I've just finished the year of mourning for my father. From that year I've gained a new appreciation of how well the ancient Jewish customs mesh with the emotional needs of the mourner.
Each stage of the mourning process - the first seven days from burial, the first 30 days, the 11 months of reciting Kaddish - has its own rules and restrictions. Together they impose a structure and discipline on one's life, at least in my case previously unknown. Mourning reminds us that life is finite, and the regimen it imposes teaches us how to get the most out of our time before we too shuffle off this mortal coil.
Until my father's passing, I had only experienced a house of mourning from the viewpoint of one offering comfort. Even then, I was struck by the wisdom of the ancient forms. According to halacha, one waits for the mourner to initiate conversation. It is not the job of the one who has come to offer solace to fill the silence, but rather to follow the lead of the mourner. Those who feel the pressure to say something, whether profound or witty, are almost guaranteed to say something stupid. Halacha relieves them of that pressure.
The shiva houses I remember from my suburban upbringing were usually filled with food. The mourners acted as if they were responsible for entertaining their guests, and the guests seemed to think their role consisted chiefly of distracting the mourners from their pain with light talk.
Very different is the traditional house of mourning, where mourners sit on the floor or low chairs, little, if any, food is served, and ideally the conversation focuses on the deceased.
No ideal is ever fully realized. Inevitably there will be those who insist on hearing about the last week or the last five minutes of a long life, in the hopes of finding a distinguishing detail to reassure themselves that the same fate does not await them. But, in general, the shiva for my father centered on the joy of his life.
I had no wish to be distracted from talking about my father. Throughout the year of mourning, I found the greatest solace from talking about Dad and sharing my memories with others. True, that talk often triggered new crying, but the tears were not only ones of sadness. The pain of the loss was directly proportional to the preciousness of our relationship.
With the end of shiva, I was suddenly thrust into my terror zone by the requirement of leading the public prayers. I would have far sooner faced Roger Clemens's fastball in his prime. (During the shiva period itself, my brothers and I could count on a sympathetic audience composed exclusively of sons and nephews.)
For the preceding three decades, I had occasionally contemplated that I might some day be called upon to lead the davening. But each time, I reassured myself that Dad was very strong and would live to 120. And who would think of calling upon a 99-year-old son to lead the davening? It didn't work out that way: the first time I can remember Dad letting me down.
As it turned out; however, he had not let me down. Forcing me to learn to lead the davening was his farewell present. I no longer feel like a Marrano in shul, dreading that I will be called upon to lead.
I inherited from my father a certain self-consciousness about things I do not do well, and in those first months after his passing, there were few things I have ever done so poorly as leading the prayers. At the end of each minyan (prayer quorum), a large group lined up to offer their suggestions.
But the terror I felt each time I went to the front also brought me closer to Dad by reminding me that only my great love for him could have ever induced me to do so. And davka because he shared my self-consciousness, I knew he would have understood my discomfiture and been appreciative.
Eventually I even came to enjoy leading the prayers.
One of the hardest things for a mourner is the loss of connection with the loved one and the knowledge that one will never again see him or her in this world. But the requirement to organize my life around the thrice-daily minyanim and to recite Kaddish meant that I was always thinking about Dad - his face was often before me.
The various restrictions - the inability to attend joyous celebrations, the prohibition on purchasing new clothes - are also constant reminders. Now that the year of mourning is over, I even find myself missing these obligations and restrictions, and the sense of connection that goes with them.
It is normal for mourners to feel some sense of guilt towards their deceased loved one, and to dwell on things they should have said or done. That guilt is made more painful by the feeling that it is too late now.
A Jewish mourner, however, has a way to keep giving. We believe that our prayers, our charity, our Torah learning, ease our loved one's passage into the next world. At the yahrtzeit meal for Dad, sons and grandsons got up one after another to complete talmudic tractates and orders of Mishnayot learned for his benefit.
The Jewish customs of mourning provided me with structure for that first year without Dad. Now comes the hard part of making myself into a true legacy by emulating the beauty of his ways, in the hope that when the time comes my children will remember me with as much love and respect as I will always remember him.