Get the Mourners to Speak: A Grieve Leave Chat with Rabbi Matthew Soffer

anticipatory grief death divorce/breakups Oct 26, 2022
Grieve Leave
Get the Mourners to Speak: A Grieve Leave Chat with Rabbi Matthew Soffer

There are two places on this earth that still feel like home to me after losing both of my parents: my synagogue and Cameron Indoor Stadium. While I've talked about my faith in Duke basketball already in this year of Grieve Leave, surprisingly, I haven't yet shared more about my Jewish identity and how my culture helps me grieve.


There are two places on this earth that still feel like home to me after losing both of my parents: my synagogue and Cameron Indoor Stadium. While I've talked about my faith in Duke basketball already in this year of Grieve Leave, surprisingly, I haven't yet shared more about my Jewish identity and how my culture helps me grieve.

With antisemitism making headlines again in the U.S. and around the world, I want to take some time to explain more about Judaism from my perspective as a lifelong member of the Reform Jewish community, with a particular lens on grief. I want to openly and proudly claim my Jewish heritage.

We Jews do a lot of grieving, as a people. It's pretty central to who we are. And although I've grown up with these grief traditions, I haven't really thought about what they mean to me until these last few years— until I didn't get them when my father died during Covid.

I spent time with my congregation’s rabbi, Matthew Soffer, earlier this year to talk about Jewish culture and grieving customs. But before I share more of our conversation, I want to offer my take on Judaism & Grieving 101 by walking through some of the basics that stand out to me. These are the things I wanted to talk to my rabbi about:

We remember the dead—like all the time.

  • Every week as a part of shabbat/sabbath services at synagogue on Friday evenings/Saturday mornings, the congregation will altogether say a specific prayer to remember the dead, called the Mourner's Kaddish.

  • The annual anniversary of a loved one's death is called a yartzheit. On that day annually, we light a 24-hour burning candle in their honor, and we leave it up in our home. It's tradition to attend shabbat services following a yartzheit in your family. The temple will read all names of yartzheits that week aloud, and we stand up in honor of our person during the Mourner's Kaddish.

  • Four times a year, we recite a series of special prayers at temple together to remember the dead called Yizkor, with Yizkor on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (the holiest day of the Jewish year) probably being the best-attended.

  • Remembering and honoring the victims of the Holocaust is a regular part of religious observances. There is a particular prayer read aloud for Holocaust victims every Yom Kippur at my temple, and I was taught about the atrocities of the six million lives lost early on in my religious schooling.

We structure our grieving after a death— like a lot.

  • When an immediate family member dies, we are supposed to tear an item of clothing we have on in order to mark our immediate grief. (A more modern approach: when each of my parents died, my rabbi gave me a button with a black ribbon on it to cut, instead.)

  • We bury the dead person very quickly, usually within a couple of days. There is no headstone placed on the grave, though, until the next year.

  • After the burial of an immediate family member (e.g. parent, sibling), we participate in a custom called "sitting shiva" where for seven days, we receive visitors, tell stories about our loved one, pray together, and take in a lot of casseroles. During shiva, all mirrors in the house are covered, and we don't wear makeup or put other effort into our appearance. We are also supposed to keep that torn piece of clothing/ribbon on the whole time.

  • The first thirty days after the death of a family member are called shloshim. Every Shabbat for those thirty days, the person's name is read aloud at temple, and family members of that person stand up to honor them and say the Mourner's Kaddish.

  • It's traditional to attend Shabbat services weekly for a year after the death of a family member specifically to say the Mourner's Kaddish in their honor.

  • On the first yartzheit, an unveiling ceremony is held where the loved one’s headstone is placed at their grave.

I sat down with Rabbi Soffer way back in month three of Grieve Leave, a few hours before I went to temple for the first time in-person since my father's death to mark his second yartzheit. On that beautiful spring day, Rabbi Soffer and I sat outside the synagogue and chatted, with birds chirping in the background and the sun shining. I recorded a good chunk of our conversation, which I've edited and shared clips of below.

Some important context for this interview before you tune in: Rabbi Soffer and I grew close during the height of the Pandemic, where he was there as a listening ear for me after the death of my father in March 2020. Then my rabbi tragically lost his own mother to Covid at the end of 2020. We were able to have an open and honest conversation earlier this year because there’s a lot of trust between us given our shared grief experiences, and I’m so grateful for that. And, to give credit where it’s due, Rabbi Soffer’s monthlong “grief leave” on the first anniversary of his mother’s death inspired my own year of Grieve Leave.

