We spend so much time marking time. Jewish time, secular time. We're always aware of the next weekend off, the next bank holiday, the next Jewish holiday, Shabbat. Yet, that first month, I seemed to lose all sense of time. My life partner, Michael Abdenour, died early on the Friday morning after Thanksgiving. His battle with AIDS ended on erev Shabbat. He was thirty-eight years old.
After that day, events moved in a wave on which I was carried along: his viewing (he was not Jewish), the funeral service, the burial, the memorial service. I was involved in all those events, but remained separate, in a way.
I felt damaged, wounded, and needed death rituals that were familiar to me. I chose to have one shiva service. My Reconstructionist community completely supported me, wrapping me in their loving embrace through a time in which I felt so alone without my spouse. While not obligated to by traditional halakha, I chose to honor Michael and my experience of his death by observing a sh'loshim period.
I know a lot about shiva. I have attended and led a number of shiva minyanim. I was somewhat less familiar with sh'loshim observance. I knew that sh'loshim for a spouse is observed for thirty days after the burial and includes the seven days of shiva. After shiva, the mourners' activities are less restricted. Generally, they avoid social events and do not cut their hair or shave. If I could observe my own form of sh'loshim, I reasoned, I could be free of the stress of some of the social activities that are so frequently forced on mourners by well-meaning friends and family.
During those thirty days, I felt insane. Nothing seemed to make sense. I often wondered why I had continued to survive my own struggle with AIDS while Michael, along with other close friends, had not survived. Many of us took the same medications and had the same treatments, even the same doctors. For some inexplicable reason, I was still here and they were all gone. Michael's death brought up thoughts and feelings of grief for the many other friends and loved ones I had lost to AIDS over the years. I was transported back to the days leading up to the death of my first partner, Stephen, also from complications of AIDS. I thought of the final days of my friends Jeff, Brian, David, Kenny and many others--of scenes in hospitals, hospices and the homes of all these people, when they were alive yet so very close to death that they weren't really part of this world. I sometimes felt that I wasn't part of this world, either that part of me was still with Michael.
Sometimes I cried. Sometimes I held back the tears because I knew that they would exhaust me. The needs of our corgi dog sometimes provided the only motivation for me to get dressed and walk out the door. I felt sorrow in my body, as though a band were constricting my chest or I were choking on the lump in my throat. I sometimes felt numb.
My community brought food. They respected my need for solitude by leaving dinners at my door. I wouldn't have even tried to cook or eat if those meals hadn't shown up during that early mourning period. People called and left messages saying they were thinking about me but that I did not have to return the call. Sometimes I returned calls, other times the effort of talking was too much. Sometimes I could stand a brief visit. I talked to my rabbi. All these things sustained me.
I managed to attend services, although I found the experience a little overwhelming at times. I said the Mourners' Kaddish for Michael at those services. At home, I said Psalm 23 for him daily.
Even though I had ceased marking time in the usual ways, time moved forward. I started to become more aware of the days. As the numbness began to lift, the pain intensified, punctuated by a few good moments. Then I actually began to have a good day here and there. My experience told me that I was beginning the long-term part of grieving. The calendar told me that sh'loshim was almost over. I began to think about ways of ritually marking its end.
There were very few traditional or modern approaches to be found to do this. There are specific activities associated with the end of shiva. In some communities, shiva is ended by hammering a nail into a wooden board. The imagery here is vivid: the loud noise, the violent stroke of the hammer, as if to rouse the mourner awake from a stuporous sleep. A more common activity is that the mourner puts on his shoes and goes for a walk around the block -- a way of rising up, literally, from grief and reentering the community. None of these seemed a good fit for me at this time of change.
During this time I was talking to my rabbi, Steve Segar. He knows me well, and I consider him and his wife, Andi, to be partners on my spiritual path. During one of our many talks, we tossed around the idea of a creative use of the mikveh to mark the change in my status as a mourner.
Our Reconstructionist congregation, a few years ago, had held a class about the mikveh and its use before the High Holy Days to mark the end of the period of introspection during the month of Elul. As part of the class, time slots in the mikveh had been reserved for participants. I had signed up, and found the experience to be profound. I have since gone to the mikveh annually before Yom Kippur. It provides me with a way to move from one state to another, from introspection to action.
I decided to take some steps to compose a relevant ritual for myself. I looked through every book on Judaic practice that I owned. I read stories on a number of websites about people using the mikveh in a creative way. Some found it helpful as they healed from sexual abuse and rape. Others used it for reasons relating to health, following a particularly difficult hospitalization or to mark the end of a round of chemotherapy.
I found one reference to the use of mikveh at the end of sh'loshim by a woman following the death of her sister, but with no accompanying ritual. As I did my research, I took particular note of prayers, readings, formats and biblical citations that I liked. This proved helpful as I developed the actual ritual.
