My mother-in-law, Margaret (Hogan) Andrews--Marge to her friends--lived a devoutly Catholic life. Although she confronted many difficulties and bravely battled the cancer that eventually took her life, she maintained her religious beliefs. Marge was certain that in death she would be reunited with her husband, who had died tragically at an early age.
Marge was an outgoing woman who deeply loved my wife June, her only child. Although she would have preferred having her daughter maintain affiliation with her birth religion, my mother-in-law's affection for and support of June and our family remained unchanged when June converted to Judaism. In fact, she was beaming with pride on the occasion of June's Bat Mitzvah and at the baby-naming ceremonies for our three daughters.
When my mother-in-law died, June and I faced the dilemma of planning a funeral which would celebrate my mother-in-law's life in her religious tradition and be comforting to our Catholic relatives. At the same time, we wanted to create an opportunity for June to mourn her mother in a manner which would bring her comfort.
The tasks involved in planning the funeral included: making arrangements for the wake with the funeral home; selecting a coffin and arranging a place at the family gravesite; and meeting with the priest who would be presiding at the funeral mass. In making arrangements for the wake and selecting a coffin, June and I included June's aunt in the decision-making as a way of letting her aunt know how much June appreciated the love and affection shared by the two sisters.
June and I then met with the priest who would be conducting the funeral mass. We let him know that we were Jewish and asked him to be sensitive to our religious affiliation in preparing his eulogy. The priest was understanding and compassionate. He offered to have us share thoughts about my mother-in-law or recite a religious passage during the funeral mass. June felt that she would be too emotional to speak. As I offered to read the religious passage, the priest let me select from a list of psalms, and he asked one of June's cousins to read a passage from the New Testament (a.k.a. Christian bible). While June appreciated my offer to participate in the funeral mass, it also provided me with an opportunity to honor my mother-in-law and to feel a part of the mourning process. June's aunt selected the music.
The first step in the Catholic mourning process is the wake. Although it was not the first one I had attended, my mother-in-law's wake was a profound experience for our entire family. For June's side of the family, the wake provided the appropriate occasion to pay their respects to June and to celebrate the life of her mother. For my parents, aunts, uncles and cousins, the wake took the place of a shiva call (visiting a Jewish home following a funeral). For June, our daughters and me, the wake was one opportunity to begin the mourning process and to show our respect for the religious life my mother-in law had led.
Following the funeral, the rabbi of our synagogue called June to offer her condolences and offered to lead a shiva minyan (prayer service requiring ten or more Jewish adults) and memorial service at our home. June welcomed the opportunity to mourn her mother in the Jewish tradition. The memorial service led by our rabbi and attended by many friends from our synagogue was meaningful and spiritually moving.
I offer the following suggestions on how to help your spouse mourn the death of a non-Jewish parent:
- Respect the traditions of your in-law's religion.
- This would be an inopportune time to be perceived as being judgmental or to infer that the Jewish traditions hold more meaning and value than the traditions of your in-law's religion.
- Be respectful to the wishes of the deceased in-law.
- Assist in planning some of the details of the funeral.
- Support your spouse's efforts to bridge the traditions of his or her birth religion with the traditions of Judaism (if the spouse is now Jewish).
- Following the funeral, assist your spouse in beginning the process of grieving.