As a cantor, I’ve accompanied many people and families through the loss and grief of their loved ones, and more than once read the passage from Ecclesiastes at a funeral or shiva visitation: “For everything there is season, a time for every experience under heaven… a time to grieve and a time to dance…”
But nothing could have prepared me for what happened seven months ago.
A month and a day after I gave birth to my beautiful son, Solomon, my mom passed away after a long battle against ovarian cancer. I did not get to see her before she passed. I did not get to hug her and kiss her. I did get to “see” her over FaceTime and told her how much I loved her, but I did not get to whisper it into her ear. (FaceTime was also the miracle of technology that allowed her to be at my son’s bris.)
I didn’t get to do any of these things because my parents live in Argentina (I moved to the USA nine years ago). I was too far into my pregnancy to fly when she took a turn for the worse, and I had a 1-month-old baby to care for when she passed. I remember nursing my son to sleep, holding him with one hand, and with the other writing a eulogy in my phone using Whatsapp so that it would make it on time for the burial.
In the midst of the sorrow and confusion, sleep deprivation, more nursing and changing diapers, FaceTime calls with my dad and sister, a shower here and there, and healing from the efforts of natural labor, I wondered: If there is in fact a time for everything under heaven, why did my mom’s death and my son’s birth have to overlap? Why couldn’t I have been granted the time to mourn and grieve in its entire dimension, and the time to begin my journey, my dance, as a new mom?
I’ve always particularly admired the rules that Judaism gifts us for someone going through the loss of a loved one. It is a wise framework that guides families during those difficult times. There is a time to cry and feel sorrow, and a time to remember and honor. A time to stay home and receive visitors, and a time to go outside and enjoy fresh air. A time to wear jammies, to not leave bed; a time to shower, dress up, and go back into the world. There is shiva and shloshim and the one year anniversary… but not for me.
Don’t get me wrong, I was grieving on a schedule, only it wasn’t mine, nor was it like the one that Judaism provides. It was my son’s schedule. I would cry when he would go down for a nap (yes, I would do that instead of taking that precious time to shower or nap myself). I would miss being able to call my mom for advice. She was my best friend and I needed her during those times when I felt completely overwhelmed with motherhood. I would get on the phone with my sister or dad to talk about my mom, her kindness, beauty, and sensitivity, but only for a short few minutes when our conversation would be interrupted by Solomon waking up from his nap or crying for a reason I couldn’t always identify.
And then, there were the few seconds, perhaps a few minutes spread out here and there, when my baby would allow for the thoughts and emotions to flow freely. And there was guilt, because I wasn’t giving my baby my full attention; neither was I fully mourning my mother. And so, I kept wondering, when will I have my time to mourn, the time to do it the “Jewish way”?
It’s now been seven months since my mom passed, and this is what I’ve learned: I won’t have it the Jewish way. At least not in its traditional way. But the ways in which I’ve been able to journey through my sorrow are extremely Jewish. I think about my mom when I look into my son’s big, beautiful blue eyes and hope he’ll observe the world with the same kindness she did. I think about her when I imagine her excitement with his accomplishments—first time rolling over, first time crawling, first time eating banana and rice cereal! I think about her with my son’s joy when reading a book or listening to music, and I hope he will have her appreciation for art and beauty. And when my baby naps, I think about the countless ways in which I hope my son will take after my mother in character, strength, intelligence, humor, gentleness, and humility.
These are the times and ways in which I think about her and I grieve, and those times are completely intertwined with my son.
That’s right. I’m grieving on a schedule; it isn’t mine, it is my son’s. It isn’t the Jewish way, but it is my Jewish way. And I wouldn’t want to have it any other way.