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Surviving Grief

Although I otherwise have no religion, I retain the Jewish ritual of yahrzeit, burning a candle each year to commemorate the death of loved ones.

I'm pretty sure that if I followed Torah teachings, I'm supposed to burn candles only for a parent, sibling, husband or child, but I ignore that and include everyone I love who has died.

In my late years now, that makes for a busy yahrzeit schedule, particularly at this time of year. For some reason, December and January are heavily populated with dead friends.

What I like about the rite is that during a 24-hour period, every time I walk past or catch a glimpse of the candle, I think for awhile about that person.

Sometimes my mind takes off into reveries of events I haven't recalled in a long time. And sometimes when that happens - many years, even decades after someone's death - it is suddenly as if I only just heard that my friend has died and it feels again that the hurt will kill me.

But, of course, it does not.

Last year, when I was reading Bringing Up the Bodies, the second volume of Hillary Mantel's stunningly good trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, I ran across this passage which speaks to the pain of grief more eloquently than I can:

”You think you might die of grief – but the pulse, obdurate, keeps its rhythm. You think you cannot keep breathing, but your rib cage has other ideas, rising and falling, emitting sighs.

“You must thrive in spite of yourself; and so that you may do it, God takes out your heart of flesh and gives you one of stone.”

I am grateful for this necessary grace that carries me through the heaviest stages of grief and which returns with additional balm for the unexpected recurrences.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Diane Johnson: Sticks and Stones


Thank you, Ronni---For me
a timely post.

By example you bring warming light and solace
to my grieving heart.

Now I'm certain I will survive.

Your post this morning hits home with me. And reminded me immediately of a poem by Jack Gilbert, a poet who died at 87 last year and whose obituary in the NY Times made me want to read more of him. One of the poems quoted particularly touched me, helped me in my ongoing grief over the death of my son almost two years ago. It's called "Michiko Dead" -- Michiko being the woman whom Gilbert knew and loved while he was living in Japan. I want to share it with you all. It is in Gilbert's collection "The Great Fires."

Michiko Dead

He manages like somebody carrying a box
that is too heavy, first with his arms
underneath. When their strength gives out,
he moves the hands forward, hooking them
on the corners, pulling the weight against
his chest. He moves his thumbs slightly
when the fingers begin to tire, and it makes
different muscles take over. Afterward,
he carries it on his shoulder, until the blood
drains out of the arm that is stretched up
to steady the box and the arm
goes numb. But now
the man can hold underneath again, so that
he can go on without ever putting the box down.


All those magical friends. I miss them still.

Thank you for this reminder of yahrzeit. And thank you, Ruth-Ellen, for the eloquent poem by Jack Gilbert. Here's to the ones we miss always.

This is one of your very best writings. Touched me deeply. I still unexpectedly grieve at times for someone I lost 45 years ago. And, 45 years later, there are too many more loved ones gone. And I will now do the same. Such a beautiful, comforting ritual for something so seeming small (but not small at all) as lighting a candle. Thank you.

I guess I am unusual, but I do not commemorate the death date of a loved one, but I never forget their birthday. Perhaps it's because there is so much sadness in the world I would prefer to reminisce on happier times and a birthday helps me do that.

I think the ceremony of yahrzeit is a lovely one. I have another friend who is no longer religious and when she was stating that fact she added, "But God forbid that I would fail to light a candle on the date of my mother's death." She would agree with you completely., Ronni.

Perhaps I will light candles on the birth dates of my departed loved ones. It may help renew forgotten memories. It's a lovely tradition.

I think birthday remembrances are a fine idea too.

I really related to this one Ronni! My son died at age 7 of leukemia in 1978 and I light a candle every year. That time in January is very sad for me and even after 30+ years, I still cry and grieve. The candle and its routine with a prayer give me not only remembrance and pain,but some kind of comfort as well. I never thought I would live either after that, but I do!!

Thank you, Ronni. I agree that this is truly one of your best posts. Like you, I am Jewish but at this point, only in my heart. Yet I wouldn't think of letting one of my beloved parents, or my dearest brother, or special friends' yahrtzeit pass without lighting that candle. Not only am I honoring them, but for those sacred 24 hours, honoring what they meant to me.

Grief is heavy. Quite heavy, too heavy. Does it ever go away?

Thank you for telling us about this beautiful tradition, Ronni.

You never cease to amaze me with your wonderful lifestyle and your devotion to family and friends.

I love the idea of Yahrzeit
and will read more about it with the idea that perhaps I can add this tradition to my own life.

Yahrzeit - what a nice little ritual.

I didn't know it was called that Ronni but that is what I do, even when I have my Irish Women's Christmases I light a candle for every member that has slipped away and I remember them so vividly and where they sat.
I also light candles on anniversaries and feel, almost, that the person is in the room with me.
Sad and painful but oh so cathartic.

Thank You Ronni, once again you have opened a new venue of thinking for me. I see my heart of stone in a new way. I see I can turn to God for some more help.

Such a simple way to celebrate our gone loved ones and acknowledge our grief on their behalf. Thanks.

What a wonderful description of the soul's adaption to sorrow and grief. My stone of my heart is still there, but at times I feel it warming again. I am not Jewish, nor really anything religious anymore, but I love the idea of bringing a little light into my world which seems to have lost light with the death of a loved one. In one instance, the death and birthday are one after the other, to perhaps that will make for a 48 hour candlelight remembrance. Thank you.

The Hilary Mantel quotation brought to mind my 12-year-old self, just back home after burying my father, and, looking out the living room windows on West End Avenue. The traffic lights were still changing colors, and the traffic was flowing steadily, pausing only to obey the lights. How dare the familiar scene outside the windows stayed the same after my father's death? I felt shock, rage, and hurt. And then, staring dully at the monotonous rhythmic pulsing, I felt comforted. The whole world had not ended, though I had been feeling that my world had.

We light the yahrzeit candle, also, on the eve of Yom Kippur and on Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) in remembrance of those who were killed in the Shoah/Holocaust. And at other observances and prayer services in the Jewish calendar.

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