As the second anniversary of my mother’s passing approaches I’ve found myself reflecting on grief and how to mourn for someone of a different faith. I wanted to find the correct balance of following customs true to my heart and spiritual path while still acknowledging and respecting my mother’s beliefs.
When I converted to Judaism six years ago I took great comfort in participating in the Mourner’s Kaddish for my father’s yahrzeit (anniversary of passing) each year. I grew up in an interfaith family: My mother was a devout Catholic and my father was raised Orthodox, but identified as a Reform Jew by the time I was born. Participating in the Mourner’s Kaddish has been one of the most profound experiences of my life as a Jew. Being able to observe and be counted as part of the minyan in prayer and celebrate my father’s life in his faith has been one of the most impactful traditions I’ve adopted. What I hadn’t anticipated was the challenge of finding a mourning ritual to celebrate the life of my Christian mother who passed away in 2012.
My mother was diagnosed with a glioblastoma brain tumor in 2010. She had always been ardent in her religious life and I know she took great comfort in her faith during her illness. She sought out treatment in religiously affiliated hospitals that she felt a connection to and spent her final days in a Catholic hospice where prayer services and Eucharist were part of her daily routine. When she became too ill to leave her room to join in the daily masses, staff clergy would bring communion to her. A priest was on hand to administer the sacrament of last rights while we were sitting vigil at her deathbed. I was grateful that her last days were filled with peace and the spirituality with which she identified.
I also appreciated that my beliefs were respected and taken into account during this time. At hospice I was able to be present during the final prayers and holding my mother’s hand as she passed. Yet, I wasn’t forced to recite anything that didn’t line up with my own spirituality. My mother had a Catholic mass and funeral. The priest was very respectful and embracing of my family’s religious diversity. He spoke of it during his homily and even included a Jewish prayer as part of the service.
Everything during the final arrangements couldn’t have been handled more sensitively for everyone involved. The aftermath was a little more challenging. I would say Kaddish for my mother because even though she wasn’t Jewish, I was, and she was my mother so it still seemed appropriate. Honoring her in the same way I grieved for my father felt right. The bigger challenge for me was to find a way to mourn my mother that also acknowledged her spiritual convictions, since that was such a significant part of her life.
Many of my friends and family are Catholic and I have such respect for them and their faith. However, going to mass on the anniversary of my mother’s passing wasn’t a ritual I decided to adopt. It wasn’t something that felt comfortable or natural to me. But I still wanted to find a way to honor my mother’s convictions.
While attending church wouldn’t have been easy for me, I felt more than comfortable donating to Catholic charities that meant something to my mom. The hospice center that took such wonderful care of her in her final days, the parish that was so accommodating to our family and celebrated our spiritual diversity and various Catholic charitable organizations were all places I felt comfortable donating in my mother’s honor. I think that would have meant a lot to her.
I also have the good fortune to live in New York City where there is no shortage of religious institutions that cater to different ideologies. I live near an Episcopal congregation that is sincerely ecumenical—in fact I’ve attended some interfaith gatherings there over the years. I have always felt comfortable dropping in and lighting candles when friends are ill or have recently passed. Last year I lit a candle for my mother around the anniversary of her parting and I intend to make this an annual ritual. Again, this is something that I think would have made my mother happy.
What I have learned is that there is no right or wrong way to grieve. Everyone finds what is comfortable and works for them. The traditions that I have adopted make me feel connected to my Jewish community and still allow me to acknowledge my mother’s faith. The loss of a parent is something that stays with you forever, but through finding outlets and rituals that allow me to express my grief I feel an everlasting connection to my mother.
For more reading about death and mourning, see our Guide to Death and Mourning for Interfaith Families.