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First PersonMy boyfriend died in May. It showed me how meaningful Jewish mourning rituals can be — and how flawed

Jewish mourning is all about community. That made the process more extraordinary, and more painful

On the Thursday of my English final in May, I woke up to a missed call from my boyfriend’s mother. That was unusual because the two of us were never particularly close. But what alarmed me most was that I hadn’t yet received any “Good morning, I love you” texts from my boyfriend.

I immediately walked into the bathroom, closed the door, and called her back.

“Rina,” she said breathlessly. “Asher died.”

“What did you say?” I asked.

“Asher is dead. He died.”

None of it made any sense, and I couldn’t react. I didn’t even cry. When she hung up and told me to notify his closest friends, the first person I called was my mother.

“Mama, I think Asher is dead,” I told her, and that’s when it hit me. He was gone.

I sobbed in the bathroom for a few minutes before my roommates came in. They were as incredulous as I had been.

That was over three months ago — in some ways, a lifetime. And in the days and weeks after Asher’s death, I learned both how beautiful the Jewish mourning process is, and also how imperfect it can be.

My mourning process began there in my college dorm bathroom. My body stopped working. I refused to leave until my roommates helped me up. And then I stayed in my bed until my parents dragged me home.

Three days after Asher’s funeral, which took place in Israel the Sunday after he died, my mother and I flew to Memphis to share the shiva process with his parents. Already, I felt like I had aged tremendously. When I saw Asher’s father for the first time since the memorial service, he clutched me tightly and we wept together.

I journaled excessively, as I have through much of my life. I felt that I was trapping Asher’s existence in my journal. After I finished those pages, I would only have the memories the two of us shared — no more writing about him in the present.

For all that shiva helped, it also made it worse. Over, and over, I shared the same stories about my relationship with Asher. In my journal, I wrote:

Shiva is just repeating the same stories over the span of a week. No movement, just stagnance. Words slur into the background, sticking to the sweat and tears and ripped clothes. All of the memories blend into each other. We’re telling them a story on a loop.

Our story had started off so beautifully. We met at his Israel gap year program’s Passover Seder in 2021. I was 18 and Asher was 19 when we met —we were exactly 8 months apart in age. The beit midrash, or study hall, was brightly lit, and I was slurring my words after drinking the mandated cups of wine on an empty stomach. I saw him crouching on the floor, barefoot, with a colorful shawl draped over his shoulders. He was laughing at something with his friends, and I was immediately in awe of how carefree he seemed.

The dizzying drunkenness encouraged me to introduce myself to him. “Are you also drunk?” I asked.

Of course, he was. (It was the Passover Seder, after all).

There was something about him that I was instantly attracted to. Hours later — and when I fully sobered up — I witnessed him intensely debate something metaphysical with one of his friends. He was very articulate and confident.

Asher visiting me in New York, two months into our relationship. Photo by Rina Shamilov

I was itching to leave because everyone around me was so loud, and I was exhausted. He followed me out, still barefoot, and asked me if he could walk me home. Finally! I thought to myself. He spent the walk ranting to me about how much he hated homophobes, left me at my door and was on his way.

“Hey, thanks,” I called back. He turned around, and said “gladly.” I watched him fade away into the Modi’in streets.

A few weeks later, I spent the night with some of my friends in Jerusalem. My shoes gave my feet blisters, so I took them off, and trekked through the Old City barefoot. I sent him a text — we were in many of the same WhatsApp group chats — and let him know that I was “copying” his style, because, I’d learned, he typically wore no shoes. This led to a discussion about physical and then mental pain, which kept going until the two of us decided that we should just hang out, because we had so much to talk about.

He was everything I admired in a person. He was open and charming and approachable. He genuinely cared about people. One night, the two of us walked into a Modi’in forest and spoke for hours about our families, our fears, our interests and our passions. Suddenly, he looked up at me and told me he loved me. I still don’t know if he meant it platonically at the time, but I surprised myself by saying it back to him.

