Mourning in the Middle of Two Faiths

Who really wants to ever grow up?

Complicated is my way of describing the involuntary, pivotal moment of losing a parent. One is forever grown up at that point, sometimes becoming part of the oldest generation in a family line. There, in the very last blink of a parent's eye, that blink that goes incomplete, another person's whole identity can shift from being a child of some age to someone with seniority as a family leader.

No one wants to feel alone in this experience. I certainly don't. Some of life's most challenging moments are best kept private, but these end-of-life events happen to everyone, and people like me don't want to have to figure all this stuff out for themselves.

Somewhere in the plethora of end-of-life books intended for just such moments, there must be precise wisdom for me. Everyone takes a guess at the right things to do considering the unique circumstances and ugly facts they need to face. People who wind up writing books about ways to cope with loss have usually figured a way to be graceful or positive, emerging from the depths of despair somewhat even, perhaps, arriving somewhere with a new perspective. Some create little mental files for the emotions and come back to open each one later, on a beach, at church, in one's journal. I wonder how many people experience a real breakthrough in the process, or if most are, like I am, just experiencing a wave and riding it out as best as possible.

Despite all the advice of friends, the countless books and articles out there, there is certainly no one right way to cope with loss.

I admire those who heal quickly, allowing emotion to flow out as easily as the flood of feelings flows in. I am not one of these.

Through the sadness I just sob, then briefly pull myself together with a strong thought or two. When times call for me to recount the situation again, I just lose it all over again. There aren't enough tissues in my house to meet my needs I came to realize after running from one end to the other in search of some way to stop the waterworks. My emotions aren't hidden but it will take them a while to shift into perspective.

Eventually I wind up writing about them so today I share some of these partial insights and feelings with you about my own great loss.

Many of my readers have figured out that there were two faiths in my family, Jewish and Christian, and both on my father's side. It is one of the reasons that my writing and my work at deals with issues central to Jews and Christians alike. In my house the majority of faith focus was Christian, but we were always proud of displaying Easter Eggs at one end of the table, and the Passover matzoh at the other end. We enjoyed having a menorah in one window and a Christmas tree in our living room. I was baptized, confirmed and later became Bat Mitzvah in Israel at Masada. By and early age, I knew the Episcopal liturgy about as well as anyone, my dad served as an Episcopal priest for more than 40 years. My childhood days included countless church services, weddings, funerals, crises and visits to those in need. Oddly enough, I also speak Hebrew pretty well.

It could be said I grew up swimming at the deep end of the religion pool. I was encouraged to learn and practice something well. If I were to be a Jew, I was expected to be a good one. If I were to be a Christian, I was to model what I learned as a child from those around me.

Someone famous once said, "If your family belongs to two faiths you can be certain neither religion will claim you as one of their own." (Note to readers to leave a comment if you can properly attribute this quote.)

Such are the complexities of modern families dealing with modern forms of religion. And when end of life events come around, bewildering is the religious impact of death.

It might have been a completely Christian experience as my father was passing away, except that my very close childhood friend's father passed away at nearly the exact same time. Her family is Jewish. Either way, I was headed back home for funerals, never thinking about the religiously different experience they would be. As religiously flexible as I am, I might not have been able to draw some connections had I not been saying two forms of religious goodbyes on the very same day.

In the afternoon at a lovely hospice hospital I was listening to my Dad quoting from memory many passages from the 1928 Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, a beautifully outdated set of prayers used in only a small number of Episcopal churches these days. I recognized the antiquated phraseology. He offered blessings to his children which seemed quite Old Testament to me, and he led us in The Lord's Prayer with some of his final breaths.

Almost immediately following the visit to my Dad I had to be at my friend's Jewish funeral and services and switched gears into reciting the Hebrew evening prayers, especially the famous ancient Mourner's Kaddish, which does not even have an accurate translation it is so old. There I prayed with my friend and her family at her home as they sat Shiva, a customary Jewish period of mourning, for her Dad.

Even in these most important moments of life and death, when I might have hoped for some religious clarity, the lines of religion blurred again right in front of me. It was no use leaning either toward or against them.

Two heavy situations on one day was a lot. In those moments, still fresh in my mind, all I could think was that they come when they come, from a place beyond, and go when they go to that place beyond.

The one thing I could process clearly and instantly was the distinct sameness of the two groups. The words were slightly different, but the meanings were identical, the sentiments exact.

Still reflecting on the strange confluence of these two deaths, as I will be for some time, I know three things so far for sure:

The same sun set above two families that day, casting darkness on them both, and both families looked toward the Creator of Light to illuminate a path forward.

Secondly, as I said both sets of prayers, I was certain it was the same God above who heard every word.

People tend to discount the faith of those who operate in religious never-never land, and, admittedly my faith is a bit blurry at times and unorthodox at others. But at the end of that long day, I knew for sure that there is common ground all around the world that, sometimes, only we in the middle are in a unique position to see.