By Rabbi Rachel Esserman
I did two unusual things in September: for the first time in at least 40 years, I did not attend services or pray during Rosh Hashanah. I also posted about the death of a relative on Facebook, something I’ve never done before. Both of these things occurred because my mother, Elinor “Honey” Esserman, died the morning of September 25. Rosh Hashanah began that evening.
My reason for not attending Rosh Hashanah services was simple: I couldn’t bear to step foot into the synagogue or open a machzor (holiday prayer book). I went with a Jewish tradition that declares we do not pray when our dead lie before us. Due to the logistics of the holiday, the burial could not take place until Wednesday, the day after the holiday. I had thought I’d look at my machzor at home, but viewing those readings before the funeral was just too much.
As for posting on Facebook, I didn’t write about my father’s death in 2006 or my little brother Larry’s in 2010. But I felt obligated this time because I had been posting about my visits with my mother that occurred when I was finally allowed to once again enter the nursing home where she was living. A friend came with me the first time and took a picture of me and my mom, which I posted on Facebook, noting that I was not going to do this every time I visited. The responses to that photo can be summarized by saying, “Please continue to post about your visits.” From then on, I regularly posted, even when I didn’t have a photo or there wasn’t much to write about. I felt it was necessary to let the people who regularly liked or commented on these posts to know what happened. One person very sweetly wrote that she’d enjoyed being part of the journey I took with my mom.
My reaction to my mom’s death surprised me. It’s not that I wasn’t upset: I was a mess on the Sunday I received the call from the home that she passed away. But I’ve been far calmer than I thought I would be and that includes during the burial, which is usually the most difficult time for me. One person has suggested that I’ve already done a great deal of mourning for my mom since I’ve watched her decline over the past few years. The mother I could depend on and talk to was no longer there, although her basic personality (and sense of humor) remained intact. Someone else suggested that it would hit me when I least expected it. Yet another noted it would probably be some combination of the two.
I’ve been attending services since then, including Yizkor during Yom Kippur and, again, I was sad, but not distraught. One moment during services did take me by surprise. When we used to hold holiday parties at my chaplaincy job, we would always say my favorite blessing – the Shehecheyanu prayer – during which we thank God that we’ve managed to live through this past year and be together again. Hearing and saying that prayer this year was the hardest part of the day because, this time, my mom was not there.
My mother’s biggest worry was what would happen to me when she died. That’s because I’m unmarried and have no children (something which at times still takes me by surprise since it was not by deliberate intent). What I and others told her is that I have friends and a community that would offer me support. That proved true before, during and after the shiva. Community doesn’t mean we need to be best friends or even see each other frequently. What it does mean is that we are there when people need us to help celebrate their joys and to commiserate and support them during their sorrowful moments.
Thank you to all who supported me during the past few years – in person or virtually – during my mom’s decline and after her death. The day before this paper appears in print would have been my mom’s 96th birthday. She almost made it; she lived longer than her parents and siblings. I carry her with me in my thoughts and actions; I wouldn’t be who I am without her. For me, her memory is a blessing.