You can tell a lot about a family from how they observe shiva and I’m not necessarily speaking about religion. I came to pay a shiva call to my friend, whose father had just passed away. The house was filled with friends of the mourners and many, many children of all ages. They were not told to go to another room and be quiet; they were family members. They mattered. All the little children were ensconced in someone’s lap. The teens were either caring for the little ones or helping in the kitchen.
A little girl was snuggled in her grandmother’s lap. Her grandmother was sitting on a pillow on the floor as is the custom for those sitting shiva. She, the mourner, was hugging the little girl. Upon seeing this, I did an unthinkable thing. I, a grandmother of six, envied this little girl. This girl had just lost her grandfather and she was grieving. What’s to envy? Ah — while her grandfather was quite old, he had his wits about him till the end. Which means that they had a relationship, this old man and this little granddaughter. And now, this relationship was being acknowledged. And her grief was taken seriously.
Having been trained as a child and family therapist I may have noticed things that others missed. Or, I may have seen what I would have loved to have had in my own life, but most definitely did not. Hence, the envy. Either way, I watched as a child who understood exactly what was going on nurtured her grandmother who accepted the gesture with a smile and a hug which then led to savta becoming the nurturer. This back and forth soothing and warmth benefited them both tremendously. In this house it was understood that children mourn and grieve just as deeply as adults do; maybe more. It was understood and respected.
A child needs to feel that his dignity as a person, as a member of a family, will be protected. In some family cultures the very concept that children are owed respect as people is a relatively new one and is a difficult one to seriously consider. Yet, it is essential. A child who feels respected and welcome in his family will be much more likely, in turn, to respect family members in general and elders in particular. He will be much more likely to withstand turbulence in his life and will probably raise his own family this way.
Wouldn’t that be wonderful?