Jewish Grieving for a Non-Jewish Relative

I continued to wonder how a Jew-by-choice goes about honoring a dead loved one in a way that doesn’t offend non-Jewish relatives and honors my adopted Jewish traditions.

I woke up suddenly in the wee hours of the morning on March 5, 2014. It wasn’t my alarm that had woken me or my cell phone, which was next to my head and on vibrate. It was a feeling. 

I believe that if you ask a doula or birth worker, most will tell you that they feel when their clients are in labor, even without knowing. Sure enough, when I checked my phone my clients had called several times. 

I crept out of the room to not wake my partner and learned that my clients, who were weeks away from their estimated due date were, indeed, in the hospital and in active labor. I rushed to be with them and turned off my phone, as I do with all of my births. We watched the sun rise over Manhattan and as my clients continued settling into the rhythms of labor, I decided to check my phone. There were at least a dozen calls from my mother and I knew in an instant the urgent calls were about my sister.

The conversation I had with my mother is a blur. So is whatever I told my clients. All I knew is that I needed to get to Ohio and everything else just happened: the arrival of my back-up doula, the birth, packing, the flight.

The next day, March 6th, my partner and I joined my parents to say goodbye to my sister. Most of the day is a buried memory. The way she looked. The way her body heaved as she breathed through life-support machines. The sounds. The smells. My father crying. My mother holding her hand. The way everyone spoke to us in a whisper. 

The hospital chaplain, a Catholic (I asked), was of little help to our family. Try as he may, his words didn’t seem to provide comfort. Instead, we found some solace in our family pastor who came to pray with us. 

I felt helpless. Helpless as a sister and helpless as a Jew-by-choice, at my sister’s deathbed. And while I did find slight comfort in reading Tehillim to her in English and in saying the Sh’ma and Mourner’s Kaddish when we turned off her machines, I continued to wonder how a Jew-by-choice goes about honoring a dead loved one in a way that doesn’t offend non-Jewish relatives and honors my adopted Jewish traditions.

For me, it was helpful to know my family’s Christian beliefs have roots in Judaism and that whether they’re called Psalms or Tehillim, the words are the same. Saying the words of Psalm 23 wasn’t foreign to my parents’ ears or that of my childhood pastor. Yet, in honoring my sister by reciting Jewish prayers to her in the hours before her death and in reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish in terrible, tear-filled Hebrew after she passed on, I was able to honor and mourn her in a Jewish way.

As the hundreds of notes, emails, phone calls, and electronic words of condolences came rushing in, an email from a friend touched me deeply: “We’re here to sit shiva with you when you return to NYC.” All of the messages I received on that day and the days and weeks that followed touched me in the deepest reaches of my soul, but that message of Jewish comfort from my chosen Jewish family struck a chord.

After spending two weeks in Ohio with my family I didn’t know how I could re-mourn the loss of my sister and, instead, followed most of the shoshlim rituals: I avoided parties, didn’t shave or clip my nails, and recited Kaddish. 

And somehow, it’s already more than one year later and while Jewish death and mourning rituals are less foreign to me now than they were a year ago, it still feels unsettling to follow our traditions for loved ones who are not Jewish. I suppose this is often the case when one converts to a religion that is different from the faith practices of family members. As I cross the threshold of my early thirties to late thirties, I realize that Jewish mourning rituals will continue to pepper my life as older relatives in my family pass away and I will once again be faced with honoring my religious traditions side by side with my family members’ Christian traditions. There will be aspects that don’t translate, but there is comfort in the areas where the two traditions overlap. 


Erika writes about the intersections of race, racism, religion and sexual orientation on her blog, Black, Gay and Jewish. She has written for The Sisterhood site of the Jewish Daily Forward, Jewniverse and Kveller among others. Erika is an active member and volunteer for The Jewish Multiracial Network and is currently working with JMN writing a Diversity Handbook and presenting the issue of inclusion for multiracial Jews and Jews of Color to synagogue communities and JCC's.

When not talking or writing about Jewish diversity, Erika can be found in area hospitals working as a labor doula. She lives in Seattle with her partner and their cats.

Found in: Death & Mourning, Mourning & Bereavement

Tags: shiva