Mourning a friend
Rabbanit Rachel Weinstein
She'elaLast December, I lost one of my dearest friend. She was 30 years older than me but we were very close. We had a two-hour weekly seder of Limud Torah for the past four and a half years. I miss her very much and I feel that that I am going through a grieving process, a kind of mourning. I do not know if the Halakha can help me process my grief. I have plugged an electric light "Ner Zikaron" into the outlet of my kitchen counter. What other Jewish practices could I undertake to give my friend's soul an aliyah?
I’m so sorry to hear about your loss. It makes sense that you are grieving for such a close friend. Although the formal Halakhic grieving process applies specifically to immediate relatives, there are other practices that can be kept that express your grief and can also be done lilui nishmata of your friend. These are more in the realm of custom and therefore are not obligatory and are quite flexible. I will make some suggestions, and you can decide which feel most appropriate to you. They might also spark other ideas so feel free to disregard my suggestions and be creative.
The purpose of the customs of the mourning process is to pay respect to the Niftar (the deceased) (Rashi, Masechet Succah 25a), to express our feelings of grief and to awaken ourselves to do Teshuva and improve ourselves. The Rambam says (Mishna Torah LaRambam Hilchot Avel 13:12):
ואחד מבני חבורה שמת תדאג כל החבורה כולה
When a member of one’s community or group of peers passes away, the whole group should “worry”. What does this mean? Rambam explains that the people affected by the death of someone close, not necessarily a relative, should do Teshuva and improve themselves. Keeping this in mind can help you choose the most appropriate way to remember your friend.
The classic acts done lilui neshama are lighting a candle (derived from the pasuk נר ה נשמת אדם (משלי כ: כ”ז); some say we also learn this custom from Ketubot 103a). You mentioned that you’ve already done this. Giving Tzedaka (Rema on Shulchan Aruch Yo”d 249:16) is another meaningful act which you can undertake. There is also a custom to learn Torah and more specifically Mishna. The focus on learning Mishna specifically is based on the idea that the word משנה and the word נשמה are made up of the same letters. This idea appears in the Shla (Shla Masechet Shvuot Perek Ner Mitzvah D”h La) and is brought down by many poskim as a common and recommended custom (Aruch HaShulchan Yo”d 376:13, Aseh Lecha Rav Chelek 5). Beyond these acts, I think that any mitzvah or good deed done in memory of the Niftar could be appropriate lilui nishmata.
I would try to think what acts would be most connected to your friend, her characteristics and her life. It would seem to me that since you had a chavruta for so long you might want to organize Torah learning in her memory, whether it be a shiur or any other form of Torah learning. I don’t know if your friend has someone saying Kaddish for her; if not I would recommend trying to find someone who would be able to do so.
The Rambam warns us not to take our mourning too far (Hilchot Avel 13:11) and I think it is important to bear this in mind. We sometimes feel the need to express our feelings in an extreme way, either to prove they are real or out of respect for the emotions and those they relate to. It is important to remember that too much mourning is not necessarily healthy for the mourner or respectful to the Niftar.
I hope my suggestions were helpful. I would just like to add that the mourning process is sometimes surprising and unpredictable and I suggest you take it day by day.
I hope you have consolation and know no more sorrow.