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Reflections of a Jewish Woman on the Death of Her Catholic Mother

To be honest, it wasn't very important to me that my mother was Catholic while I had chosen to become Jewish as an adult. My mother would have preferred that I remain within the religion of my upbringing, but she communicated a quiet acceptance of my need to follow my own religious journey. I appreciated her understanding.

When she died, our religious differences didn't matter. I had lost my mother--that was the important thing to me. Yet when a person dies, many people are affected. I knew that my Catholic relatives also were experiencing a loss and that I needed to put my needs aside for a time in order to plan a Catholic wake and funeral. Foremost in my mind was to do what my mother would have wanted and to do it in a way that would bring some comfort to the rest of her family.

Because I was an only child and my father had died many years before, it was my responsibility to make the necessary plans. My familiarity with the Catholic rituals and respect for this tradition of my upbringing enabled me to negotiate arrangements with a cast of people such as the priest, the funeral director, and the florist. When my Jewish husband and I met with the priest who would officiate at the funeral, I explained that I was no longer Catholic. We discussed plans for the wake, funeral, and burial. Although I anticipated that it would be emotionally exhausting for me to speak with so many people, I was not uncomfortable about my role during the wake, which I understood would provide a way for loved ones to begin mourning.

However, I was keenly aware that as a Jew it would be inappropriate for me to participate in some aspects of the funeral mass (service), such as reading a specifically Christian prayer or taking communion, and that my avoidance of these activities might be obvious to others. While I did not want to make relatives uncomfortable during a stressful time, I did not want to violate my own sense of what was right. The priest helped by offering me the option of sharing memories of my mother or doing a reading from the Jewish Bible (a.k.a. "Old Testament") at the funeral. I appreciated being given choices but decided that my grief would make it too difficult to speak then. Instead, my cousins gave a eulogy and did a reading, and my husband read a psalm. It was a relief not to feel pressured to perform during the funeral when I was feeling so much sorrow. It helped a great deal that I had expressed concerns about my role with the priest in advance of the wake and funeral so that he didn't assume that I would be participating in the rituals as a Catholic daughter. Through collaboration, we prevented potentially uncomfortable moments.

Looking back now elicits a collage of pictures: snapshots of walking through the gallery of caskets at the funeral home to make a selection, greeting visitors during the wake, sitting in the church pew during the funeral, and standing at the graveside for the burial. The numbness of new grief made me feel like a robot going through the proper motions. However, the religious practices provided much-needed structure and a process for mourning my mother's death with family and friends, even though the particular observances were different from those followed in my chosen religion, Judaism. The support of my husband and children, extended family and friends during these rituals is what I cherish in my memories. The presence of caring people, rather than any specific religious practices, was most meaningful to me.

After the burial, however, I still felt incomplete spiritually. I needed to have a religious observance of my own to help me grieve. The rabbi from our congregation met with me and asked the perfect question: did I want to have a Jewish memorial service at our house? Because my mother already had had a Catholic wake and burial, it wasn't necessary to have another religious service. Yet, I needed something for myself. So we planned to have a Jewish service and invited friends from our congregation.

Reciting the Kaddish, the traditional mourner's prayer, requires a minyan--a gathering of ten adults. I remember that our house was full of voices saying the prayer with me. The rabbi and our friends were present to support us during our bereavement. This time, I didn't have to worry about how others in my extended family were feeling or be concerned about how I would or would not participate in the rituals taking place. I could let myself be cared for spiritually. I felt then that I could truly begin the process of mourning my mother's death.

There are no simple guidelines to help any of us through death and mourning. What I can offer are some simple insights from my experience.

  • Enlist the help of others. You are not being disloyal to have someone else assist you in making plans. If you are unfamiliar with the usual religious practices, seek the help of a relative or friend who has the same religious background as the person who has died.
  • Remember that the clergy may not realize that you and your loved one have practiced different religions. Ask the clergy to describe the rituals and type of service that will take place so you will know what to expect.
  • Discuss what role or participation is appropriate and comfortable for you. By talking over these issues in advance, you are less likely to be taken by surprise, and awkward moments may be avoided.
  • Do something for yourself. There is no "right way" to meet your own spiritual needs. Choose practices that support you through the process of mourning.
  • Seek resources. Books can offer guidance and wisdom. For example, Rabbi Naomi Levy's book, To Begin Again: The Journey toward Comfort, Strength, and Faith in Difficult Times, provides insights from others' experiences that can be helpful during bereavement.
  • Don't let religious differences be a source of stress during your grief. Seeing the commonalties in mourning practices can enable you to choose a comfortable level of participation. Use your own religious tradition to meet your personal needs.

When looking back at my mother's death, I realize that the process of mourning is ongoing. We move through the immediate period of grief to emerge to a new life without the presence of that person. Yet we honor our loved one through living each day. Remembering the special moments is like seeing cherished photographs from the past. We keep them in our hearts.

B' Shalom (with peace).

Hebrew for "holy," a prayer found in Jewish prayer services. There are many versions of the Kaddish, the best known being the Mourner's Kaddish, said by mourners. Hebrew for "count," it refers to the quorum of ten Jewish adults (in some communities only men are counted; in others both men and women) required to hold a Torah service, recite some communal prayers, and the home-based recitation of the Kaddish. Minyan may also now refer to group that meets for prayer service, similar to a synagogue's congregation or a havurah. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Dr. June Andrews Horowitz

Dr. June Andrews Horowitz is an Associate Professor in the Psychiatric-Mental Health Department of the School of Nursing at Boston College. She has more than a decade of experience leading counseling groups and workshops for interfaith couples and she is a member of the Regional Outreach Committee of the Northeast Region of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC). Dr. Horowitz, her husband and three children are active members of Temple Beth David of the South Shore (a Reform synagogue) in Canton, Mass.

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