What Are The Rules For Mourning A Friend?

Preparing for the High Holy Days this year gave me pause. Last year I had a blueprint. My mother passed away at the end of 2015 and I knew that for the High Holy Days, I would include her name in our synagogue’s memorial book, I would attend Yizkor services for the first time in my life, and I would soon close my year of formal mourning. But this year I did not know how to complete the annual forms for the memorial book. Do I only include my mother or do I also include our friend, who died far too young in an accident this summer? Judaism provides us with a clear set of traditions for honoring the loss of your parents but how do you mourn a friend?

My husband and I were devastated when our friend passed away this summer. We would never begin to claim the deep level of sorrow felt by his family but we were profoundly affected by his death. Our friendship did not run long, it was less than 10 years ago when we first met at work, but it certainly ran deeper than with many people we’ve known for a lifetime. When we were placed on the same teaching team for our post-doctoral position, we immediately bonded over the many ways our lives overlapped; we were among the few at work that had young families, both of our spouses were not born Jewish, we shared a passion for baseball and politics, and our individual experiences living in Spain made us fans of tapas and Rioja. We also both lived with the daily anxiety of the academic job market, which was unpredictable and ensured we’d likely end up moving away. So, for three years, we shared the highs and lows of a particularly intense time in our lives. Together we celebrated Jewish holidays, the arrival of new children, San Francisco Giants victories, and academic accomplishments. We also supported each other when we both experienced personal loss and were the “runner-ups” for two different history faculty positions. I could call on him for anything big or small and our text messages ranged from the causes of the French Revolution to MLB pitching to the aftermath of the 2016 election. The day after he died, my husband and I sat in disbelief recalling all of our memories.

But friendships are not static and life creates distance in many forms. We had scheduled a phone call for the week he passed away but it had been some time since we actually spoke to each other in person or otherwise. Three years after meeting, he started teaching at a local university while I accepted a faculty position in Minnesota. We still stayed in contact, even meeting up in Chicago to cheer on our beloved Giants at Wrigley Field, but our intimate knowledge of each other’s comings and goings waned. I immediately found out about his death from a shared colleague but updates on his family’s well-being largely came from their friends I had never met. I realized I had his cell number but his wife’s contact info was not programmed into my new phone. Who was I supposed to contact for details of his memorial service? How could I offer my support to his family?

There was no place to go for a shiva call and no standard direction for honoring his memory. The 12 months after my mother passed away was among the most challenging times in my life but I found comfort in the rituals that allow you to process the loss of a parent. Now I often find myself in a mix of emotions when the smallest thing reminds me of my friend. I cried when I took pictures of my sons on the first day of school because I realized my friend and his family would never again share the back-to-school routine. I could not find a prayer to say or a ritual to observe for that type of loss.

I still don’t know how to move forward with mourning my friend. I did not include him in the yahrzeit book nor do I recite kaddish in his memory. I was raised to recognize those rituals as sacred to my immediate family. But I long for something that declares to the larger Jewish community that this person was an important person to me and my family. While many people at my synagogue knew by my actions that I was in mourning for my mother, few know that I think about my friend and his family every day.

As far as I can tell, Judaism does not tell you the “right” way to mourn a friend. And maybe that is the point. Truth be told, my friend wasn’t the most observant Jew and probably would have suggested I replace a shiva call with an act of tzedakah. Lacking the clear set of guidelines, I relied on for mourning my mother, my husband and I try to honor our friend’s spirit by supporting his ardent work for social justice at home and in Israel, by hugging our family and friends a little tighter, and by continuing our unwavering allegiance to the Giants.

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Kari Zimmerman is a TC JewFolk Guest Author

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