I first suggested a ritual for how we might use Jewish symbols and traditions when faced with closing up the home of a deceased parent shortly after the death of my mother in April 2001.
In the intervening years, I have passed it along to a number of friends (as part of the booklet The Journey of Mourning, which can be ordered from the Ethics Center of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.
Being twelve years older than when I wrote the ritual, and nearer to the closing stages of life, one of the things I recognize is that not every parent manages to down-size the accumulations of a lifetime prior to the end of life. It now seems clearer to me that one obligation aging parents have to adult children is to give some guidance as to what to keep and what to let go after they have died. Otherwise the task itself can become daunting and unmanageable and whatever spiritual solace is sought can be sidetracked by the burden of wading through too much stuff.
In my original article I mentioned that my then sixteen-year-old daughter volunteered to accompany me when I had to close my own mother’s apartment. In retrospect, it seems to be an imperative—not an option—for anyone carrying out this process to have other family or friends along for the work. Mutual support, alternative perspectives, and shared memories can all enhance the experience.
One innovation that has proved to be meaningful out of context is the adapted 'For the sin ...'' – the litany of sins for which Jews ask forgiveness during Yom Kippur services. (“For the sin…”) that appears as “A Short Prayer of Confession and Reconciliation” in the original ritual. For the past several years I have been including this version in the Yizkor (memorial service) for The holiest day of the Jewish year and the culmination of a season of self-reflection. Jews fast, abstain from other worldly pleasures, and gather in prayers that last throughout the day. Following Ne'ilah, the final prayers, during which Jews envision the Gates of Repentance closing, the shofar is sounded in one long blast to conclude the holy day. It is customary to begin building one's sukkah as soon as the day ends. morning at the “second service” outside the main sanctuary that I lead at Reconstructionist Congregation Darchei Noam in Toronto. It seems to speak to the unspoken regrets children have about what they failed to say to parents while they had the chance, and it offers a way to begin to release some of those regrets while also taking responsibility for what was left unsaid.
One person who used the ritual writes the following:
My parents died within seven months of one another, both dying–by their choice–in the home in which they had lived for over 50 years. My brother and I kept the house intact for an entire year after our second parent (our mother) died. On a warm September day, my brother and I sat outside on the back porch, on our last weekend together of packing up the home of our childhood. Our spouses and two of our children, one 12 and one 18, were with us. I was grateful to have been given a ritual for marking this time by my good friend, Richard Hirsh. My family surrendered to this one last request and it turned out to be the most powerful thing that we could have done together. The ritual captured all of the mixed feelings we had, expressed all of the gratitude we felt, and even asked forgiveness for anything we could not take with us that might have been important to our parents. Tears and laughter flowed and the spiritual and emotional closure it leant are still with us all.
It would be interesting to hear from others who may have used this ritual what their experience was.