If You Do Nothing Else, Please Sit Shiva

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This is a letter to the greater Jewish community. Regardless of your level of observance, regardless of your connection to ritual, regardless of what you think you can and cannot do, please, I beg of you, sit shiva. Really sit shiva. Get rid of the limited hours. Throw away the concept of sitting three days; shiva means seven. You NEED to do this. Countless experts in psychiatry have affirmed the therapeutic value of the Jewish cycle of mourning, from aininut (prior to the burial) to shiva, sheloshim, and shanah.

My mother lives in a wonderful independent living, active senior community. When my father passed away, we were asked, “How did we want the shiva hours to appear in the community bulletin?”

“Shiva hours? 9:30-noon, 1:30-5, and 6:30-9. That’ll give us time to eat and even get a little rest.”

“Well you don’t want anyone to come too early. I’ll put 1:00. The shiva minyan comes at 7:30.”

And so, beyond my control we had shiva hours. Too far from where I grew up on Long Island, few of my or my brother’s friends could attend the shiva. With the shiva hours, my mornings were left empty and lonely. Each morning I’d go to minyan, returning to breakfast with my mother and brother. My aunt would come by just before lunch. The quiet time was important to us. But all too soon breakfast was finished. With no one coming for hours and my husband having returned to Toronto to deal with a staff shortage at our shul, I’d wash dishes and clean up. Without friends or extended family nearby there was no one to take care of us, so I did, choosing what food to put out, what to save, what to throw away. I did this because my mother and brother saw the morning as an opportunity to get a few “necessary” things done: banking, bills, and organization. I sat alone in the mornings. Perhaps this saved me a trip back to deal with these things, but it left me lonely while I sat, no one to talk to, nothing to do but think and mourn. But that’s the point really. I was alone with my thoughts in those moments. Together we talked about my father: his wonderful attributes and his flaws. He wanted us to speak the truth at his death and we did, even if Mom recently nixed the phrase “Mostly tolerated yet beloved” from his stone. Certainly time is also needed for quiet reflection, even dwelling, on the person and the loss, but the communal nature of Jewish mourning requires us not only to think, but to act in a manner different from the everyday. It requires us to take time from the day-to-day, putting aside our hectic lives. It means we are pushed to acknowledge that, no matter the quality of the relationship, death affects us. It is the end of hope, and often the beginning of questions. True shiva forces the mourner to begin to confront all these issues.

It’s been just over three months. Each of us is dealing with the death differently. Of course personalities play into this, but also in direct proportion to how invested we were, and are, in the mourning process. Having sat, truly sat (although not always in the seated position), followed by sheloshim and this ongoing year of Kaddish has forced me to confront my father’s death and the emotions it brings. Perhaps my investment in the process is itself personality driven but, a quarter of the way in, I’m clearly in a different place than the other official mourners. While they, having a more closely shared shiva experience, seem to be keeping pace with each other.

On Children (young and teenagers)

Allow your children to direct their own shivas and their own mourning processes. I experienced shiva as a grandchild, and I’ve now watched my children do so. I was younger than them, perhaps less connected to my grandfather, but I know it was important to me to share that shiva with my father and my aunt. My cousins, brother, and I sat with our parents (although with plenty of time in the yard as well) listening to family stories and the words of those who knew him. It gave us a vehicle to process the death and taught us a lot about how people deal with death even at a young age. My own children returned home part-way through the shiva. Though there were many reasons for this that made sense at the time, I regret it. Not for my loss, but for theirs—especially my daughter’s. She clearly needed to share the shiva with me.

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