How do you mourn a person you never knew? What about a person who abandoned you?
I was estranged from my biological father for 12 years before he died. My parents got divorced when I was 8 years old. At that tender age, my dad actually sat me down to privately discuss their divorce. He referenced famous celebrities who had broken up and got remarried. He told me he was going to “get better” (my father had been battling drug and alcohol addiction) and come back to our family.
I believed him. Like a little lost puppy, I waited until I finally had my closure at 20, when he died. I was never able to say goodbye or explain what his leaving had done to me.
Yet upon his death, I turned to Judaism to guide me. Mostly because I was lost. But several years after I said the Kaddish—the prayer that mourners recite publicly every Saturday—I realized that nothing about the loss I was suffering mirrored what my fellow Jews were saying in that prayer. While reading the transliteration for the Yizkor ceremony—the annual memorial service to celebrate the deceased—I felt even less connected to my religion based on how they described the feelings I should have for the person who was no longer in my life.
Yizkor talks about the deceased being our teacher, and in most circumstances, a father is. It also talks about this man being righteous. Given the fact that I spent the majority of my life learning lessons with no help from my father, he didn’t feel very righteous to me. The truth was that my father hadn’t been in my life for too long to remember, and now I was forced to face that being the end of our story. That alone was the painful part—his death was just the icing on the cake.
Once my father left, his family went along with him. So I missed my paternal grandmother’s good years, before she started suffering from Alzheimer’s. Although we reunited after my dad passed away, there wasn’t a defining place for this relationship and it dissipated again with time. Years later, she died. And just this past week, my paternal grandfather died. My genetic makeup consists in part of these people, these strangers. Their story includes my children and me, and my story includes them. Yet the memories I barely can recall echo pain, confusion, and frustration. The “family” members that I sat among at the funeral home are strangers that I know nothing of and know nothing of me. Yet our stories coincide.
My grandfather was at the hospital when I was born. His beard and muffled voice incite a feeling that words cannot properly grasp. A familiar feeling that almost mimics a distant dream. When they lowered his casket into the ground, I couldn’t even see because the “real” family members stood in front, blocking my view. Does that mean that I should not feel sad that his casket was being lowered into the ground? And if I do feel sad, is that worthy of anyone actually acknowledging? He was a stranger to me, and I to him. Am I sad because he’s dead, or because we were strangers?
There is no prayer for when your dad leaves you at 8. Nothing in Judaism gives you a tool for dealing with that. Even less, there’s no place for you at a funeral where your stories coincide but you were never a part of that family. The pain and suffering I went through having had my father and his family leave my life at the tender age of 8 was kept in a virtual box in the back of my closet. When my grandfather died, all of those feelings came flowing out. I can’t seem to find a place to put them.
My days and nights will be no different with my grandfather on this universe or not, but 27 years ago something happened to me that will always haunt me. And for that, I’m suffering all over again.