When I Lost My Youngest Brother, I Found a Ritual I Didn’t Know I Needed

My brother Alex’s passionate and singular calling was organic farming. At 16, shortly after his high school graduation, he trekked across the country from the East Coast to Washington state to begin his apprenticeship at Tolstoy Farms. Nineteen years younger than I, Alex was the youngest of my six siblings, and I felt proud to see him joining this longstanding intentional community founded in the 1960s, living and working off the grid.

At Alex’s age, I too had been in search of intentional community. I had left the Catholic church as soon as I started college, and for the next decade found vital connection and a sense of purpose in feminist and LGBTQ+ activism. It was our mother’s advanced colon cancer diagnosis, in my early 30s, that reawakened for me the specific question of faith community. She lived only six months following her diagnosis, and in the short and harrowing course of her illness, I witnessed how profoundly ritual and prayer comforted her, and members of her community cared for her. 

A question flared into focus: What would I want surrounding me at the end of my life? That question quickly morphed into: What do I want surrounding me during my life?

I ultimately found my spiritual home in Reform Judaism, in the historically (but decidedly not exclusively) LGBTQ+ synagogue Beth Chayim Chadashim in Los Angeles, where I had moved for a job. I had barely settled in as a new member of the temple and, nearing 40, was working toward completing my conversion when the shocking news came: My brother Alex, now 19, had been hospitalized in Washington for emergency surgery, his intestine blocked by tumors. 

Like our mother, he was given a diagnosis of metastatic colon cancer, with median survival of just six months — a second devastating blow to our family. My greatest blessing proved to be my newly adopted Jewish community, in particular Rabbi Lisa Edwards and her wife Tracy Moore. Not only did they provide a lifeline of spiritual support and perspective during Alex’s dying process, they were there for me in the aftermath.

Collectively acknowledging and holding each other’s losses is a hallmark of every Jewish community. We sit shiva together (gathering for seven days after burial) and form minyans (quorums for prayer) for Kaddish; we recite the names of the dead at Shabbat services and on certain holidays; we honor them with memorial plaques on the sanctuary walls and by lighting yahrzeit candles (memorial candles) on the anniversary of their death. We grieve together; we also move forward together.

I was with Alex at Tolstoy Farms when he died that December, and an impromptu memorial service followed 24 hours later. His farm family gathered around a bonfire on a freezing night, the fields and forest decked in fresh snow. Wrapped in a blanket and my winter parka, one in a circle of faces glowing in the firelight, I was moved by the memories Alex’s friends shared of the young man they had known only three years, who had become a beloved member of their community. His passing, at that point, was impossible to fully absorb, as if time itself had frozen.

I was not yet back in L.A. during the time when I would have sat shiva for Alex. When I returned, Rabbi Lisa asked if I was familiar with the sheloshim tradition. I was not. She explained that sheloshim, the Hebrew word for the number 30 — שְׁלֹשִׁים is also the name of Judaism’s traditional 30-day mourning period for a brother and other first-degree relatives. A ritual called sheloshim marks the conclusion of that period, a gathering to welcome the mourner back into community. 

Rabbi Lisa and Tracy offered to host a sheloshim for me in their home, a gesture that felt just right and I gratefully accepted their invitation. And yet, as the day approached, I had to overcome my resistance to all that attention focused on my particular loss, when loss was such a constant, for everyone. 

Only now, more than two decades on from my sheloshim, can I better understand that, precisely because loss and grief are ever-present, so too must be the rituals a community provides to recognize and support people undergoing life-altering transitions. It’s another way Jewish tradition weaves all of us together, one thread, one story, at a time. 

On that sunny January afternoon in Rabbi Lisa and Tracy’s home, friends arrived with food and handwritten notes, gifts of books and flowers. We sat together on cozy white couches as I attempted to sum up my brother’s life, no easy task despite its tragic brevity. Then Rabbi Lisa led some simple prayers and short readings. But that was not the end. The rabbi then invited everyone to walk around the block with me, a tradition that typically culminates shiva. Escorted by their community, the mourner who has been separated from the regular world now returns to it, and is transformed by that return, entering a new stage in their grieving. 

We stepped out the front door and down a short path onto the sidewalk. I savored the gentle breeze on my skin, warmed by the enduring bonfire at the center of our solar system. Rounding one corner, then the next, we made our way down a long street lined with swaying palm trees. The group was not chatty—we had already said all that needed, for now, to be said. The final turns brought us back to the threshold of Rabbi Lisa and Tracy’s house, where we exchanged hugs and smiles. Reaching out to touch their mezuzah, I entered back inside. I was home, and I was not alone.

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.


Sheloshim: The First 30 Days of Mourning, My Jewish Learning

Sheloshim: The Bridge to a New Normal, My Jewish Learning

When I Lost My Youngest Brother, I Found a Ritual I Didn’t Know I Needed
Sylvia Sukop
Sylvia Sukop

Sylvia Sukop is a queer Jewish writer and educator interested in the narratively potent intersections between memory and history. After a long career in communications for cultural and public health nonprofits, she is pursuing a PhD in Germanic Languages and Literatures at Washington University in St. Louis, where she completed her MFA in 2018.

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