Four years ago I was in my bedroom prepping for the mikveh, when I got a phone call from a close friend. “There’s been an accident,” she said. “We’re going to the hospital. Do you want a ride with us?”

My 17 year old son was travelling with her son and two other boys to Kiryat Malachi. The moment she called, I left my floor half washed, my dinner dishes semi-cooked, sent the kids off to the neighbors, and headed straight into the biggest trauma of my and my family’s lives.

Nothing could prepare me for the news I received that night. There is no way to prepare for hearing that your son was killed in a car accident. When we arrived at the hospital, we waited for hours, not knowing what had happened. Eventually, they told us that he had died on impact, and there was nothing that could be done. Devastated and numb, we returned home to tell our children. By the time we came home, we were greeted by many supportive friends, and also visited by various Rabanim in the community, who walked us through what we could expect in the coming days. One of the questions I asked them, and to this day I have no idea how I had the  presence of mind to ask this, was if I still had to go to the mikveh that night. The answer I received was that since we weren’t allowed to have relations during aninut and during shiva, I could skip going to the mikveh until after the shiva. He also told me that if it was really important to me and my husband to be able to receive hugs and physical support before the funeral, then I could go if I wanted to, but I absolutely was not required to.

There was no question that I needed a hug from my husband, but considering that I never enjoyed the preparations for the mikveh, I decided it wasn’t worth it to have to prepare in the state I was in. The idea of going through those meticulous preparations while I was still reeling from the monstrous news about my son was overwhelming. 

But then I changed my mind.

A friend of mine, who volunteers for the Chevra Kadisha, overheard my conversation with the Rabanim and shared some information that I was not aware of. She told me that there could be a chance that the Chevra Kadisha would ask female family members who want to say goodbye to their loved one if they are themselves pure. If not, once the Chevra Kadisha performs the Taharah, they might not let you touch him, hug him or give him a kiss. I couldn’t even fathom how I wanted to say goodbye to my son. I couldn’t imagine being with his body. But I did know one thing for certain, if I wanted to touch him one last time, I was not going to let anyone or anything stand in my way. 

And that is why, while my husband was whisked off by a friend to tell our daughter who wasn’t home that her brother was dead, I was whisked off by another friend, straight to the mikveh. In a trance, I showered, did the minimum amount of preparations, and sat on a chair in a robe while my dear friend combed my hair. I just couldn’t do it myself.. 

When the time came, I could barely walk into the mikveh. The mikveh attendant took my hand and physically walked with me, fully clothed, into the water. She blessed me that performing this mitzvah should be le’ilui nishmat my son’s soul. I dunked. Got dressed. And numbly went home to plan the funeral. 

Yes, my husband and I were able to hold each other that night. Did it help? Nothing could help. It was time to start learning to navigate this new reality together. 

The next morning after the taharah, the Chevra Kadisha went out of the room to speak to the Rav and I was left in the room alone with my son. I gave him a kiss on the temple and said what I needed to say. One purified being to another. At that moment I no longer saw my baby wrapped in white, but saw his soul wrapped and surrounded by the glory of God. I put my hands over his head and gave him the bracha I had given him almost every Friday night since he was born, asking Hashem to watch over him. When they came back into the room and said, ”Nobody touch the body,” it was too late. I kept my mouth shut. The moment was between me and my son, and I’m grateful that I was able to have it.

Fast forward a month, 2 months, 3 months – I never really enjoyed preparing for the mikveh, but now the preparation was painful. Each month, my bath water mixed with my tears. I was shedding a lot of tears over that time period and couldn’t differentiate between the normal tears of grief and what I felt was PTSD, related to that visit to the mikveh before the funeral. The professionals I turned to all had the same answer for me: too early to tell. 

I got a heter to skip the bath and only take showers, but I continued being stringent with myself. While I would eventually understand, I wasn’t yet aware that the easier I could make things for myself, the better off I would be. But what troubled me the most was that while going to the mikveh the night before the funeral gave me an opportunity to say goodbye to my son without any restrictions, the preparations I continued to make each mikveh night since, made me think more about my son, and how much I missed him, and less about my relationship with my husband. A ritual which was supposed to be about  me and my husband, a time when I was supposed to be meditating on our relationship, was transformed into a ritual of painful memories and heartbreaking meditations on my son. 

 Eventually, as time passed, it did get somewhat easier. It definitely helped that I got a radical haircut, but I became more relaxed about the preparations, and started treatment for PTSD. Going to the mikveh was still a trigger for the trauma of my son’s death, and even if the intensity lessened over time, it was always there. On two occasions after my son’s death, I found myself having to toivel once again on the anniversary of that night before his funeral. It definitely brought up that night for me and all the trauma that went along with it. 

It has been a long process. But last year, as I listened to a panel from the Eden Center discussing mikveh, I realized that I can decide what I want to focus on. The mikveh experience does not have to be a traumatic experience for me. While I try not to avoid the feelings that come up when I am preparing,  I also have no problem distracting myself while I’m preparing, like listening to a podcast if I need to.  But when I immerse myself and the waters of the mikveh surround me, I can decide to focus – to focus on the presence of God surrounding me while I perform this mitzvah, to focus on the presence of God enveloping my son, as a parent would, in my place. To focus on my relationship with my husband, the very relationship that had created our beautiful son, a relationship that has grown in ways I could never have imagined. And I can focus on Am Yisrael and the shechina that rests around us, between us and within us.