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Rev. Eleanor Harrison Bregman Headshot

The Rituals of Mourning in an Interfaith Family

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My mother died exactly two years ago today. My sisters and father and I surrounded her that day with singing, massage, our presence and a few precious words. It was terrible and mysterious and beautiful all at the same time. While she had what most would call "a good death," I still think about -- and am disturbed by -- what I did and didn't say, what she could and couldn't say. In her final hour she rested in my arms with her head on my heart. The intervals between her breaths became slightly longer with each breath. Until the next one didn't come at all. I have often wondered if the last thing she heard was my heartbeat just as the first thing I ever heard was hers.

It does not seem possible that two years have gone by since we lost her. As Peter, my husband, and our kids are Jewish, I borrowed many of the Jewish rituals of mourning last year. It helped. From that first week of my "non-shiva Shiva" (as we called it) to standing during Mourner's Kaddish whenever I had the chance, I found these rituals helpful in containing and holding my grief even as I felt a little strange observing them as a Christian minister. There was always the moment in services when I wondered, "Do I stand during Kaddish as any other Jewish mourner? Or is that appropriating too much that does not belong to me?" And although I wish it didn't matter to me, I wondered, "What will everyone think?"

Usually I stood. Because I wanted every opportunity, public or private, to acknowledge my loss. I wanted people to remember that I'd lost my mother, to ask how I was doing, to share memories of my mother, to recognize how many months it had been. And so I muddled my way through that year in the midst of our Jewish community and Jewish ritual, mostly thankful that this tradition with which I did not grow up knows how to "do mourning."

But when the year anniversary hit last December, I wondered, "How do I mark this anniversary?"

As the week approached I wrestled with what to do other than light a yartzeit candle. My sisters and father don't live in New York. We weren't "unveiling" her gravestone as some Jewish families do on the first anniversary of a loved one's death. We did not, as a family, choose any ritual or gathering to mark her death.

As a Christian minister living amidst a Jewish family and Jewish community, I became well aware of the paucity of communal Christian rituals to hold my grief and to connect with others who also missed mom tremendously or who were grieving their own losses. In prayer-like fashion, I asked mom, "What do I do?!" Turns out the answer came immediately and clearly. Write the story of how my Jewish family -- in their observance of Chanukah -- got me through the first anniversary of her death and the loneliest Christmas of my life. So I wrote a piece and called it "An Unveiling, of sorts." I shared the story of my children buying me a slice of a Christmas tree trunk with a small branch stuck into it. "Happy first night of Chanukah, Mom! We bought it with our own money. It cost a dollar. We know you are missing Mimi a lot around Christmas." In that small but enormous gesture (and in so many that followed, like the Christmas card in both English and Hebrew that said "Merry Christmas, Mommy!"), they fulfilled my mother's prediction that they would be bridge-builders between religions and challenged the widespread notion that intermarriage is the downfall of the Jewish people. The act of sharing this story with friends and family -- and receiving beautiful notes of support in return -- helped tremendously.

And so here I am again, asking the same question. How do I mark the anniversary of my mother's death? I have found personal ways to remember mom, feel her love, and hold my grief. Yet I still sense a communal Christian "hole" when it comes to observing loved one's deaths. So this year I am also going to do something else. It will be my version of saying Kaddish on her yartzeit.

This December 18th my mother's church, Christ Church Episcopal (she was ordained a deacon there in 1985), will hold their first church service in nearly four years back in their historic building in Savannah, GA on Johnson Square. Four years ago a majority of the congregation, including the rector, opposed the consecration of Bishop Gene Robinson because he is gay. This group left the Episcopal Church, kept the building, and joined the more conservative Anglican diocese of Uganda. Those who remained loyal to the Episcopal Church, my mother included, began worshipping in another church on Sunday afternoons. Recently the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that the historic building belongs to the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia and that the breakaway Anglican congregation will have to leave the building. December 18th happens to be the date on the Jewish calendar, the 22nd of Kislev, when my mother died in 2009. I knew I had to go home for that service, to be with a minyan of worshippers who know exactly why I am there at that service and who will feel my mother's presence there too. It is not about triumphal re-entry into a building. But it is about connecting with the Christian community that knew her and loves her -- in the church where I was baptized and she was ordained.

It might be strange that a Christian minister knows when her mother's yartzeit is according to the Jewish calendar -- and even more strange that it matters -- but after 15 years of being a Christian living with a Jewish family, it comes naturally -- and meaningfully. It works for me, and while I sometimes feel great loneliness being the only Christian in my immediate Jewish family, I am also blessed by my deep connection to Judaism through my family. Despite the dangers of religious appropriation, I sense it might work for some other Christians too. And while I do not yet know how I might implement these kinds of observances into Christian practice through my work on a wider level, I am taking good notes.

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