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My Father Died

            I found out that my father had died by listening to Mom’s side of a phone call. It took a while for me to figure out that she was talking to my brother, and then even longer to figure out that he was telling her my father had died. I had to wait until the call was over to get the details – that my father had been in and out of nursing homes and hospitals for the past three years (which we sort of knew, from clues but not from direct information), that he didn’t have dementia (which is what Mom had assumed), and that there was drama around when and where the funeral would take place.

            I wrote to four people after I found out – two good friends, my therapist, and my rabbi. And my rabbi rushed out of a committee meeting (reluctantly?) to call me and see what I might need from him. He already knew the backstory, about the sexual abuse and the estrangement (I hadn’t seen my father in 23 years), and he said something that really stuck with me. He said that the commandment to Honor your father and mother is often misinterpreted. The word in Hebrew is Kaved, which actually means weight or weigh, not respect or honor. It means that you should weigh the role of your parents in your life when you decide what you owe them in return; you are not required to blindly honor or respect a parent simply because they are your parent, but because they acted as a parent should and raised you with love and respect and guided and protected you. The commandment to Honor your father and mother is not meant to be a get out of jail free card for any parent who abuses or neglects their children.

            I am not orthodox, like my brother and his family, and I don’t believe that my rabbi is the final word on what I can and can’t do as a Jewish woman, but it helped to have validation and support, both from a person I trust and from the tradition of my ancestors.

            I made sure to tell my rabbi not to put out an announcement that my father had died or to add my father’s name to the list for the Mourner’s Kaddish at our synagogue at Friday night services. I didn’t want to receive messages from people who care about me but don’t know my situation, telling me that they are sorry for my loss and may my father’s memory be a blessing. It isn’t a blessing. He wasn’t a blessing in my life.

“Grr.”

            Jewish funerals are required to take place as soon as possible after the death, but I did not go (though Mom watched it on Zoom to support my brother and his children). And I didn’t go to sit Shiva at my brother’s house, though Mom went to visit and to offer support, avoiding discussions about what did and did not happen in the past.

            I stayed home and sought comfort from my friends and my dogs and my therapist, but I was jealous of my brother’s ability to mourn our father, and all of the Jewish rituals that would support him through that process. I found myself feeling jealous of anyone who could find comfort in hearing their lost loved one’s name read out each week before the Mourner’s Kaddish, or who found comfort in saying the Mourner’s Kaddish and praising God in the memory of their lost loved one. I’m jealous of people for whom the traditional rituals work – like giving nostalgic eulogies and having friends and family over to reminisce and tell stories and share food for a week. Those mourning rituals are so beautiful and powerful, but only when thinking about the lost loved one is a comfort.

“Oy.”

            My situation doesn’t fit into the traditional framework. My father sexually abused me, and others. He was a pedophile and a narcissist and a manipulator, and he denied what he’d done and denied the significance of the things he couldn’t dispute having done, and never made any attempt to make amends. If anything, he continued to try to convince important people in my life that I was lying and he was a victim. The fact is, I still live in a world that doesn’t want to reckon with the reality that abuse and neglect are everywhere, and that they destroy lives every day.

            This was brought home to me, vividly, that night, when, after writing my emails and texts and making my phone calls, I tried to distract myself with an episode of New Amsterdam on NBC. It’s a hospital show with an idealistic bent, often too simplistic, but still hopeful about making the world a better place. It’s not my favorite show, but I watch it regularly and often find it comforting and/or interesting. But for whatever reason, that night, out of nowhere, the writers chose to go down a rabbit hole about Recovered Memories.

            Recovered Memories is a somewhat generic term that people often use to describe traumatic memories that have been forgotten at some point and then remembered later. A lot of how you define the term Recovered Memories depends on what your intentions are: if you want to debunk the idea that it’s even possible for memories to return after a period of forgetting, you will probably define Recovered Memories as wholly forgotten and then remembered only with the help of a therapist or a drug; if you believe that trauma can cause memories to fragment or be blocked for some period of time, you’ll probably define Recovered Memories more generally, as partial forgetting and partial remembering over time, often triggered by events in the present that remind you of the past trauma (like your own child reaching the age you were at when you were abused).

            On this episode of New Amsterdam, the writers decided to take the loveable psychiatrist on the show, who is more often than not empathetic and kind, and have him testify in court that all Recovered Memories, of any kind, are unreliable. They even had him quote a study about The Shopping Mall Experiment, where the researchers said they were able to “implant” memories in susceptible adults of having been lost in a mall in childhood. The study has been debunked for any number of reasons, but the biggest reason is that traumatic memory and “normal” memory are not the same, and while being lost in a mall might be scary, it would not qualify as a traumatic memory unless something traumatic happened while you were lost.

