10/15/2014 02:20 pm ET Updated Dec 15, 2014

Yahrzeit -- Remembering What We Have Lost

It is the morning of October 3rd. As I have for the past more than forty October 3rds, I take from the cupboard a special kind of candle and light it. As I do so, I think about my father.

It was in the early morning hours of October 3, 1967, in a hospital in Minneapolis, that my father died. It was a great loss. He was not yet 49, I was 21, and his death came way too soon for me to be done needing him.

The candle burning on my countertop is called a yahrzeit candle. (yahrzeit literally means "year-time.") Burning for at least 24 hours (usually more) it is a bright reminder of the departed.

The yahrzeit candle is a custom of Ashkenazi Jews - i.e. Jews from Eastern and Central Europe - and I was introduced to it in my childhood by my mother's lighting a candle every March 2nd in memory of her mother, who died some years before I was born.

Rituals in general are not my thing. I am not observant of the rituals of my ancestral religion, in which rituals play too large a role for my impatient nature. But the Yarhzeit ritual is an exception: lighting the candle takes no more time than one wants it to, and it then burns all day as a glowing reminder of the one "of blessed memory."

The question arises: why commemorate the dead on the day of their death? Why not on their birthday, as we Americans did until recently with Washington and Lincoln in February, and still do in January with Martin Luther King?

The yahrzeit approach - remembering the departed on the anniversary of their death - makes emotional sense to me, at least it feels right for when we're remembering people we ourselves knew and loved when they lived.

To remember the day of death is to conjure up deep feelings, intense feelings, connected with Dad.

My father's birthday was November 5th. Every 5th of November, I think, "It's Dad's birthday." And maybe, "He'd be X years old." But it's not a date filled with great feeling. I gave him some presents on that date, no doubt, and sang "Happy Birthday" with the family. No big deal. November 5th does not ring any deep chord in my memory.

With that October 3rd - and the time immediately leading into it, and the aftermath of it - it is quite different. This was a time that registered dramatically on my emotional Richter scale-- my world was shaken by the hole my father's death left in the landscape of my life.

Isn't that what grief is about? When we lose a loved one, our minds and hearts are focused on putting together an image - to carry forward into the future - of the one who was important to us and whom we will never see again. And the process of creating that image is suffused with the wrenching and poignant sense of what the departed has meant to us.

For Shakespeare or Beethoven or George Washington, commemorating them on their birthdays seems fine. For me, they've always been dead.

But for my father, and now also for my mother, what feels right is to remember them in connection with the day filled with the feelings and images of what I lost then and am enriched to remember now.