While I was presenting at a psychology conference in Denver, I got a text from my mother. It was short and succinct.
Can you call?
She told me the news as soon as I called: my grandmother had passed away.
I felt oddly calm for a brief moment, followed by a rush of emotions and spinning thoughts: I needed the next flight to New York. I needed to pack. I needed to cry. I needed to find order.
After letting out a mournful wail, I called the hotel’s reception desk: “I need extra towels please, to cover the mirrors.”
The custom of covering the mirrors has many roots. My Sephardi grandmother taught me it was to ward off the evil eye when someone passes. Somehow, this was my priority, of all things I needed to do. It was a visual symbol of the pain, the disruption in my life, the need to close out some things and make space for others, and the need to intrinsically reflect. Of course, this was not halachically necessary until after the funeral, but it felt right in the moment, as it gave me the order I craved.
Instinctually, I reached for my phone to call my grandmother to confirm—Am I doing this right? It was muscle memory to call her for support.
Coupled with kindness and confusion, the hotel receptionist brought several towels. Empathic eyes met me as I opened the door with tears streaming down my face.
At the funeral, my mother asked me to speak, telling me I had a way with words. Nu, of course this was true, I can speak extemporaneously. But now? What could I say: What you’re asking me to do is too big? At this pivotal moment, I didn’t know what to say.
My grandmother's Hebrew name was mazal, and she was not just luck, but a drip from heaven.
Sitting shiva meant that I had the opportunity to say nothing. I was no longer the one who needed to have the right things to say. As a therapist, that was a unique yet welcomed moment.
I felt angry at the kind things people would say: She is in a better place or May her memory be a blessing. Her presence was a blessing—yes—so is her memory. But I wasn’t ready to hear that.
Grief is awkward. You feel out of sorts. Others don't know what to say to you. Shiva gave me something to focus on, and embedded into the process was the mindfulness to feel what I am feeling. Sit with it. Go through it.
Grief is powerful: it’s love and loss. To love someone so much, but only to remember their love, and no longer receive it back. I suppose my resistance to this is very Jewish—to want to challenge and question this.
When the shiva calls were done, and the house became quiet again, I turned to cooking to console my heart. I cooked all the things we made together. She taught me to crochet, cook and draw, so I turned to these things to cope. I was in a swarm of creative expression, painful feelings, and the joy of thinking of her. Expressing this was the hiddur mitzvah she taught me, the importance of elevating Jewish ritual with beauty.
I always felt a strong connection to my Jewish identity, and sitting shiva strengthened it. I leaned into the grief, and the intentional reflection in the process of shiva was comforting. The Jewish people come together, and they definitely did for me.
My Grandee found comfort in ritual: to pray with keva for order and kavannah for emotional connection. I needed to sit with that discomfort, and it spilled all over the canvas.
What I realized is that losing a grandparent changes you.
I had a different relationship with my grandparents than my parents. They told me things in more detail than they ever shared with my mother or that she shared with me. I questioned where else I could go to have my soul’s cup filled.
We find people who fill our cup, and it's an extra special moment when you see the light of others through the lens of the loved ones who are no longer here.
I realized how much nachas, pride, I had for my grandmother. The ambiguity of the Jewish view of the afterlife leaves many questions and wondering. After her death, she became an anthology of stories I would share. My Jewish identity is strong in her roots of all she shared with me.
I asked my mother how she handled not being able to call her mother every day. The finite reality of our relationships was very real.
After shnat ha-evel, the first year of mourning, we are asked to bring life back to normal. To return to life, but it is not as it was before. We add in kaddish, the longing to call or visit, to tell them the good news, to ask their advice, to breathe their spirit into our everyday activities.
What that meant was realizing I wouldn’t hear her voice singing in shul or on the other end of the call I made for shabbat, to adjust Pesach plans, to stand alone in my kitchen, to think of her, but not call her. I needed to learn to be okay with that.
I had pictures and videos—and I wish I had more. I realized how happy I was to be present in the moment with her. I can still feel how I felt when I was with her. I don’t mind the memories’ vivid nature changing, because I know how I feel when I think of her.
At The Well uplifts many approaches to Jewish practice. Our community draws on ancient Jewish wisdom, sometimes adapting longstanding practices to more deeply support the well-being of women and nonbinary people. See this article’s sources below. We believe Torah (sacred teachings) are always unfolding to help answer the needs of the present moment.
How To Sit Shiva, My Jewish Learning
Jewish Death and Mourning 101, My Jewish Learning
Timeline of Jewish Mourning, My Jewish Learning