            But still, I wanted to believe that the writers on the show were going to handle the issue sensitively, and in the next scene they gave me hope when the psychiatrist’s female colleague confronted him with her own recovered memory (though not of abuse), and with the terrible impact his testimony would have on millions of women and children who had been abused and tried to testify to that in court. But then the psychiatrist doubled down on his belief that not only Recovered Memories, but ALL memories, are unreliable. He went on to specifically attack the legitimacy of his female colleague’s memories, by researching the probable season and location where the memory would have taken place, disputing her memories of the weather on that day in order to prove to her that it could not have happened the way she remembered it. He was relentless and wildly inappropriate, and the writers gave no explanation for why he would feel so strongly about this particular issue or why he would be willing to be so cruel to his friend.

By the end of the episode it seemed to me that the writers’ intention was to use this whole storyline as a way to question the female colleague’s memories of how her father had left her when she was little, so she could reassess her feelings towards her still living mother and therefore change her plans to move to London, which threatened the status quo at the hospital; but they could have found hundreds of other ways to change her mind without invalidating millions of people.

            I was in shock. The violence of the psychiatrist’s attack on his friend seemed to come out of nowhere, and the female colleague’s willingness to forgive him right away was out of character and bizarre. But more than that, the way the writers were misrepresenting the research was horrifying, especially because it is well known in the field that traumatic memories often have missing or distorted nonessential details, like the time of day, or the weather, or the clothes you were wearing, and those mistaken details have no bearing on whether or not the crux of the memory is true.

            The emotions I couldn’t produce in response to the news of my father’s death came roaring up as I watched this show and felt invalidated and manipulated all over again. You can’t prove it and therefore it didn’t happen. You have no pictures and I don’t want to believe you and therefore it didn’t happen. Your memories, your symptoms, your feelings, are nothing in the face of what I want to believe.

            But I’ve done the reading that the writers on New Amsterdam clearly did not bother to do, and I’ve done the listening, to many people who have been abused, and I know that the brain often tries to protect us from knowing things we are not ready to deal with. I just felt so let down that a show that had seemed thoughtful and kind was no longer trustworthy.

“Oh no!”

            I am still processing my father’s death, and trying to figure out how it changes things, if it changes things. I am safer now than I was as a child. I am loved and supported and listened to and believed; and I cherish the people who have brought me comfort and made my world a better place. But the mourning process is still ongoing, for the loss of the childhood and the father I could have had, and for the years spent trying to recover, and I wish there could be established rituals to help me through this kind of mourning. There are so many of us in similar situations, trying to cobble together the support we need to move forward. I can’t be the only one who struggles to create those rituals on my own, and I can’t be the only one who feels let down by a world that refuses to acknowledge the pervasiveness and validity of the need for those rituals.

“Would hugging a puppy help?”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

Sitting Shiva

 

In seventh grade, when I was still new to Orthodox Judaism, the general studies principal at my school lost his mother, and the students were bused, grade by grade, to visit him at his home, where he was sitting Shiva. After the funeral, in Jewish tradition, comes Shiva. Shiva means seven, and the idea is that, for seven days, the mourners remain at home and visitors come to them. Maybe seven days was the limit people could consider taking off from work. Maybe seven days was the limit before people became restless and overwhelmed. If you are very observant, there are countless rules to abide by during Shiva – no shaving, always wear a torn piece of clothing, cover mirrors, sit on lowered seats (boxes are specially made for this purpose), etc. Visitors come at pre-set times, to help make a minyan (ten people) for communal prayer.

It was frightening to imagine that we were supposed to offer comfort to the principal of the school, someone so much more grown up than we would ever be. It was scary just to think of him as someone who might need comfort. And yet, my memory of that day isn’t full of fear and darkness. Somehow, the ritual of the visit, the way we each wished him well as he sat on his low chair and he let us see him be sad, and crying, and smiling too, made the day feel full of light, though it could just be that we happened to be there at the right time of day, so that sunlight was shining in through the windows.

I’ve had to go to a number of funerals and Shiva visits in the past few years, as I’ve become more active in my synagogue and gotten to know the older members. When you make friends with 90-year-olds, funerals become more common occurrences.

A friend of mine lost her father over Passover. His death had been a long process, and in large part she had done her grieving and letting go over the last few years of his life, as she lost pieces of him to illness. The last thing to go was his conviction that he had to stay in order to take care of his wife; that commitment outlasted hunger, even the ability to swallow, by months.

