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Monday, November 25, 2019

Mourning within mourning

There is only one day in your life when you can experience mourning within mourning. That day is when you are saying kaddish for both of your parents, a kaddish during the year of mourning and a kaddish on the yahrzeit of the other parent.

For me, that day was last Friday. On that day, I observed the 8th yahrzeit of my mother, Hilda Kessler, Hinde bat Yosef v'Chaya, may her memory live on. I mourned her loss at the same time I continued to mourn the more recent loss of my father. Mourning within mourning.

Most people will, at some point in their lives, experience this day. Even if your parents, God forbid, die during the same year, so you are saying kaddish for both parents simultaneously, there will come a point when the yahrzeit for the first parent to die will take place while you are still mourning the other parent. The only way, I think, that this mourning within mourning experience cannot occur is if both parents, God forbid, died either on the same day or between one month of each other, so that the kaddish obligation for the second parent to die ended before the yahrzeit for the first parent.

On a halakhic level, my obligation to lead prayers was, on this day, as intense as it could be. I had a "regular" chiuv (obligation) to lead prayers as a person saying kaddish for his parent for 11 months. I also had the obligation to lead prayers as a person observing the yahrzeit for a parent. Some people were a little confused, thinking that perhaps my kaddish year had ended and I was observing the yahrzeit for my father. Such is the way it is for one who is an orphan.

I hadn't quite anticipated the emotions that would emerge on the day I mourned for both my parents. Both arise they did, as I contemplated that, for this one and only day of my life, I would be saying kaddish for both people who brought me into the world.

For most of this year, thoughts of my father have been in the forefront of my mind. On that yahrzeit day, however, it was thoughts of my mother. My mother, whose death introduced me to the world of mourning. Now that world is almost forever over, at least on a halakhic level. In just one week I complete saying kaddish for my father. I will never again be reciting kaddish on a regular basis, just on the yahrzeits of my parents.

As I stood in prayer, a powerful sensation overtook me. Since my mother died, I had thoughts of missing her, of wishing for her presence and advice. I've also had a lingering, though diminishing, sense of guilt vis-a-vis my father. (see

On that day, the script got flipped. I had the sense that she was reaching out to me, that she needed me. She needed to communicate with me, to thank me for my efforts in caring for her husband during the seven years that he lived without her. I don't know where these kind of thoughts come from, but they did. Do the dead need the living? Isn't that one of the ideas of kaddish: that the soul of the departed needs the prayers of the living?

And so I stood in deep communication with her, in a way that I hadn't experienced since she left this world. It was a day when I thought about my mother not only as being my mother, but also in context of her as my father's wife. The experienced awakened within me the notion that during this year, I am mourning not only my father as my father, but also my father as my mother's husband. The selfish aspect of mourning receded--my mother, my father--while the relational aspect of my parents lives emerged.

And so I experienced the loss of my parents in a new way, a way that brought a measure of comfort, that I, as their son, and as my mother's representative on earth for my father, had fulfilled his obligation. On this day of double mourning, I mourned my parents not only as individuals, but as a couple whose lives, and now deaths, were and are intertwined. A once in a lifetime experience on a once in a lifetime day.

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