I recommend that you take a listen to all four parts of our interview by clicking each link below. I’ve also transcribed pieces of our conversation that struck me the most. Note: I’ve made minor edits and tweaks to the transcripts for ease of reading, so make sure to listen in if you want the full picture of our conversation.

Part I: On Honoring vs. Remembering

You'll hear at the start of the recording that I was very direct: I was on a mission. I wanted to know the why behind...well, all the things. I demanded answers from my rabbi about our traditions around grief and grieving in Judaism, but he so beautifully helped redirect me to a shared dialogue rather than an interrogation.

You'll also hear me use the word mitzvah in the first minute of the video, which is a common Hebrew word in Judaism, basically meaning "a good deed."

Also in this clip, you’ll hear me refer to re-watching the video of my father's memorial service, which I had just done on his yartzheit as a way to remember him.

Rebecca Feinglos: We spend so much energy as Jews on grieving and remembering death. During my dad’s memorial last year you talked about remembering the dead being a profound mitzvah in Judaism and I've been reflecting on that. Why is remembering the dead a mitzvah and why is that so central for us? Every Shabbat, high holidays, like we are always remembering the dead. Why do we do that? 

Rabbi Matthew Soffer: You said honoring the dead and remembering the dead, I think we could also pull them apart.  

Rebecca Feinglos: Oh, interesting.  

Rabbi Matthew Soffer: I usually think about honoring the dead as the things that we do to honor the dead… it is sort of an active connotation…

Rebecca Feinglos: But remembering is active too…

Rabbi Matthew Soffer: …is it?

Rebecca Feinglos: Yeah! It is a conscious choice to remember. Like it is a conscious choice to confront your mom's death, my dad's death…In theory, it would be easier to just not think about that and push it to the side. For me to never confront my dad's death and remember him and put him at the forefront of my mind, might at least temporarily put me at some ease. It's hard to remember.

Rabbi Matthew Soffer: It is. You know, what you're saying makes me think about the difference between grief and remembrance.

Rebecca Feinglos: Ooh. Say more.

Rabbi Matthew Soffer: Like, you know when you're sitting and it smacks you across the face. Is that active? No. It's barging in the moments that you're least expecting it. Like grief just weighs. But then in terms of the Jewish tradition side, remembrance, there's structure in it.  

Rebecca Feinglos: Yeah.

Rabbi Matthew Soffer: Right. Like you're coming tonight. To light a candle and say kaddish. And we have yizkor moments at the end of…we have one upcoming with Passover.

Rebecca Feinglos: But why? Why do we do that? Why did Jews find it so central for us to structure remembrance and to structure this honor?

Rabbi Matthew Soffer: I remember my first heartbreak, my first broken heart. I don't know if this is why…But the first time I ever learned about structure, I was at camp, because that's the right place to have a completely shattered, dissected heart. How old were you when you had your first broken heart?

Rebecca Feinglos: No, I broke hearts, Rabbi.

Rabbi Matthew Soffer: You never had your heart broken?

Rebecca Feinglos: Not until lately, I would say.

Rabbi Matthew Soffer: Oh, you should try that. Okay, fine. Okay. You know, it's grief.

Rebecca Feinglos: Yeah. Totally.

Rabbi Matthew Soffer: Every grief actually is its own thing. It's like a life, right? It's like, you can't say that one person's soul is the same as another. One person's grief is different. So, every heartbreak has its own stuff. And I remember I was at summer camp and I couldn't concentrate at all. I couldn't focus on the kids. I was a counselor, a first year counselor. I couldn't focus on anything and I would just, like, weep. It was like this 18 year old, just like, what’s happening? And it was everywhere and it was a mess. And I sat down with my rabbi. And she counseled me and she said, “You have to take 30 minutes every day and put it aside.” And just give your grief that time. I don't know why she said that.

Rebecca Feinglos: Give space for grief.

Rabbi Matthew Soffer: Yeah. And it was like that, that sounds so manufactured, you know? But it really does kind of work. It does ensure that there's not, you know, that there's not these random drop-ins as often.

