June 24, 2008

Sitting shiva

Jews have centuries-old customs surrounding death and mourning. We bury the deceased as soon as possible, preferably the same day. The body is never left unaccompanied, as a sign of respect for the person who used to inhabit it. At the cemetery, the mourners and those attending help fill in the grave. We each take a shovelful of dirt and make sure that the casket is completely covered before we leave.

When we come back to the house, before entering from the cemetery we wash our hands. We eat a ritual meal, the seudat havra'ah -- the meal that mourners are required by law to eat, to remind that life continues even in the very face of death. We light a special candle that burns for seven days to mark the first period of mourning, the shiva. We gather with our community to recite the mourners' kaddish and to praise God's name together.

Our rabbis knew more than two thousand years ago what modern psychology thinks it invented relatively recently: that in the face of death, the living need to grieve fully and immediately. All Jewish funeral and mourning customs reflect this ancient wisdom.

Today is the last day my mother, sister and I are sitting shiva together. We've shared many memories of my father. We've looked at family photos and tried to remember who is who in each picture, and said to ourselves, "Dad would know!" We've let people come to greet us and to help us, relieved as we are as mourners of the burden of playing host to a houseful of people. We've cried together and laughed together, sometimes both in the same minute.

The quiet days have been the most fulfilling. A few friends have come to visit with us in the afternoons, and the more intimate conversations we've been able to have with them help balance the crowds that show up for the evening minyan.

It helps immensely that my sister's community is here to support all of us as a family. They've brought meals to us. They come every evening to set up chairs in the house and put out all the food that keeps appearing. Then they stay to clean up. All we have to do is mourn. By being there for us in these most basic ways, they are letting us do our grief work.

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