When I lost my father, seven years ago, I was devastated ― sad and overwhelmed, uncertain what to do. Judaism gave me steps to take, ritual that provided a bit of order to upside-down days, guiding me and providing a springboard for new traditions, too. I spoke about Dad’s enduring legacy at his funeral, and lifted the shovel to add earth to his grave. I said Kaddish that first year. I marked the end of the first 30 days, sheloshim, standing aside my car by a Lake Michigan beach on a bitter snowy day as my babies slept inside the car. As the anniversary of Dad’s death, the Yahrzeit, came around, we all went to synagogue to say Kaddish, and lit a memorial candle.
Losing a marriage, though, is different. Again, I was sad and overwhelmed, uncertain what to do. Bereft of landmarks like those my Jewish tradition provided for a death, I had no ritual to mark time, no words of a mourner’s prayer to say. I did get a get, a traditional Jewish writ of divorce, but realized that that legal transaction was indeed legal, and, for me, educational, but it was neither a ritual nor an act which touched my soul.
Unlike the realm of mourning a physical death, this time I had no idea who my community was since, frankly, public knowledge of my loss was terrifying as I sought private time and space to figure out my new reality. And, figuring out that new reality was beyond comprehension. I was mourning, but I did not know it until, one day, someone named it: “Of course you are in tears one day, feeling fine another, and overwhelmed a third. You can’t rush this process.”
How did I miss that? I am a rabbi! How many times had I counseled folks to be patient, to take care of themselves, to listen to their souls after a death?! But this was different. Unlike my father who was buried, my ex was right there – in my face, picking up our children or talking about birthdays. I’d not buried him or said Kaddish, the Jewish mourning prayer – there were no scripted acts or words of closure.
Indeed, I was mourning. The loss of a husband, a friend, a partner a fellow traveler. The future as I had expected. Mourning a marriage was uncharted territory. There was no magic formula and no societal comfort with proclaiming loss after a death – to the contrary with this loss!
How did I do it? I am not sure. The realization that I was mourning helped. So, too, each step that provided control, nurturing or release: painting my house and cleaning closets; curling up in the evening with a movie and a glass of wine to escape the day’s swirling painful feelings; savoring a slice of pie on the beach or in my car as I cried; windsurfing with intense focus. Words of affirmative prayer – affirming the beauty of nature or singing Shema with my children before bedtime, while not explicitly aimed at healing definitely strengthened me. Ultimately, creating my own Jewish ritual after my civil divorce was final liberated and exhilarated me, but this was already after a year of grieving.
My best takeaway? Let others help, a lesson I learned after my father died. Learning to tell family and friends what I needed from them was liberating though not easy. I am an intensely private person in a public professional role. Placing my vulnerabilities onto my sleeve allowed me to walk through “the valley of shadows” I had so often cited in funeral liturgy with support. People (they know who they are) showed up. They flew into town; reviewed legal documents, re-arranged my house; forced me out to movies; opened their homes; fed me; wrote supportive notes; listened patiently; hung art; shared real-life details no one thinks to tell; edited sermons and essays; babysat; and more. Again and again, they showed me that I was not alone and I was not nuts.
I have emerged from mourning a marriage (most of the time), but I don’t yet have clarity on its stages and steps; the loss is still too close. But, recently, in a week that marked both the 15th anniversary of my wedding and two years since I learned my marriage was over, I began to do what others did for me – help a friend grieving the loss of her marriage. I didn’t say much, but I did tell her she is neither alone nor crazy. And that to emerge from her grief she has to live through it, be in it. She will.