on his feet, did we realize the severity of his condition. There are so many unanswered questions about Rafi’s health, and even how he fell down the stairs. I wish I could say definitively what he died from, but we just don’t have that kind of clarity.
In Jewish tradition, when a holiday falls during shiva or shloshim, the mourning period is truncated. Since Rafi’s funeral was three days before Sukkot, shiva was only two-and-a-half days, and shloshim ended 20 days later because of Shemini Atzeret. During shiva, I met some of Elie’s friends from camp and relatives, people I was supposed to meet at our wedding. It was all completely surreal.
Somehow, we got through that first month. Elie dutifully put on a suit every morning and worked his nine-to-five job as a paralegal. He didn’t talk about Rafi or his death very much. I knew I needed to give Elie his space, but I also knew that it was probably good to talk about it, at least a little bit. Sometimes I would ask Elie how he was feeling or if he was thinking about Rafi, and the answer was always: “I think about Rafi and miss him every minute. I don’t know what else to say.”
At times, it was frustrating. Elie would tell me that he cried, but he never cried when I was around. Why, I wondered, could he let down his guard and cry when I was not around, but barely talk about his feelings when we were together? I came to learn that no matter how hard I was trying to allow Elie to process, I was actually projecting onto Elie how I wanted to process. I wanted to tell Elie how I was feeling. I wanted to recall and retell what happened in the hospital: Did that really happen to Rafi, and to us?
But I didn’t have any official status as a mourner, according to Jewish law. The definition of a mourner, spelled out in Leviticus, is quite clear: a parent, spouse, child, or sibling of the deceased. Elie was a mourner. I was not. The way I saw it, my role was not to mourn. It was to comfort Elie and his parents—the official mourners—and to put my own feelings aside. If Elie wanted to talk, I would listen. If Elie wanted to sit in silence, we would do that. If Elie wanted to distract himself and go for a walk or cook an elaborate meal, we did that. My duty was to follow suit and support. We had just gotten engaged, and we were learning how to be partners for each other at the same time that we were going through the hardest year of our lives.
I thought back to see what lessons I’d learned about mourning when I was younger, hoping I might find some answers to make this difficult year easier. When I was a child growing up in Natick, Mass., my family attended the local Conservative synagogue regularly. The only time my parents ever told me to leave services was during Yizkor, the memorial service that comes four times a year: Yom Kippur, Passover, Shemini Atzeret, and Shavuot. Whenever Yizkor started, my father, whose parents are both alive, would quickly motion for my siblings and me to follow him out of the sanctuary. We knew we had about 10 minutes before we had to go back into the service. Growing up, I thought it was forbidden to attend Yizkor if you weren’t remembering an immediate family member.
That’s the lesson I carried inside me after Rafi died—that I wasn’t allowed to mourn. Not even once Elie and I got married nine months after Rafi passed away, thus giving me a somewhat “official,” though posthumous, connection to Rafi. I felt that I wanted to mourn on my own, but I didn’t know how.
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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