In seventh grade, when I was still new to Orthodox Judaism, the general studies principal at my school lost his mother, and the students were bused, grade by grade, to visit him at his home, where he was sitting Shiva. After the funeral, in Jewish tradition, comes Shiva. Shiva means seven, and the idea is that, for seven days, the mourners remain at home and visitors come to them. Maybe seven days was the limit people could consider taking off from work. Maybe seven days was the limit before people became restless and overwhelmed. If you are very observant, there are countless rules to abide by during Shiva – no shaving, always wear a torn piece of clothing, cover mirrors, sit on lowered seats (boxes are specially made for this purpose), etc. Visitors come at pre-set times, to help make a minyan (ten people) for communal prayer.
It was frightening to imagine that we were supposed to offer comfort to the principal of the school, someone so much more grown up than we would ever be. It was scary just to think of him as someone who might need comfort. And yet, my memory of that day isn’t full of fear and darkness. Somehow, the ritual of the visit, the way we each wished him well as he sat on his low chair and he let us see him be sad, and crying, and smiling too, made the day feel full of light, though it could just be that we happened to be there at the right time of day, so that sunlight was shining in through the windows.
I’ve had to go to a number of funerals and Shiva visits in the past few years, as I’ve become more active in my synagogue and gotten to know the older members. When you make friends with 90-year-olds, funerals become more common occurrences.
A friend of mine lost her father over Passover. His death had been a long process, and in large part she had done her grieving and letting go over the last few years of his life, as she lost pieces of him to illness. The last thing to go was his conviction that he had to stay in order to take care of his wife; that commitment outlasted hunger, even the ability to swallow, by months.
Shiva had to be delayed until after Passover, and then only lasted one day because an unofficial mourning period had already been going on, with friends calling from all over the country for a week. There were so many people at her house that I didn’t know, and I felt out of place and uncool. But then, before the Mourner’s Kaddish, my friend read the eulogy she’d written for the funeral, and as she read it I felt like she was conjuring her father into the room. I could almost see him in the corner, with a bemused expression on his face, wearing his white doctor’s coat and his college tie, and complaining about the driver who cut in front of him on the expressway.
I think that the value of a ritual like Shiva is that it forces you to ask for the things you really need, but maybe don’t think you deserve. When I’m depressed, I lose most of my social skills. But for those seven days, the idea is, your rabbi and friends and family and neighbors are given a schedule for when they can interrupt your isolation. They have a clear mandate to visit you, and bring you food, and pray with you. This is one of the benefits of belonging to a synagogue; there are set practices and communication paths to go by, for everything related to a death in the family, if someone calls and asks what you need, you can tell them. I wish there were more of this for other life events.
There’s a rule that you can’t sit Shiva on Shabbat. If you are three days into Shiva and Friday night comes along, you change out of your mourning clothes and wash and dress and go to the synagogue to say the Mourner’s Kaddish with your community. Maybe the message is that happiness and community will be there waiting for you when you are ready for them, or maybe it’s to remind you that the grief will not last forever, because all around you are people who were in mourning at one time, and now they are singing the prayers and smiling at friends, and one day that will be you too. But I’m not sure if I could bear it, seeing other people’s lives going on all around me, seeing happiness.
Ideally I’d have a sleep over starting from the moment of loss. I’d have people in sleeping bags in every corner of the apartment to help me through every moment. But then I think, if my mom actually died, I wouldn’t be able to host people at all. I’d be curled up in a ball, with Cricket, under the couch. Butterfly would have to take care of both of us.
Just like there is no sanctioned way to do a Jewish funeral for a dog, or to say the Mourner’s Kaddish for a dog, there is certainly no Shiva for dogs. Right after my last dog, Dina, died, my mother had a long-scheduled trip and had to leave town for two weeks, so I was home alone with the death, in silence. I cleaned obsessively, and having that mindless physical task to do was helpful, but I think I would have liked it if my friends with dogs could have come over and filled the house with their voices, and their dogs’ voices. Maybe I could have offered up the last of Dina’s dog food as a ceremony, or given away the leftover pee pads. But, in the event, I didn’t know how to ask for company, or accept help when it was offered. Maybe if there’d been a set ritual to follow, I could have forced myself to follow it. It would have been such a relief, to tell my Dina stories, and share my grief, and have people all around me who cared that I had lost someone so important to me.