Shiva had to be delayed until after Passover, and then only lasted one day because an unofficial mourning period had already been going on, with friends calling from all over the country for a week. There were so many people at her house that I didn’t know, and I felt out of place and uncool. But then, before the Mourner’s Kaddish, my friend read the eulogy she’d written for the funeral, and as she read it I felt like she was conjuring her father into the room. I could almost see him in the corner, with a bemused expression on his face, wearing his white doctor’s coat and his college tie, and complaining about the driver who cut in front of him on the expressway.

I think that the value of a ritual like Shiva is that it forces you to ask for the things you really need, but maybe don’t think you deserve. When I’m depressed, I lose most of my social skills. But for those seven days, the idea is, your rabbi and friends and family and neighbors are given a schedule for when they can interrupt your isolation. They have a clear mandate to visit you, and bring you food, and pray with you. This is one of the benefits of belonging to a synagogue; there are set practices and communication paths to go by, for everything related to a death in the family, if someone calls and asks what you need, you can tell them. I wish there were more of this for other life events.

There’s a rule that you can’t sit Shiva on Shabbat. If you are three days into Shiva and Friday night comes along, you change out of your mourning clothes and wash and dress and go to the synagogue to say the Mourner’s Kaddish with your community. Maybe the message is that happiness and community will be there waiting for you when you are ready for them, or maybe it’s to remind you that the grief will not last forever, because all around you are people who were in mourning at one time, and now they are singing the prayers and smiling at friends, and one day that will be you too. But I’m not sure if I could bear it, seeing other people’s lives going on all around me, seeing happiness.

Ideally I’d have a sleep over starting from the moment of loss. I’d have people in sleeping bags in every corner of the apartment to help me through every moment. But then I think, if my mom actually died, I wouldn’t be able to host people at all. I’d be curled up in a ball, with Cricket, under the couch. Butterfly would have to take care of both of us.

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Cricket hides under the couch, a lot.

 

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Butterfly is very good at offering comfort.

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But paperwork might be too much for her.

Just like there is no sanctioned way to do a Jewish funeral for a dog, or to say the Mourner’s Kaddish for a dog, there is certainly no Shiva for dogs. Right after my last dog, Dina, died, my mother had a long-scheduled trip and had to leave town for two weeks, so I was home alone with the death, in silence. I cleaned obsessively, and having that mindless physical task to do was helpful, but I think I would have liked it if my friends with dogs could have come over and filled the house with their voices, and their dogs’ voices. Maybe I could have offered up the last of Dina’s dog food as a ceremony, or given away the leftover pee pads. But, in the event, I didn’t know how to ask for company, or accept help when it was offered. Maybe if there’d been a set ritual to follow, I could have forced myself to follow it. It would have been such a relief, to tell my Dina stories, and share my grief, and have people all around me who cared that I had lost someone so important to me.

 

dina smiles

My Dina

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Grandma’s pretty good at offering comfort too.

The Day My Grandfather Died

I was eight years old and we’d just gotten back from visiting him in the hospital the day before. Memorial Day weekend. We’d stayed at a campground near the hospital in Mount Kisco, New York, as if it was just another adventure, not pancreatic cancer.

I think we were only there one night, and then visited him in the hospital in the morning, but I don’t remember much. It was the phone call the next morning, as the bus was arriving for school that stuck with me.

Mom answered the phone on the wall in the kitchen, next to the yellow and orange wallpaper that was starting to peel. The skin around Mom’s eyes turned dark purple and if she said anything I don’t remember it, but I knew that Grandpa was dead.

I was in a fog. My grandpa was the first of my four grandparents to die, and the one I needed the most. He was the one who loved us. He was the one who could fix everything, or at least that’s what I wanted to believe. His death meant that we were on our own.

We had to go to school anyway, me and my brother. He was ten years old and I was eight, and he didn’t talk to me on the bus or in the hallway at school, ever. My friend Alex noticed that I wasn’t my usual self in the one class we had together, art. He chatted to try to get me to smile, and listened when I remembered how to talk, but mostly he just watched me, to make sure I was okay and not shattering into tiny pieces.

My parents picked my brother and me up from school at noon, and took us to the deli where our father picked up too many sandwiches, and chatted with the counterman, and drank Dr. Brown’s celery soda, (really gross), before we drove up to Westchester to see Grandma.

The funeral had to be planned. Relatives had to arrive. Decisions about the future had to be made. But I just remember sour pickles and pastrami sandwiches and the utter emptiness of that house without Grandpa in it.

My grandfather was my idea of God – a little bit frail and not especially powerful but full of love and joy. I knew he loved me, and my brother, and my cousins, and I knew there was enough love for all of us. My grandfather was the only person in the world who seemed to have power over my father, though he rarely used it.