Part II: The Grief of Not Having our Traditions During Covid

Rabbi Soffer and I spent a good chunk of our conversation discussing what grieving actually looked and felt like during Covid. What did it feel like for us as grieving members of a Jewish community when all of our traditions melted away so suddenly? It felt really, really hard.

Rebecca Feinglos: We're very good at structure and order and Judaism, like, we do that well. Even the way that our grieving is structured. There's death stuff, right? Immediate death concerns. But then after the burial, grieving is really structured. Shiva is really structured. Shloshim, the 30 days, is really structured. I've been thinking about this because I've lost two parents, and my dad lost both of his parents. That means I have been to temple for a year four times during my childhood…

Rabbi Matthew Soffer: What are the grief structures that you've leaned into?

Rebecca Feinglos: The structures that I had during my mom's death were so helpful…because everything felt kind of crazy…I just remember there was food, there were people …there were services happening during shiva in our house. Like it was, it all just kind of happened to us, I would say.

Rabbi Matthew Soffer: Go here next. Yeah, just put one foot in front of this, go, that's waiting for you.

Rebecca Feinglos: It was very ordered and very structured for me. And I was a kid, I was 13. And she died a month and a half after my bat mitzvah.

But then for my dad…First of all, I wasn't a kid. So things weren't structured for me in the same way…But then plus Covid meant that even the structures that would've been there, like shiva, which to me is the most, that's the best thing that we do as Jews…

Rabbi Matthew Soffer: Just hold each other up.

Rebecca Feinglos: We just, we swallow each other and the best way, we're like, alight, I got you in this embrace. There's food in your kitchen. You don't have to do anything. You don't have to go anywhere. We're coming in. Yeah, we got you. There just wasn't structure yet.

Rabbi Matthew Soffer: All melted.

Rebecca Feinglos: We didn't know how to do it in death, yet.

Rabbi Matthew Soffer: Your dad's death came at a time where we didn't even have a clue.

Rebecca Feinglos: None of us did.

Rabbi Matthew Soffer: It was pure chaos. So it wasn't even like, this is how we're doing it. I mean, I think about how horrible it was for people… it's like, here is how we're doing it and it sucks. There's no, by the bed side, there's none of this. We didn't even know how to gather. We didn't even know how to not gather.

Rebecca Feinglos: No, no, we didn't. There was nothing. It was lockdown day. It was the day of the announcement. He died that afternoon and then the lockdown announcement came in the evening. It was day one.

Rabbi Matthew Soffer: It was day one of the chaos of the world, as if grief, itself, is not the most chaotic state of being.

Rebecca Feinglos: It was insane and there was just no structure. And then people are contacting me to send me food, but they don't know how because Covid, and so people don't want to come over. No one can give me a hug, no one can say hi…there was no structure.  

And so then it's like, we are not doing what we do best. And so no wonder my grief had nowhere to go. Like, no wonder everything kind of erupted for me later. I didn't have those structures early on that I knew we were supposed to have because I had seen it with my mom.

Rabbi Matthew Soffer: You'd been through something…you’d been through life stations.

Rebecca Feinglos: Maybe I was angry too, like, maybe I was mad that I didn't get the structures. It just wasn't fair. And so now it's, you know, I want to better understand our structures. Maybe it'll help me process, like, why I've created my own grieving structure for the year.

Rabbi Matthew Soffer: Yeah. I've sometimes wondered to what extent…Every Covid mourner has had to create structure in totally different ways, to totally different extents…

Rebecca Feinglos: Exactly.

Rabbi Matthew Soffer: When we could not be there for each other…whether it was a virus, you know, how many people died in a hospital when their families could not be there or weren't allowed in it. I think that was one of the early things that people didn't realize was that Covid grief was encompassing of everyone who entered this hell hole of the valley, right?

I've often wondered, and I still wonder, to what extent the grief is compounded, or, you know, what is the grief of not having that? The grief of not having space to be held. Or the grief of…you know…and it is probably a false question. But it can't be nothing.

It can’t be nothing that we've got this tradition, who knows who set it up. I mean, there's, it's not like one person was like, hey, let's start this shiva. Even the people that wrote it down were writing down something that was already a well-oiled thing, or a combination of things. But it's pretty layered and polished and tweaked and evolved. But most of the things that evolved just melted away. You know, like, even burial. People weren't allowed to bury the normal way.

