This is how my good friend Katie describes herself: "A confused Catholic married to a cultural Jew, raising a moral, but interfaithless family." You love her too now, right?
So anyway, the other day Katie and I were talking about a recent blog I'd written about the importance of talking with our kids about our dead loved ones in "happy terms." She said she'd really struggled with this herself, having lost her mom nine years ago to cancer. She still experiences lingering pain, and sometimes the loss makes her profoundly sad. (I expect she's not alone in this.) The anniversary of her mom's death has always been a trigger. She remembers that first year and how she felt as though she ought to be "doing something" on that day, but didn't know what that something should be. The unknowing, she said, actually made her more sad.
Then her husband suggested a custom common in Judaism — a yahrzeit candle. Yahrzeit candles are lit by mourners on the anniversary of the death of a loved one. (The word literally means "anniversary.") It typically burns for 24 hours. It also can be lit on holidays, such as Yom Kippur or the final day of Passover. Now, every year on the eve of her mother's death anniversary, Katie lights a yahrzeit candle. It allows her a formal way to reflect and gives her permission to think (and to cry) and just generally miss her mom. She and her husband usually say a few words as they light it, too.
Just having a tradition, Katie said, is really comforting. Otherwise she'd feel "conflicted and unsettled about the 'right' way to acknowledge the day." She said it's so beneficial to her on a secular level, in fact, that she suggested I tell my readers about it.
So here I am, giving a bunch of atheists and agnostics an idea stolen by a Christian from a Jew. There's got to be a Robin Hood metaphor in here somewhere.
I really do love this idea — especially as a way to involve children in the process of dealing with loss. It would be great to let kids pick out their own memory candles when they lose a loved one — a pet, a grandparent, a friend — and then urge them to light the candle (or have a parent light it!) whenever they want to remember or honor their loved one. Ideally, at least in my mind, the candle would come out at happy times, too. Kids could talk to the candle or just quietly reflect. What a wonderful way to encourage kids to feel the full range of their feelings about loss. And it doesn't have to be intrusive either. You could light a candle for a holiday party, and no one would think twice about it unless you told them.
All places of worship have candles involved, and that's not an accident. (The Book of Proverbs 20:27, for instance, says "The soul of man is a candle of the Lord." This is where, I believe, the idea for the yahrzeit candle came from.) But fire is not just about religious symbolism. In a practical sense, fire brings a sense of calmness and serenity into a room. Fire is warm and comforting. Fire invites us to think — and think deeply. No wonder candles are the way Jewish people have chosen as their way to honor the dead. It makes perfect sense.
If you're interested, I found this guy who makes yahrzeit candles and sells them on ebay. The ones he sells are super-affordable and very simple, much like the one pictured above, with no designs. In other words, secular-appropriate.