Having a romantic love for him didn’t make sense, because he planned to stay in Israel and start a new life for himself, and I was heading back to New York to attend college. But the feelings were there anyway. In mid-June, I confessed, sending him a voice note. He was visiting his family in Memphis, and I was back at home with my family in Brooklyn, awaiting the start of college.

His plans to move to Israel changed that night. He told me that he loved me and wanted to be with me. Right away, he asked, “is marriage something you can see at the end of this?” I immediately and enthusiastically said yes.

Asher asked me to marry him formally three months later, while I was visiting him and his family in Memphis over Sukkot. We went on a walk at night, and he got down on one knee and handed me a little silver band that matched one he had been wearing for months. I laughed at him because I couldn’t believe it, but I couldn’t hide my happiness and excitement. It would be a secret engagement, we decided, because our parents wanted us to wait for a couple years before we tied the knot. But we couldn’t wait. On that night, we promised each other that we would build a life together.

In the end, we only dated for 11 months and one week before he died. He went to sleep on Wednesday night, and never woke up. We know he died of natural causes, but his family chose not to seek more answers. I’ll always wonder about his final moments. Did he read the last text messages I sent him? Did he think of me at all?

Before his parents brought him to be buried in Israel, I went to a memorial service in Brooklyn, organized by his childhood rabbi. I couldn’t help but think about what our wedding day would have looked like. I imagined myself dressed in white, with happy tears streaming down my face. Instead, I was violently shaking, and crying with grief. When I got up to eulogize him, I lost all of my words and simply sobbed from the podium. Many members of his extended family approached me after the services and voiced the same idea: “We were supposed to meet you at your wedding.”

My childhood best friend had flown in from Los Angeles to be with me, and the morning after that service, the two of us woke up at 4 a.m. to livestream Asher’s funeral. It gave me a sort of closure to see how gently they cared for him, but I was almost entirely numb and exhausted. All I could think about was losing him forever. They buried my baby. My friend grabbed scissors and helped me tear a rip in my T-shirt, commencing my mourning period.

Once I was in Memphis, sitting shiva, I had to push past my numbness for the people around me. Everyone wanted to know how Asher and I had met, how long we had been together and how serious our relationship was. His parents began introducing me as his fiancee, because they knew we had planned to marry each other. With every new batch of visitors came the same set of questions.

I was already so exhausted, and I didn’t know how much longer I could go on retelling a story that was so meaningful, but now brought me tremendous pain to recount.

Everyone was there to help us: constantly checking in, keeping the house buzzing with chatter and food. But it felt to me like I was doing a service to the community instead of coping with my own pain. Everyone around me kept on joking, laughing and living while my world had fallen apart.

It will always be hard for onlookers to delicately approach a situation of grief. People want to help, and some also turn a blind eye because they find the pain to be too uncomfortable. What I’ve learned as a mourner is how inhibiting the discomfort of others can be. Today, as during the shiva process, I’ve found that my mourning experience involves too much of me telling people what they want to hear — mostly, these days, that I am OK and doing better. In conversations with friends, people bring up his death casually, as though years had passed. And I’m just left there, unsure of what to say.

How honestly should I respond to texts asking how I’m feeling? How much does the well-wisher actually care? Making those calculations is draining. In these past few months, I’ve felt like I needed to make myself digestible to others, sometimes losing sight of the fact that it is my pain and process, not theirs.

I feel Asher’s absence every single day, and am still mourning the loss of the person I love the most in the whole world. Sometimes, I hate him for leaving me here to pick up the pieces. One Shabbat, he was reading John Green’s “Looking for Alaska” and called me crying. “If you die, I’ll kill you,” he told me.

I am so thankful that I got to know and love him, even if it was only for a little while.

For those of you who have experienced the loss of a loved one, I recommend seeking help from friends, family and licensed professionals. Therapy has been immeasurably helpful during this time, and I am looking into attending a support group at the start of the fall semester. Some organizations I recommend looking into are Jean Stein Bloch Wife Widow Woman (a part of the National Council of Jewish Women), Samchainu and The Jewish Board. These are just a few options, but hopefully they can point you in the right direction.

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