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  • On May 9, 2012, I lost my grandfather to kidney failure at the ICU of Toronto General Hospital. He had been admitted one week earlier, sent by ambulance by his doctor at Bridgepoint Rehab Hospital, who had missed all of the signs of his deterioration. The day before this, I had started a new job after three years in a job that I found demoralizing and discouraging. Seven months later, I'm eternally grateful that he got the chance to celebrate this with me.

    I don't want to say much about watching my grandfather die, but I will say that being with him the night before he passed has proven to me, beyond a doubt, that we all have a soul, and that in those moments before death, we see something that no one else can access. I can't even pretend to know what that is.

    My grandfather was not the first family member who I've lost, but he was definitely the most pivotal person in my life to make that transition from our world to whatever lies beyond. When I watched my uncle slowly dying of pancreatic cancer four years ago, and he asked my forgiveness for not being the uncle he should have been, I cried for what could have been, but I wasn't shaken to my core. When my grandma died when I was ten, I cried because I never knew her. But when my grandfather died, I alternated between numbness and hysteria. He had been like a father to me, and I felt lost without him.

    My relationship with my grandfather was fraught with difficulty. He was a challenging person, to say the least. He was an outsider, who married another outsider. Together they gave birth to an outsider, who married the most outside of outsider that she possibly could have: a black Catholic from New York, who'd been the priest designate of his family, but left the fold for a world of philosophy (Nietzsche was a favourite) and books... And together, these outsiders gave birth to me. My grandfather was so thrilled to finally have a grandchild – so thrilled in fact that he got a vanity plate for his car with my name on it.

    But for all his love, he struggled with his own shame – shame about his (lack of) knowledge of his religion, shame about his lack of education, and above all, shame that his daughter had married "out". Don't get me wrong – he loved my father as he loved his own children (for better or for worse; he wasn’t always the most outwardly loving of parents), but it took him a while to accept that his daughter was marrying a black man. He had the grace to never talk about this with me. He did, however, sometimes, quite inappropriately, throw the prejudice of others in their face when he'd catch them looking twice at my brother and I, never hesitating to tell them that yes, we were his grandchildren, and that yes, he loved us, and that yes, his daughter was happily married to a "schvartze"... The first time he showed me a chink in this armor was after my parents' divorce, when we were standing on the roof deck of my mom's building, and he asked me if I knew how hard it was for him to tell his friends that his daughter was getting married to, not only someone not Jewish, but a black American, and that they weren't having a wedding: just a city hall ceremony. Hearing him say this broke my heart. I always knew it couldn't have been easy for him, but listening to him voice his own internal conflict threw me for a loop. It also gave voice to all of the strange things he'd said to me over my life: that I wasn't really Jewish (he liked to call me a shiksa), that I would never marry a Jew (yeah, it was still an issue for him)... It was disorienting to hear his shame after 20 years of having hidden it from me.

    And so now, seven months after his death, after he finally accepted me as a Jew (a Jew as he understood it – now that’s a whole can of worms I haven't even begun to open yet), I've only now begun to unpack his effects on my identity: who I am, how I understand myself in this world. In losing him, I have begun to gain insight into me. The parts of myself I identify with, the parts that I don't. The parts that I don't have the tools to relate to, and the parts that I know are there at all times.

    In the Jewish tradition, we write z"l next to the name of the person we have lost. It stands for the Hebrew: zichron l'bracha – may his or her memory be for a blessing. To me, this has begun to mean: let all the love, all the conflict – the whole complexity of this relationship bless you as you move forward, and let this blessing be what you've learned about yourself through that relationship.

    Recently I came across an article by Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz about his relationship to the idea of closure and how it's played out following his mother's death. He writes: "Because of closure’s popularity, mourning rituals are only deemed worthwhile if they’re stepping stones to closure; i.e., you are only permitted to mourn if it will enable you to let go and move on. That’s why I’ve always disliked closure; it’s self centered and superficial, focusing only on the mourner and not on the one mourned. But mourning is not just an inconvenient emotion; it’s our way of continuing to love, even if the only way we can love is with a broken heart. But that’s not how closure’s champions view grief. They see mourning the same way a child looks at rainy day; an obstacle to fun that is best removed as soon as possible. I’ve seen well intentioned people advise the grieving family right after the funeral that “they have to move on.” They imagine they are helping the mourners achieve closure; in actuality, they are disrespecting the dead."

    He's right. I don't want closure. Jews mourn for one year after the death of the loved one, in recognition, I think, that every day that passes, every holiday, every cyclical occurrence, is the first of its kind without the deceased. After that, every year, on the anniversary of the death, we say the Mourner's Kaddish in front of an audience of at least ten, in synagogue, three times in one day. We burn a candle that lasts twenty-four hours, and we remember.

    My grandfather asked me to say the Kaddish for him. I do it whenever I have a chance, out loud in company of a congregation, or privately to myself when I just want to remember. And every time, I bring his memory – his love and his shame, his blessings and his failings, into my space. And I miss him.

    יִתְגַּדַּל וְיִתְקַדַּשׁ שְׁמֵהּ רַבָּא
    בְּעָלְמָא דִּי בְרָא כִרְעוּתֵהּ וְיַמְלִיךְ מַלְכוּתֵהּ
    בְּחַיֵּיכוֹן וּבְיוֹמֵיכוֹן וּבְחַיֵּי דְכָל בֵּית ישְרָאֵל‏,‏ בַּעֲגָלָא וּבִזְמַן קָרִיב
    ‏-‏ וְאִמְרוּ אָמֵן׃

    יְהֵא שְׁמֵהּ רַבָּא מְבָרַךְ לְעָלַם וּלְעָלְמֵי עָלְמַיָּא׃

    יִתְבָּרַךְ וְיִשְׁתַּבַּח וְיִתְפָּאַר וְיִתְרוֹמַם וְיִתְנַשֵּׂא
    וְיִתְהַדָּר וְיִתְעַלֶּה וְיִתְהַלָּל שְׁמֵהּ דְּקֻדְשָׁא בְּרִיךְ הוּא׃

    לְעֵלָּא מִן כָּל בִּרְכָתָא וְשִׁירָתָא‏
    תֻּשְׁבְּחָתָא וְנֶחֱמָתָא דַּאֲמִירָן בְּעָלְמָא
    ‏-‏ וְאִמְרוּ אָמֵן

    יְהֵא שְׁלָמָא רַבָּא מִן שְׁמַיָּא
    וְחַיִּים עָלֵינוּ וְעַל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל
    ‏-‏ וְאִמְרוּ אָמֵן׃

    ‏ עוֹשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם בִּמְרוֹמָיו הוּא יַעֲשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם עָלֵינוּ וְעַל כָּל ‏ יִשְׂרָאֵל
    ‏-‏ וְאִמְרוּ אָמֵן׃

    Glorified and sanctified be God's great name throughout the world which He has created according to His will. May He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days, and within the life of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon; and say, Amen.

    May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity.

    Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that are ever spoken in the world; and say, Amen.

    May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us
    and for all Israel; and say, Amen.

    He who creates peace in His celestial heights, may He create peace for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.
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