Ritualizing Grief


In November, I attended my paternal grandma’s funeral (not the one mentioned in the post below), which was led by an orthodox rabbi. Before the service started, the rabbi assembled close family into the chapel’s anteroom. In Judaism, there are specific customs surrounding death and grieving. Only seven people are considered mourners: the mother, father, sister, brother, son, daughter, or spouse of the deceased. So, of our entire family, only my father and my aunt, for the sake of ritual, were considered to be in mourning.

The rabbi, holding a small blade, approached my father. He recited a prayer for my father to repeat, and then the rabbi inserted the blade into my father’s jacket below his collarbone, making a small incision. He instructed my father to put his fingers in the opening and to rip it another four inches, until it extended down over his heart. The sound was overwhelming, like someone tearing a burlap sack in half.

This is the ritual of keriah (pronounced Ke-REE-ah), a way to make sacred and to externalize the act of grieving. It is done to show that something has been ripped away from the wearer of the garment, his or her heart broken. Everyone who sees it, knows. The rent garment is worn for the seven-day shiva period, but can be kept on for an entire year until the end of the mourning period. Two months before the funeral, my marriage of ten years ended. I was deep in grief, but there was no law or custom that recognized me as a mourner. The ritual of keriah was one of the most profound things I have ever witnessed, and I longed to bring that kind of meaning to my pain and to have an external sign of it.

For months, I was taken aback whenever a stranger casually asked me, “How ya doin?” Every time it happened, I thought to myself What do you mean how am I doing? Can’t you see the giant hole through my chest? Isn’t it obvious that I am the walking dead, waiting to bleed out from a broken heart?

I thought about ripping one of my jackets, to perform my own personal keriah, but since I live in the secular world, I didn’t think anyone would get it. I imagined people coming up to me, “Excuse me, do you know that your coat has a hole in it?”


Recently, I came across a broken heart wristband from my punker days. I opened it up and pinned it to the sleeve of my jacket, where it will remain for the rest of the year or until I don’t need it anymore.

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