Lessons I have learned from shiva

I had attended shiva minyanim and gone to comfort mourners in the past, but this is the first time I’ve been through the Jewish mourning practices from start to, well, not finish per se, but into shloshim (the thirty days after burial). I’ll put my observations in chronological order.

  • Life cycle issues, specifically death and dying, are advertisements against intermarriage. At a time when emotions are high, and everyone involved is in the throes of fear and grief, it’s very, very easy for what one person thinks is helpful to be deeply offensive to the other.
  • Lots of folks avoid reading The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning until it’s relevant. This is a mistake. Once it was clear that Sarah’s father was not going to get better, she tried to start reading it, but found herself unable to focus given the needs of the moment. It was a lot more helpful for me to read it and summarize for her.
  • It’s worth it for anyone to have some straightforward end-of-life preparations completed, even when they’re young: buy a plot (or join a synagogue which will make arrangements), write a will, and make sure that the rest of your family knows your wishes. This will help prevent conflict.
  • I have revised my opinion of Chabad. I had previously judged Chabad unfavorably due to specific actions with specific individuals, and I had tended to judge them unfavorably as a result. However, the experience of meeting Rabbi Allouche and his sensitivity in handling the aforementioned cultural and religious issues has caused me to realize that I was not judging them in the scale of merit – I accept this gentle reminder that I should behave better.
  • I had previously thought that the Jewish mourning practices were superior to the Gentile ones I had encountered, and I believe that much more strongly now – even in sub-optimal circumstances, I think that shoveling dirt on a casket is superior to simply walking away and letting the cemetery elves do the actual burial.
  • We have really good friends, and are part of a loving community
  • Most people who visited were appropriate, and they tended to have a desire to be helpful. The couple of people who were inappropriate are folks who are inappropriate in lots of other areas as well, so this is no surprise. However, it doesn’t take many flies to spoil the perfume. It is a service to a mourner to run interference between the mourner and these individuals.
  • It was very weird to say Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut – I wanted to sing, but it didn’t feel right to do so. However, it was a nice reminder that we need to acknowledge communal miracles even in the face of personal tragedy.
  • People are very uncomfortable with silence. I don’t know whether this is a function of the overstimulated world in which we live, or if there’s some other explanation, but the degree surprised me. I have always found myself tongue-tied with regard to what to say when confronted with tragedy, and my response to it is to be silent. I think that my approach is uncommon.
  • I’ve never been in the situation where the community cooked for me before, and I had no idea how wonderful it felt.
  • Shiva taxes the ritual resources of the community – additional minyanim and the like. I appreciated the men who come to minyan both at our house and at the shul all the more.
  • The Artscroll siddur for a house of mourning is good in some ways, but highly frustrating in others. In particular, the mishnayot that their editors pick for the alphabetical study are really not terribly suitable for most people – they’re highly lomdish and appropriate for yeshiva-based communities rather than the one in which I live.
  • We were really touched by how many people came, including folks from Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
  • The spouse of the mourner has to do the “keep the house functioning” tasks. It’s therefore tremendously useful for family or a close friend to offer to run errands – my parents came from New Mexico, and it was tremendously helpful to have them here

All in all, it’s a powerful experience, and I am deeply grateful to all those people who came, called, made minyanim, cooked, and otherwise have assisted Sarah and I in a difficult time.

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About thegameiam
I'm a network engineer, musician, and Orthodox Jew who opines on things which cross my path.

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