August 26, 2023

Yahrzeit: Remembering a Loss

Christians lack a ritual for the long and tiring process that is sorrow and loss.

— Lauren Winner

Between December 2021 and August 2022, our family lost four parents—both of my husband’s adopted parents, his birth mom, and my dad. This week is an anniversary that is hard to remember, and yet it must be remembered.

On August 23rd of last year, we sat in an Episcopal church in suburban Chicago remembering the lives of my in-laws. It was a double funeral for my father-in-law, who had recently passed, and my mother-in-law who had passed the previous December. We had been forced to cancel my mother-in-law’s December funeral after our family came down with COVID, so it seemed appropriate to remember my in-laws together in a joint service at the church they had called home for many years.

I’m not going to sugar coat it. That week was hard. Really hard.

My husband flew to Chicago ahead of me to begin preparations and also drove to St. Louis to visit his precious birth mom who had recently entered hospice care with lung cancer. Two days before the funeral, I landed in Chicago with our two children and my mom. As soon as the wheels touched down, I texted my husband to say we had arrived. He called immediately, and I knew before I answered that the news wasn’t good. His birth mother had passed away while we were on the flight.

The day of my in-laws’ funeral was also the day of my parents’ wedding anniversary. With everything going on, I had forgotten. This was my mom’s first anniversary without my dad, who had lost his battle with pancreatic cancer the previous March. Seeing my mom there, remembering my in-laws in the midst of her own pain, broke my heart.

If you’ve read my book Rest for the Weary, you know that fear of death has been a major theme in my life. If you’d told me 15 years ago that I would walk through a week like that and come out the other side still breathing and (mostly) functioning, I wouldn’t have believed you.

God has done incredible healing in my life. But even so, grief is something you don’t get to avoid through faith or hope or any amount of positive thinking, and there’s no way to make it “easy.” You can’t close your eyes and run through to the other side. It is a slow and tiring process, but I believe God prepared me for the year that was 2022 by first teaching me the value of resting in him.

My honest opinion is that the Church generally doesn’t do grief well. I know Christian traditions vary, and some engage with grief better than others, but there is something unique and beautiful about the Jewish way of grieving.

Many years ago, I was captivated by the book Mudhouse Sabbath by Lauren Winner, who is currently Professor of Christian Spirituality at Duke Divinity School. As a convert from Orthodox Judaism to Christianity, Winner reflects on how the rich traditions of Judaism can enhance our Christian faith.

She writes: Mourning, maybe, is never easy, but it is better done inside a communal grammar of bereavement. Christianity has a hopeful and true vocabulary for death-and-resurrection. It is Judaism that offers the grammar for in between, for the mourning after death and before Easter.

There are many Jewish mourning rituals that resonate with me. From shiva (a seven day period of mourning that provides an environment of support to the mourner) to Kaddish (a prayer that mourners recite in community during the year after loss), these rituals are intended to provide comfort, remind the mourner that God is not absent, and help the mourner to live life again.

Reflecting upon the year that has passed since our family’s losses, it is the Jewish tradition of remembering the Yahrzeit (the anniversary of death) that stands out to me. Friends who have experienced loss have remarked that their body knows even before their mind that an anniversary is approaching. From my own experience, I now believe this to be true. I’m not sure why a calendar year matters so much on a subconscious level, but God knows. And perhaps this is the reason for the Jewish tradition of lighting a slow-burning Yahrzeit candle and taking time to remember. We need this type of slow remembrance—not rushing past the things that, no matter how painful, are important to our humanity.

In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis writes, “I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process.” This is so true. And it is an important process. If we do not see it as such, we may miss the opportunity to love and support others who are suffering, but we may also fail to allow ourselves to proceed slowly and gently when we are faced with grief.

I find hope in knowing that the God of scripture is also the “God of all comfort.” Encountering unsurpassable comfort when I’ve needed it most has resulted in some of the greatest healing I’ve experienced in my life.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. (2 Cor 1:3-5)

If you are in the grieving process, be gentle with yourself. Allow yourself to feel and remember. Pay attention to what your body, mind, and spirit are telling you. Take time for yourself but also spend time with others who will honor what you are experiencing. Your grief doesn’t have to follow a pattern or look a certain way. Ask God for comfort along the way. He is the source, and he gives generously. Even when the fog of grief is thick, and maybe especially then, God’s comfort is available.

Also, know that when your grief begins to lift, what you have received from God will be a source of comfort to others in their time of need just as Paul writes. “…So that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” What a beautiful, redemptive promise!

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