Mourning the Loss of a Non-Jewish Parent

“Ima, Aunt Angela is trying to reach you. I know it’s grandma! I want to go to her funeral!” My 13-year-old son was home manning the phone in Efrat while I was busy teaching piano to American girls at a school in Jerusalem. My mother had been ill for many years with dementia, that terrifying disease that steals the memory and dignity of its victims. Long before we had made Israel our home 3 1/2 years earlier, each day we had expected the call from Illinois telling us that her body had given up the fight. That moment had apparently arrived. Not having my sister’s U.S. number in my Israeli cell phone, I simply continued teaching my piano student.

Soon my cell phone rang. I was sure my sister was indeed calling to tell me that what my son had suspected was true. I told my student, “I’ll be right back,” knowing I could handle what I had been anticipating for years. “Dad died this morning!” I couldn’t believe my ears! No, she meant “Mom,” my head screamed! “Dad?” I yelled! “Yes, Dad.”

As people at the school heard my screaming, they gathered around me, offering tea, love and support. The memories flooded my mind – those late nights I fell asleep in the car and Dad carried me into the house; those years Dad let me keep horses on precious farmland which could have yielded thousands of dollars; the day I told Dad with trepidation that we were moving to Israel, to which he said simply, “You’re free to live wherever you want,” and then launched into a diatribe for the next 30 minutes about how the world is so cruel to Israel and doesn’t understand that she needs to defend herself! He wept when he told me he just couldn’t leave Mom to attend my son’s, his grandson’s, bar mitzvah, just two months before my sister’s phone call. Even though Mom had already been in a nursing home for four years, he would not travel, feeling she needed him and I also think fearing the inevitable would happen while he was gone.

How does a Jew mourn the loss of a parent when that parent was not Jewish? After I finished the phone call with my sister, I asked a rabbi where I teach, and my husband (who was attending an unveiling the moment I called him) asked a rabbi where he works. Both felt that, even though I would not actually sit shiva, I still needed the catharsis that sitting shiva provides. Maybe, they each suggested independently, I could announce an opportunity for friends to visit me at my home, even if just for a few hours.