Next, I gave serious thought to my intent or kavanah in creating this ritual. First, I wanted to honor all of the emotional tumult I had experienced during sh'loshim. Athough there were times I felt as though I were coming unglued, I knew that those feelings were crucial elements in the dynamic grieving process. Second, I wanted to honor the many people who had supported me during this time and have a few of them participate in this ritual with me. Finally, I wanted to acknowledge that I was entering a new phase of grieving that included both sadness and the possibility of joy and hope. I was reentering my community forever changed and aware that life was beginning to move forward.
I wanted to begin the ritual with blessings. In his book, Entering Jewish Prayer, Reuven Hammer cites the"Blessing of the Mourners," which is mentioned often in the Mishna and Talmud but eventually ceased to be used. I included two of the blessings he cited for the group to say together. It felt good to be able to reuse those old blessings in a new way. For the actual immersion part of the ritual, I used the three Hebrew blessings traditionall y said before each immersion. I added a fourth immersion from a suggested "Kavanah for Mikveh" that I found at www.ritualwell.org. (The number"four" is considered a Jewish symbol for building.) During the actual immersions, I would be alone with the rabbi. The group would be able to hear me say the blessings through a privacy screen in the anteroom.
I rewrote a blessing entitled "A Kavanah for a Widowhood Journey," by Karen Gluckstern-Reiss, also from the ritualwell.org website. This would be the final blessing said after I returned to the group.
The ritual follows. Sections in quotation marks are taken from www.ritualwell.org:
Before the Mikveh, Leaving Sh'loshim
Let us bless each other as mourners as we bless the One who comforts and say together:
Our brothers and sisters who are worn out and crushed by this mourning, let your hearts consider this: This is the path that has existed from the time of creation and will exist forever. Many have drunk from it and many will yet drink. As was the first meal, so shall be the last. Our brothers and sisters, may the Master of Comfort comfort you. Blessed is The One who comforts the mourners.
Recognizing that everything has a time – There is a time for every season.
There is a time for the funeral and a time for the funeral to end.
There is a time for shiva and a time for shiva to end.
There is a time for the memorial service and a time for the service to end.
There is a time for sh'loshim and a time, now, for sh'loshim to end.
This doesn't mean that my grief ends. It doesn't. It changes. Going to the mikveh is a way for me to punctuate this change.
A way to mark a moving forward in sacred time.
I honor my grief. I honor the feelings I had during sh'loshim.
I honor those feelings and thoughts of pain and loss that I continue to have.
In doing this, I become able to move forward in time and space.
In doing this, I become open to possibility.
In doing this, I honor the memory of Michael for a blessing.
Each of you here today has been a blessing to me during this time of unimaginable sadness.
David says a blessing for each member of the group.
Entering the Mikveh: Prayers, solitary reflection.
During the final immersion, I concentrated on allowing the waters to attend to the parts of my body that felt the grief the most. I then allowed my mind to open to any spontaneous images and thoughts that might enter. As I was doing this, the image that came to mind was of Michael smiling. I felt an immediate sense of peace. As I climbed the steps out of the mikveh, I was aware of the smile on my own face.
After the Mikveh, Returning to Community
None of us can survive the death of a loved one alone. I thank each of you with all of my being for supporting me with your loving kindness.
Our brothers and sisters who perform acts of loving kindness, children of those who perform acts of loving kindness, who follow the way of our father Abraham . . . Our brothers and sisters, may He-who-rewards-goodness reward you. Blessed are You, the One who rewards deeds of goodness.
Now, I humbly ask for your blessings.
David is blessed by each individual.
"Source of Healing, this period of sh'loshim has been one of profound sadness. I miss my beloved partner, Michael, more than words can say. My heart is broken. I cry out to you.
Adonai, my God who heals the brokenhearted and restores their bodies:
Bring healing and consolation to me.
Do not hide your presence from me!
My God, do not tarry!
Strengthen my heart and give courage to my soul.
Spread over me the shelter of your peace, that I might reside there through this journey of Pain and anger,
Memories and flashbacks,
Renewed joy and peace,
Rediscovered strength and livelihood.
God, blessed in the day and in the night,
Blessed as I rise up from my formal mourning,
Blessed as I lie down in my private torment and yearning:
Gather into your Eternal Presence the soul of my beloved Michael.
May my days with Michael remain for me memories of love, warmth, joy and friendship. May my days of surviving continue to preserve these memories and create new paths – in the path of your Torah – with love, tolerance, peace and humility. Amen."
After the final blessing, we sang a soft niggun.
Since then, I mark time by good days and bad days. There are daily reminders that Michael is gone. My life is very different, but the pain is much less intense than during sh'loshim. I have greater awareness of being open to possibility. The creative use of mikveh was the key to that.
David Feldt, a member of the Reconstructionist Havurah of Cleveland,is the president of the board of the AIDS Taskforce of Greater Cleveland (DavidCLE@aol.com). This article was originally published in Reconstructionism Today, Volume 11, Number 3, Spring-Summer 2004.