Mourning Rachel

By Paula Lee Hellman


I had forgotten to unlock the door of my step-son’s home, so when the first visitors arrived, I answered their knock still wearing an apron. I left the chicken soup simmering on the stove. The visitor was a friend from their church. She fell into my arms and exclaimed: “I’m so glad they have a Jewish grandmother. I know they will be all right.”

Grief and shock precede mourning. And this morning, my extended family was thrown into shock as we tried to integrate the awful thought of my step-granddaughter’s sudden death.

Even after my divorce from his father (a lapsed Methodist) and remarriage to my beloved Jewish husband, my first stepson is still very much a part of my life. It was a source of delight to me that my two stepsons, born twenty years apart from different fathers, bracketed my biological children and rounded out our family unit. We all enjoyed the fact that my older stepson’s daughter and my younger stepson were the same age. They met when they were both four years old and played together as cousins in our extended family where the relationships were fuzzy, but the love was clear.

The differences in our religions mattered only slightly in our relationship. Yes, it is true that my daughter-in-law’s mother told me once, “There’s none so blind as those who do not see Christ’s glory,” but the rest of the family enjoyed our gatherings. My stepson’s family celebrated Hanukkah with us. And we brought gifts to them on Christmas Eve. There were many years when we ate Thanksgiving dinner together, offering prayers of thanks to God and taking a moment to go around the table mentioning aloud the names of those we wished could be with us, including my oldest stepson’s now deceased father. Our families held lively picnics and volleyball games in the summer; all our children picked berries, played Uno endlessly on overnights and listened to their music while the grown-ups cooked and danced to the music of the long-ago Seventies.

As the two non-cousins grew older they grew first closer, then further apart. My step-granddaughter at age sixteen pulled away from all family, dropped out of school and moved into her own life. One year later, she returned. On her own, she earned her G.E.D. Now, she greeted me warmly when we met on the streets of our small town. She visited her parents and sister. It seemed as if she was ready to claim her kinfolk. Her entire family delighted. Her mother and father planned a large Thanksgiving dinner, one that would celebrate their daughter’s return.

But… twelve days before Thanksgiving, twelve days after her seventeenth birthday, my step-granddaughter was struck by a truck as she was crossing a highway at night. Her little body was thrown into the air and she landed hard. She died.

My stepson and his wife, despite their grief, asked me to be part of the planning. We consciously chose Psalms and readings from the Old Testament as the primary readings in the liturgy of Christian burial. I was gratified that it was important to the entire family that all of us be able to feel and express our anguish without feeling excluded.

Rachel’s friends came to a wake — at which her body, dressed in white and laid in a satin-lined coffin — was on display for two days. They made posters of pictures of the life she had had with them. And we now wanted to know all about that missing year.

It was hard for me to enter the funeral parlor, but I did. I even spoke to her, as she lay like a make-believe doll in a fancy toy bed. All the children, sisters, brothers — half, step and whole; uncles and aunts; and multiple parents came together. Religion is important to many of us. Although our ways to God are different, many of us are people of faith.

By the day of the funeral, I was exhausted. My head was spinning. And I was swept up in rituals that were at once familiar and different. The minister knew that I was the Jewish grandma. The songs and psalms that were chosen were of comfort. Jesus was mentioned, of course. But I didn’t feel left out. And we all recited the twenty-third psalm, which is healing for people of many religious traditions.

It was after the funeral that I felt the most disconnected. At the cemetery, we weren’t allowed to stay to watch the coffin be lowered into the ground. I wanted to stay, but the funeral director gently and firmly told me to leave. He said that the casket would not be placed in the grave until all the mourners had left.

That is strikingly different from Jewish tradition. At Jewish funerals, we watch the coffin as it is lowered. We shovel clods of dirt onto the coffin from the back of a shovel (to emphasize how hard it is to bury our dead). The thump of dirt falling on a wooden coffin is a numbing sound. It is final. And it is a mitzvah, a sacred obligation, to accompany the dead in this way. It is a special gift because it can never be returned. I had to go back to the cemetery later in the afternoon to see the mound of brown dirt that marked my step-granddaughter’s grave. I patted the mound to know for sure that she was gone from this lifetime.

In Jewish homes, ritual mourning begins when the mourners return home from the cemetery. A candle burns for seven days. Traditionally, mirrors are covered and mourners sit on low stools. When each of my parents died, we observed shiva, seven days of mourning. We didn’t sit on low stools, but the mood was somber and people talked in hushed voices.

At my stepson’s home, there was lively conversation and a great deal of drinking beer. I thought about the Jewish tradition, that the mourning process starts when the body is buried. The speed of this Christian end-of-ritual mourning took my breath away. My stepson and his wife took a couple of days off. Then they went back to work. Of course, their grief is not over nearly four years later. Nor can it ever be, I’m sure. And I still think of my dead step-granddaughter daily. We talk of her as a family less and less.

I am comforted by my Jewish rituals. In our Reform congregation, Rachel is mentioned on her Yahrzeit, the anniversary of her death. I light a candle for her in my home, and when I visit the cemetery, I put a stone on her grave.


About Paula Lee Hellman

Paula Lee Hellman is education director at Hevreh of Southern Berkshire. She and her Jewish husband have a blended family, which includes children and stepchildren, grandchildren and a step-grandchild from their previous interfaith marriages.