mourning

How I Went From Being “Mom” to “Mom in Mourning”

emily kaiman mourning father

Emily with her husband, mom, and dad in Israel.

I don’t have a great memory. If you asked me what I did for my various birthdays over the years, I honestly couldn’t tell you. I don’t remember which years I took which family trips, and the chronology of life events generally become blurred for me. So, when Facebook rolled out their Facebook Memories feature, I was SO excited. Now, I don’t have to remember what I did one, two, three or more years ago, or who was with me–Facebook can just tell me! I can see posts and pictures that I shared from my college years, through the births of my four children.

But last week was different. Last week Facebook told me I had a memory to look back on with David Green, my dad.

My dad died suddenly six months ago. I was on the phone with my mom chatting about Shabbat plans, how the kids were doing, and our family’s upcoming trip to Israel. We got off the phone, and minutes later she called back. I figured she’d thought of one more thing she needed to tell me; instead, in one instant, my entire world was shaken to its core. My dad–a healthy, fit, young 64-year-old, had simply laid down while listening to an NPR podcast, and died.

READ: Mayim Bialik–4 Things I Learned While Mourning My Dad in Israel

When Facebook told me I had memories to look back on with my dad, I wanted to scream at the computer. OF COURSE I DO! I HAVE MEMORIES EVERY SINGLE DAMN DAY TO LOOK BACK ON!

Grief is like that; one minute I’m aimlessly scrolling through my newsfeed, or preparing dinner for my family, or folding laundry, and the next, I’m triggered by something–a Facebook reminder, the smell of a food he loved, a t-shirt of his mixed into our laundry pile, and the pain, shock, and grief come swirling back in.

Grief is complicated. Having young children, though, has made my grieving process even more complicated. Ever since the birth of my twin daughters in 2009, my primary role has been as a mom. Of course, it’s not the only thing I am, but the majority of my waking hours are spent with them and for them (and the majority of my sleeping hours spent worrying, planning, and dreaming about them).

But six short months ago, my title changed from just “mom” to “mom in mourning.” On a practical level, being a mom in mourning has proven to be incredibly difficult. Ideally as a Jewish mourner, I should be saying Kaddish three times a day. During the week of shiva, I did this, but found that it was to the detriment of my children. My youngest (only 13 months at the time) went on a nursing strike. His distress at my absence was clear.

READ: How to Make a Tragic Shiva Call

After shiva, I committed to saying Kaddish at least once a day. I kept this up for several months, but even this has proved to be unattainable for me. Balancing the needs of my children (both physical, and emotional) with my own needs is one of the hardest things I have had to do.

emily's father and daughter

Emily’s father and daughter.

In addition to the practical challenges, being a mom in mourning presents major emotional and the psychological challenges. I mourn for the memories that I wanted to make with my dad–the future that I saw in my mind and that will never be. I mourn for my 3-year-old daughter who I’m not sure will really remember her grandpa, and for my son, who I know will only know him through pictures and stories we tell. But as a mom in mourning, I have to be able to take that grief and compartmentalize it. I have to be able to not only do all the tasks that parenthood requires, but I have to do them and still smile with my children, still laugh with them, still play with them. The biggest tragedy that I could imagine would be for them to lose their grandfather to death and then lose their mother to despair.

READ: Allowing Myself to Sit After My Father’s Death

I am in mourning. But so are my children. My children’s mourning truly breaks my heart. It’s the question that comes from my daughter when she sees snow outside, and worries that Grandpa will be cold. It’s the distress I hear in my other daughter’s voice when we talk about dinosaur fossils, and she asks if Grandpa’s body will decompose too, and when.

For me, the Jewish laws and rituals of mourning don’t always work with the schedules and necessities of parenting young children. I always figured that by the time I became a mourner, my children would be grown and out of the house, that my parents would have aged, and that my obligations to their memory would be easier to meet. But this is not my reality.

The reality is that I have had to carve out spaces, times, and practices that can both meet my needs and my family’s needs. I still try to make it to minyan a few times a week, and I haven’t cut my hair (another Jewish practice of mourners). But sometimes for me mourning is taking a yoga class while the kids are at school to connect myself emotionally; sometimes mourning is creating a quilt made of my father’s shirts that I remember him in. Sometimes mourning is having the hard conversations with my children. And sometimes mourning is just taking a moment to honor his memory.

The other day, my daughter started whistling. She then told me, “You know what, Mama? Grandpa is the one who taught me to whistle when we were on a walk one day when I was 4.” And she smiled, and held my hand, and I knew that I will always be her mama, even when I’m mourning, and it will all be OK.

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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