From December 2010 until October 2016, I lost 4 members of my immediate family, along with my mother’s brother and both my in-laws. I also lost one of my dearest friends suddenly and unexpectedly in 2012. Since my parents, sister and brother were not Jewish, I did not mourn for them in the Jewish tradition. However, over a two-year period from 2014 until today, I’ve watched and tried my best to support my husband throughout his mourning process.
Mourning as a Jew is not easy, especially after the death of a parent. We mourn after the death of a child, a sibling, a spouse and our parents. On a basic level, there are three stages of the mourning process – four if you’re mourning a parent: Aninut (pre-burial), Shiva (shiva, “seven;” the seven-day period immediately following the funeral) and Shloshim (shloshim, “thirty;” the thirty-day period after shiva). Aveilut, the fourth stage, comprises the remaining months of the year only after the death of a parent.
To me, shiva seems like the most difficult stage. The mourner stays in their home for the entire seven days (except Shabbat). As a result, someone brings food to the family daily so that they do not need to worry about feeding their family. The front door is left unlocked so visitors can come into the home to pay their respects to the bereaved (and there is a strict etiquette to being a visitor). The person sitting shiva must not work, does not bathe/shower or groom, cannot cut their hair or shave, refrains from marital relations and does not listen to music or enjoy any form of entertainment. They do not wear leather shoes or buy new clothing, nor do they change or launder their clothing. If the mourner is a man, they pray three times a day in the home with at least nine other men and he leads the services, reciting aloud the appropriate prayers for mourners. A memorial candle is lit for the entire seven days and all mirrors in the house are covered – a means of removing all vanity and self-interest, although there are other more Kabbalistic explanations for this practice.
As I’ve written before, after “getting up” (the last day of shiva), the sholoshim period begins. The mourner still does not cut their hair or shave, cannot buy new clothing and does not enjoy music or other forms of entertainment. These rules also apply to the aveilut stage, except the mourner is permitted to cut their hair and shave.
My husband was barely out of aveilut with his mother when he found himself right back into it for his father. For 2 1/2 years, my husband will have grieved for his parents. We opened our home to everyone in our community for those two separate weeks of shiva. People fed us and prayed with us without hesitation. My husband follows every rule as best as humanly possible. Needless to say, the past two years have been lonely and uneventful. Being that my husband is a musician and loves listening to music and attending concerts, this has been particularly difficult. His collection of guitars gather dust, waiting for the day he can play them again and asking our daughter’s musician friends to play them so they don’t gather rust. His iPod is rid of all tunes, satisfying him only with lectures on how to be a better Jew.
When my parents and siblings died, there was no formal “process.” For Jews, the deceased is buried within 24 hours. With both my parents and siblings, days and sometimes weeks went by before their bodies were laid to rest. However, for the week following these deaths, our family came together to console one another and plan our next steps, the following months and years being met with a sensation of drifting through space not knowing where to land.
What struck me most following the deaths of my four family members was the disappointment some women in my community felt not being able to perform the mitzvah (good deed) of preparing a meal for me, the bereaved. After my parents and siblings passed away, I wasn’t forthcoming about their deaths, knowing that being a convert would make the process much more difficult. Some women were surprised to find that I had converted. For others, it answered the nagging question of why I “didn’t look Jewish” or why my name was Alice (definitely not Jewish).
After experiencing shiva with my husband and being fed by the community at large, I realized the importance of this mitzah. Food is prominent in every culture on earth, and in Jewish culture, there’s nothing greater than food as “comfort.” Food is life. As defined by the American Heritage Dictionary, food is “something that nourishes or sustains in a way suggestive of physical nourishment.” As anyone who has lost a loved one, eating is not in the forefront of a mourner’s mind. Eating is necessary – you are alive and must continue on. Being “fed” suggests the need for us to keep going…to nurture the legacy of the deceased.
After the completion of shiva for my father-in-law last November, I decided to take on the role as shiva meal coordinator at my synagogue, taking it on after the former representative moved out of the community. Since taking on this position, sad to say, I’ve been busy – some mourners I know, others I’ve never met. Either way, performing this mitzvah has been my greatest gift over the past seven years.
No one wants to talk about death – it’s downright terrifying. We act like it’s some spectral figure lurking in the wings that we can’t touch and will never touch us. I think that when someone has no spiritual or religious guidance, death is an even more frightening aspect of life. But…it’s inevitable…for all of us…everyone single one of us…and it can happen at any time.
It’s the end of February in southern New Jersey and yesterday it was 68 degrees Farenheit. We had a beautiful Presidents Day weekend, hovering in the 50s and 60s all three days. Of course I had to call on Old Bessie to go for a ride! I’m in week three of my training for the American Cancer Society’s Philadelphia to Atlantic City Bike-a-thon. Although the entire tour is a century (100 miles), I’ve chosen to do the half-century (50 miles) – that’s the most I can do for now. My goal is to eventually do the entire 100 miles…time will tell…
“They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot”
Big Yellow Taxi – Joni Mitchell
“I had run for 3 years, 2 months, 14 days, and 16 hours.” – Forrest Gump