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Grief Defies Time Tables--Religious or Otherwise

June 26, 2009

Five years after Steve, my husband of 25 years, died, I decided I would venture forth into the brave new world of dating again. I had tried dating intermittently before, but previous efforts had been half-hearted. Actually, my earlier attempts to date are better described as "no hearted," because despite the time that had elapsed since his death, my heart still belonged to Steve.

The decision to renew my quest for companionship was prompted by a conversation I'd had with a well-meaning woman friend.

image of a woman alone"A widow generally grieves one year for every five years of marriage," she said, assuming a considerable degree of authority--authority she lacked since she was not a widow. "Do the math," she persisted. "Five years have passed, so it's time for you to get into circulation again."

I didn't think much of my friend's "grief-time formula," but she did persuade me that perhaps I should make the attempt to connect with a special someone again.

I decided to attend a singles event for people of a certain age, sponsored by the local Jewish Community Center. I'd usually shied away from such affairs, but I was determined to approach the evening with an open mind and give everyone a chance, especially me.

The evening was pleasant enough. I conversed with one man in particular. He told me he was religiously observant and newly divorced but eager to begin a serious relationship with someone soon.

I returned his confidence and told him I had been married for 25 years to a man who was not Jewish. I added that although I was widowed for five years, and had certainly "moved on" in many aspects of my life, I was still fairly new to the game of dating because I had felt married for many years after my husband died.

He was quiet for what seemed like a long time before asking, "Did you mourn according to Jewish tradition?"

I was taken aback by his question and a little perplexed. I said, "If you're asking if I followed traditional Jewish mourning practices, then no, I did not."

I explained that I had not sat shiva for Steve. Instead I held a wake for him at our home according to his request. I had not covered up my mirrors, either. I did light memorial candles for my husband, I said, and still do. But instead of following the prescribed dates on which yahrzeit candles are meant to be lit, I light them on days that were special to us both. I told him that I continue to light candles on certain holidays--Christian as well as Jewish--because the candles are meant to commemorate both my late husband's life and our life together.

"Well," he said assertively, "you're really to blame for having feelings for your husband so long after he died. That's very unhealthy. If you had mourned according to Jewish tradition, you'd have been over him by now. There's a specific structure in Jewish mourning, a timetable even. After a year, you're finished."

I was not only struck dumb by his comment, I was struck numb. I didn't feel anger or resentment--not at first--just shock. The years following Steve's death had been very difficult. Anyone who has experienced the loss of someone very close, especially a spouse, has usually been smitten by overwhelming guilt at some point. The fact that the guilt is almost always unfounded is irrelevant. There is the perceived guilt for not having been a better partner, for not having been a more selfless caregiver, for not recognizing an illness in time to effect a cure and for simply surviving.

I had felt guilty for all of the above and more, but I never regretted the way I had chosen to mourn or to honor Steve.

Steve had asked to be buried in Idaho, in the same cemetery where his parents and other family members were interred. It was more than 2,000 miles away from Northern Virginia, where we had made our home for most of our married life. Many friends were thus unable to attend his funeral. But the house was filled to overflowing during his memorial wake, at which he had specifically requested that someone sing "Amazing Grace." Because I am a singer and knew that no one could put more feeling into the song than me, that honor fell to me. Steve's wake was a meaningful celebration of his life.

As I stood facing a man I'd just met who had taken it upon himself to judge the nature of the grief I had felt for my husband, some of the numbness began to wear off and was replaced with anger. (I didn't engage in a dispute with him, but merely excused myself and walked away.) I was not angry because he called my feelings "unhealthy," but because he admonished me for opting to choose "customized" mourning observances over traditional Jewish rituals and ascribed what he called my "unhealthy" feelings to that decision.

His words brought back memories of reproaches I received from several well-meaning Jewish acquaintances before I married Steve 30 years ago. They chided me for choosing as a marriage partner someone who wasn't Jewish, and told me, among other things, that the cultural divide would inevitably supersede love. I thought that kind of thinking was antediluvian.

Apparently not. The comments of a virtual stranger implied a similar rebuke. What he really meant was, had I married a Jewish man and followed Jewish mourning traditions, I would have recovered from my grief "in the prescribed time." But to me, a religiously based timetable for grief is as unrealistic as a grief-time formula positing that widows routinely grieve one year for every five years of marriage.

While I deeply respect Jewish mourning rituals and believe such practices can assist many on their journey through grief and toward healing, I don't believe in a one-size-fits-all approach to grieving. Grief is a part of life and something we all eventually experience. But because each of us is unique, we will experience it in our own ways.

Hebrew for "time of [one] year," referring to the anniversary of the day of a relative's death. Hebrew for "seven," refers to the seven days of mourning following the funeral of a family member.
Marlena Thompson

Marlena Thompson was part of an interfaith marriage that lasted almost 25 years before her husband died in 2003. She is a writer and singer/storyteller living in the Washington DC suburbs and visits Ireland whenever possible. Her mystery novel, A Rare & Deadly Issue (2004), has an interfaith heroine and can be ordered at www.pearlstreetpublishing.com.

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