I find the Hebrew calendar confusing; is it OK if I use the secular calendar instead for yahrtzeit?
You are right! The Hebrew calendar is indeed confusing. It accounts not only for lunar cycles, but also for solar cycles, and thus incorporates an additional month, or “leap month,” called Adar Sheni, or “Second Adar,” seven times every 19 years. Its calculations account for harvest seasons and equinoxes, and it was originally calibrated to the rainy season in the land of Israel. Not to mention that each day begins at the previous sunset!
That said, the Hebrew calendar would more rightly be called the Jewish calendar, as it is the cycle by which we set all of our holidays and sacred occasions. Losing a loved one, and remembering that loved one every year on the anniversary of his or her passing, becomes a sanctified event through connecting it to Jewish rhythms of time. Additionally, the Hebrew calendar dictates other occasions for remembrance beyond the yahrtzeit: Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuot all include Yizkor services for remembrance. Using the Hebrew calendar as our vehicle for remembrance allows us to locate our sadness and loss within our spiritual experience and connects us to our family’s cultural tradition. If you choose to disconnect from this sacred calendar, it would be a break with tradition, and would create distance from the comfort that can be found in Jewish spirituality.
In all likelihood, you will also remember the dates of the passing of loved ones on the secular (or Gregorian) calendar, but it is not difficult to find out yahrtzeits on the Hebrew calendar as well. There are many easy-to-use yahrtzeit calculating tools available online–my favorite is at hebcal.com/yahrzeit–that will calculate yahrtzeit dates (or birthdays or anniversaries) for you 10 years out. With a few keystrokes, you can program these dates into your calendar.
And finally, one of the many good reasons to belong to a synagogue is that most synagogues will collect the yahrtzeit dates in your family when you join and send you a reminder letter in advance of each. Not only will you get the benefit of the synagogue calculating the correct date to light a yahrtzeit candle for you, you will also receive the support of a spiritual community where you can say Mourner’s Kaddish (the prayer typically said for a deceased nuclear family member immediately following their passing) for your loved one–the chief way to mark a yahrtzeit religiously.