Two situations – on both sides of the fence – over a short period of time have given me cause to appreciate the wisdom of Jewish mourning practices, and reflect on the experience of sitting shiva.
It started when the father of close family friends passed away. For various reasons, I took on the role of their de facto Rabbi or spiritual advisor. After the surge of initial visitors and a very public minyan, they asked me conduct a private mincha minyan for the family. Conducting services is something I’m familiar with, but here there was the added dimension of mourning, so I needed to explain the ‘why’: the relationship between the soul and the physical world, and how the mourning practices are both for the mourner’s benefit as well as for the soul of the departed.
When it came to the conclusion of shiva, they asked about a formal ceremony. Again, while familiar with the custom, I had never conducted such a service, and had to think about something meaningful to share.
It struck me that for all mitzvot and customs, we use terminology like ‘keep’ and ‘observe’, but for shiva, we talk about ‘sitting’ shiva, and then ‘getting up’ from shiva. I sense that there is a deeper meaning to the use of these terms. The act of sitting is intrinsically connected to the start of the grieving process. We are directed to stop, and take a break from our regular lives in order to absorb the loss of a loved one. This is a time to reflect on our relationship with them, and the regular visits from friends help bring out our feelings out rather than allow us to repress them.
At the end of the week of shiva, those present comfort the mourners with the traditional phrase, and then direct them to “get up” (“shtay oof” in Yiddish). This is the very important next step in the grieving process. We cannot continue to stay mired in sorrow and detached from the world. Rather, we must move forward and begin the return to regular life. It needs others to tell us this because it can be hard to know when to it’s time to emerge.
The family appreciated the sentiments expressed, and their mourning in the traditional way helped them strengthen their connection to Judaism, and to their husband, father, and grandfather.
But just a month later, the shoe (or perhaps the sneaker) was on the other foot, with the passing of my dear father, at the ripe age of 93.
The experience was intense. He had conveyed very specific wishes as regards the funeral ceremony, and we were privileged to have fulfilled them to the letter. Preparing to deliver a eulogy was very difficult, yet when the time came, it was like he was beside me, helping me stay strong and say what needed to be said in the dignified manner he deserved.
The shiva house was very … umm … busy. There was a constant flow of visitors – over a hundred every day – and the need to sit and talk with everyone was both exhausting and cathartic. Several grandchildren and great-grandchildren flew in from overseas during the week, and spending time with our ‘global family’ was a great comfort. Orthodox Jewish custom mandated that the mourners do not work, nor tend to their own personal needs. Time really did seem to stop, and we were immersed in a cocoon-like environment. I didn’t respond to e-mails, took a break from social media, and ignored most of what was going on in the world around. Talking and thinking about him all the time, and the siblings all saying kaddish together helped us maintain a strong connection to our father despite his physical absence. For me there were two strong emotions: a deep sense of loss, yet at the same time gratitude for the wonderful life my father lived and the family he and my mother built.
After several days, the fog slowly started to clear. I was able to discuss details with visitors about my father’s passing without a flood of tears, and felt I was internalizing and accepting the loss. Toward the end of the week, some of us started to tire of the endless flow of visitors. I took this as a sign that the process was working.
The final day arrived, and for the last time, all of us said kaddish together. It was a precious moment. We sat together on the low chairs for one more time as the mourners filed past, after which they said the words “shtay oof” – “get up”. And we did, both physically and emotionally. After a week of being ensconced in a sheltered atmosphere of grief, it was time to move forward and reintegrate with the world at large. The traditional walk around the block that followed – mother and children together – felt odd, yet refreshing on a pleasant summer morning. The steaming hot shower when I returned home felt really good.
The direction to “get up” was not just on that Sunday morning. It stays with me every day as I return to work and regular life. It is a return to a modified and slower year punctuated by regular kaddish and en emptiness deep inside me. Yet we must move forward with our lives. The cycle of life and death has clicked a notch forward, and the Jewish traditions of mourning – observed for thousands of years – help us navigate through that journey.