One of my aunts spoke at the funeral, but I don’t remember much about that day. A lot of funerals seem to mush together from those years: the funeral parlor, the pine box, the black ribbons, the cemetery, the prayers, and all of those grey stones. What stays with me is the grief; the void of no-Grandpa that we were left with after that.

I don’t remember Delilah, our Doberman Pinscher, being a part of things. Did she come with us camping that weekend? Did she sleep on my feet after the funeral? Was she there in the kitchen when the phone rang? I don’t know. But I do know that I would have talked to her about all of it, like I learned to talk to Grandpa after he died, and like I used to talk to God. I never considered it talking to myself, because I always knew that someone was listening.

Delilah.

Delilah.

Delilah and my brother, comforting each other.

Delilah and my brother, comforting each other.

And Delilah, who loved me in her own quiet way, was always willing to listen.

Delilah's favorite form of listening.

Delilah’s favorite form of listening.

Mourner’s Kaddish

I have felt, for a long time now, that I have mourning to do, without the rituals with which to do it. My grandfather died when I was eight years old and I was not required, or even allowed, to say the Mourner’s Kaddish for him. I have lost dogs, but there is no ritual of Jewish mourning for a dog. There is also no mourning ritual after a betrayal or divorce. There are rituals for birth, coming of age, marriage, and death, but there are more events in life than that.

Delilah at the beach.

Delilah at the beach.

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Dina loved peanut butter.

The Mourners Kaddish is not actually about death, it is about reiterating faith in God. The prayer is mostly in Aramaic, rather than Hebrew. I never studied ancient Aramaic, so I only really understand this prayer because of the English translation. But the sound of the words, sung or spoken, has power, maybe because it sounds different from the largely Hebrew prayers in the rest of the service. It’s almost like the words have magic because of their otherness, as if secrets are hidden within them.

My favorite line of the prayer is a long list of the types of praise we offer. From the Artscroll Siddur: “Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled, mighty, upraised, and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed is He beyond any blessing and song, praise and consolation that are uttered in the world.”

It sounds better in the Aramaic, but it’s this long list of the ways we express love. And yes, we say them about God, but I think of them as being about us, about each other. These are all of the ways we experience and express our love for each other – with glory or comfort, with praise or song, and yet we can never capture all of that love in words because it is beyond the words we have available to describe it. So, yes, we are being reminded to have faith in God at our lowest moment, when we might feel as if God has forsaken us, but for me, it is a moment to acknowledge the love we still feel for the person we have lost, and for the people we still have.

Cricket, giving thanks for a leaf.

Cricket, giving thanks for a leaf.

Butterfly, in silent prayer, for chicken.

Butterfly, in silent prayer, for chicken.

The Mourner’s Kaddish can only be said with a quorum (ten Jews, some congregations still count only men) as part of the service. People who would otherwise say a hasty version of their morning prayers at home before work, will, for the year of mourning, make a point of finding an early service at their own or another synagogue, and hope that at least ten people will show up in time.

The Mourner’s Kaddish is said at the end of the service, not at the beginning, and I can think of a couple of reasons for this: one, so that the mourners will stay for the whole service in order to maintain the quorum and allow for all of the communal prayers to be said; and two, because there is healing energy in being there for the regular daily prayers, with your community, and in deep mourning you may not be able to believe that and choose it for yourself if it were not required.

At my current congregation the custom is, basically, for mourners to stand and the rest of us to sit, for the Mourner’s Kaddish. But over the years the instructions have become more convoluted and the rabbi has had to come up with a paragraph-long list of instructions: if you are in a period of mourning, or have a yahrzeit (the anniversary of the death of a loved one), or are supporting a friend who is in mourning, or think this is a good time to stand and remember…

Earlier in the service, a shortened version of the same prayer is sung, rather than spoken (as it is for the Mourner’s Kaddish) and the feeling is more joyful and light, with the same exact words. It seems to me that using the same prayer for both purposes is a way to gently remind mourners that they used to sing this song, and some day they will again. Until then, they will speak the words with the community, be part of and apart from them, and know that they are seen and that they are not alone.

Most of Jewish ritual is meant to be practical. When it’s not practical, it is either out of date for its original purpose, or the practical purpose is a little more hidden and requires some time and repetition to discover. So I wonder what the ancient rabbis meant by leaving other losses unritualized and unmourned. Maybe some of the prayers just didn’t make it into the canon, or were lost along the way. Maybe one day there will be an excavation of a little town outside of Jerusalem, and inside of an ancient stone dog house they will find the lost book of prayers for how to mourn a beloved dog. I think a lot of people would appreciate that.

I found this stone dog house online. I especially like the potted plant in the window.

I found this stone dog house online. I especially like the potted plant in the window.