Grieving on the Outside

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My mother passed away from cancer last January. Since then, I have been observing a strict interpretation of a traditional Jewish mourning custom: I have stopped shaving and cutting my hair. According to the Jewish tradition, I could have shaved and gotten a haircut 30 days after my mom's funeral, but I wasn't ready. I decided to let my beard and hair grow throughout the 11 months that I am daily reciting the Mourner's Kaddish, the traditional prayer of remembrance for a parent who has died.
Sometime over the past eight months, I passed the point of having a full beard to having a truly long beard. I recently began wearing a bandana on my head and can now easily be mistaken for a stereotypical biker who rides a Harley.
As a result, I have been amazed at the responses that my new appearance has elicited from family, friends and strangers. Some venture to share their displeasure, whereas others find my new exceptionally hirsute appearance particularly attractive. I only wish my wife belonged to the latter category!
However, over these months I have begun to discover a deep wisdom in my tradition. Friends and acquaintances that I have not seen for some time often do not recognize me. Some neighbors, co-workers and even strangers have the chutzpah to ridicule my appearance. Even cops now eye me suspiciously.
Yet, each of these awkward social interactions provides me with an opportunity to progress in my grieving process. There are now many days and even weeks that I forget about the loss of my mom -- and that is a healthy, natural part of this process. But after fun vacation experiences or proud parenting moments, I will think, "I should call my mom and tell her!" -- only to catch myself as I suddenly recall my painful new reality.
I explain to people that this is not a hair fashion choice, rather I am observing a traditional Jewish mourning custom. I share with them that I lost my mom. I'm still in my first year of grief and mourning. Their expressions quickly change to sympathy and support. In this way, my internal emotional state is expressed externally -- and I have yet another opportunity to cope with my grief and slowly heal.

With a Perspective, I'm Daniel Kohn.

Daniel Kohn is the rabbi of the Contra Costa Jewish Day School in Lafayette. He lives in Marin.