Part III: Get the Mourners To Speak

I was really pushing Rabbi Soffer at this point. I needed a clear "why" behind our traditions. I cringe now listening back to how I started this part of the conversation—what was I really looking for? I was so focused on intellectually understanding our traditions and their origins that I was forgetting about the feelings—the grieving—that they facilitate. He handled my questioning beautifully, with a mix of practicality and vagueness I’d only expect from a rabbi.

Rebecca Feinglos: I guess I still am so fascinated by the why question.

Rabbi Matthew Soffer: Why what?

Rebecca Feinglos: Why did Jews create our structures the way that we do? And other religions don’t?

Rabbi Matthew Soffer: Do you think it's possible that it's like a, why do we breathe? Why does our heart beat at a certain rate? Why is it that the sun rises and the sun sets? Why do things go dormant and then it gets warmer…maybe there's something like that connection between the rational and the spiritual. It's like, why do we cry? We could say, oh, because the emotions or psychic energy needs to be released…but at the end of the day, we're not…it is…it just is.

Rebecca Feinglos: Maybe then our structures around grieving, were very rational and we're like, this is how we can get people through the realities of grieving, get people through the hard part first. Like that's how Judaism will survive.

Rabbi Matthew Soffer: Or that's how human beings survive. I mean…I'm thinking about I was rabbi-ing somebody through the loss of their baby and they, almost, she almost threw herself in the grave. That's happened. We feel like we are dead, right?

So, and just thinking, well, what does a community do when you see someone who wants to actually be one with someone who's dead? And what can we do? They are on the ground, their face is planted and what can we do? You take care of food.

Rebecca Feinglos: Yeah.

Rabbi Matthew Soffer: Get in their house. We have to surround them. We have to make sure that they see life, somehow.

Rebecca Feinglos: We lift them up.

Rabbi Matthew Soffer: Even though they can't connect with it at all and they feel like an other. And in fact, the Mourner’s Kaddish, I mean, I know that I say that it doesn't talk about death at all…but historically, rationally, the reason why the Mourner’s Kaddish is the Mourner’s Kaddish is only because—why it's that text—is only because it's the text that people knew. It was the words…

Rebecca Feinglos: Interesting. So everyone could connect!

Rabbi Matthew Soffer: Yeah. It was like, I mean, and in fact we…you look at the Lord's Prayer in Christianity. And these are the same, these are based upon the same…it's not same thing, exactly, but they had the same origin. So these were very, there were a lot of popular iterations localized of the Mourner’s Kaddish. People knew it.

How can we get the mourners to just speak? Let's give them that. How can we honor them? Let's give them that. So the very fact that they, I mean, it might just be like, let's get them into life, and what do we do in life? I mean, we structure everything…

Rebecca Feinglos: Sure. Like, to live successfully, yeah.

Part IV: The Soul Never Dies

The final part of our conversation I’ll share here circles back to the beginning: that remembering and memorializing can be a difficult responsibility, but it’s one we take seriously and structure meticulously in Judaism. It’s all rooted in the belief that the soul persists even though the body has died. We remember, we memorialize, and we grieve for our ancestors’ souls.


Rebecca Feinglos: I've been thinking a lot about why we memorialize and how, and who and what. There's so much nuance to memorializing. But where I kind of arrived, in reflecting on this is, well, my dad's not famous enough to have like a bust of him at Duke, or like a memorial like that. There were pieces written about him. He's been memorialized in those kinds of spaces. I guess his grave is a memorial in a certain way…But at the end of the day, I am the memorial.

Rabbi Matthew Soffer: You're it.

Rebecca Feinglos: It's me, it's my brother…That's cool. That's really cool.

Rabbi Matthew Soffer: Yeah. That’s a remarkable thing, and that's a very, that's the very Jewish part. The idea that the soul doesn't go away. And it's an idea that's embedded in the tradition that bodies die, souls are droplets of God

Rebecca Feinglos: That’s beautiful.

Rabbi Matthew Soffer: It says in the El Malei Rachamim, God is his inheritance. One becomes. May their soul be bound up—We said for your dad—may his soul be bound up in the bond of eternal life. That's you.


Grieve on.


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