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