The day after my mother-in-law died, the home I share with my husband in the Boston suburb of Waltham was silent. The phone did not ring. The doorbell was quiet. No one stopped by with casserole dishes or cakes. My husband, Jean-Paul, spent the day making arrangements for a memorial service that would take place at a local funeral home a week later. His mother, who had endured terrible suffering both physically and emotionally during the two years she battled brain cancer, had requested cremation. She was not Jewish and had followed no religion; there would be no religious service, no burial.
After handling the arrangements, Jean-Paul cast around for what to do next. Finally, he went to the gym, a daily habit that helps him ease stress and clear his mind. I logged onto my computer to do some freelance work, but it felt unnatural to be working. After a short time I shut the computer off and wandered around the house trying to figure out how to answer the impenetrable silence. I felt numb, yet the empty space his mother had occupied in our lives was oddly palpable. I cleaned the house, neatened up. The quiet became almost unbearable, and seemed to underscore the fact that Jean-Paul, who was an only child, whose father had passed away 25 years before and whose relatives all lived in distant states, had now lost his entire immediate family except me.
Eventually I turned the computer on again and found an email waiting from a Jewish friend. She had heard the news and wanted to express her sympathy. "At times like this," I replied, "I appreciate our meshugenah, warm, vibrant culture." It was true. I felt as if I might drown in the silence.
I missed the Jewish custom of sitting shiva.
Although I am not religious and Jean-Paul never converted to Judaism, we agreed when we got married to maintain a Jewish home. We have only been married for two years, so we haven't fully figured out what that means. For now, because we have no children, it means that we celebrate the Jewish holidays. What was absent, after the death of his mother, was the mourning custom that brings friends, family and neighbors to a Jewish home for seven days after the death of a close family member, bearing food, friendship and sympathy.
Jean-Paul and I are in our 40s, and we are close with two couples our age who are Jewish. Before his mother's death, I discussed creating some kind of shiva with one of these friends, Amy, who suggested that we modify the week-long custom and invite friends to make a shiva call at our home for just one night. When Jean-Paul's mother died, which was a Thursday, I began planning the shiva for Saturday night with Amy and the female half of the other couple, Beth. We spread the word among a group of local friends. Jean-Paul, who liked the idea, told a few people he was close to whom he knew might want to pay their respects.
I didn't know how to prepare for a shiva. I had been to only a few in my life, ranging from an Orthodox shiva in Brooklyn, N.Y., to several that were less traditional. According to custom people bring food to the mourners, but because no one who was coming to our shiva was religious and not everyone was Jewish, we felt that we should provide food. Amy offered to bring wine, and Beth promised a plate of fresh vegetables, hummus and dip. I made cookies and bought large bottles of soda and platters of food from the local supermarket. Although I am a vegetarian, my husband and most of my friends are not, so I purchased platters that came with salami, crackers and cheese. It felt uncomfortable to serve both meet and dairy on one night; my family was not kosher in my own home growing up, but on holidays and at other Jewish occasions we ate kosher food and followed kosher traditions. Out of guilt I separated the platters and put the meat on one side of the table and the cheese on the other. As un-kosher as religious Jews would have thought such a thing, they would likely have been more horrified when my husband came home carrying a pre-prepared shrimp cocktail to add to the feast. He had no idea that shellfish was not kosher. I felt confused about what to do, but he said "well, it's a mixed shiva." He was right; I had to remember that this was not a kosher home and we were not a religious couple. I had to do my best to acknowledge tradition while accepting who we were. In the end, this night was about my husband.
Friends began arriving at about 5 p.m. First were Jean-Paul's former personal training clients, Bernie and Karen, who are in their 50s. Karen is in a wheelchair because of spinal surgery that went wrong about a year ago. Bernie and Jean-Paul carried her up our back porch stairs in her wheelchair, and helped her enter the house through the kitchen door. I was beyond touched they had made the effort to be there and comfort my husband, who busied himself preparing food and drinks in the kitchen as they settled into the living room. Two old friend of Jean-Paul's arrived next. One, a girlfriend from years past who had been very close to his mother for two decades brought cookies that his mother used to make and also eggnog, a holiday tradition at his mother's house. My mother-in-law died on Dec. 11, in the middle of the holiday season. I thanked her for the food and she sat down in the living room, where the guests made their introductions and held quiet conversations.
Ida, another former personal training client, arrived a short time later. Ida lived through World War II while growing up in France, and her husband, who had recently died of lung cancer, was a Holocaust survivor. Ida's daughter, now in her 30s, was also suffering from cancer. Yet Ida came to our home that night, sat on our couch and showed us pictures of her twin grandchildren, two boys. She stayed for just a short time before giving us each a hug and saying we would all have dinner when times were better. "Whenever that will be," she added.
Karen and Bernie left shortly after Ida did, but soon more guests walked in and the house started to fill up. Beth and Amy arrived with their husbands, Mike and Howie. They bustled through the front door carrying wine, bags of food, coffee and plastic cups. The kitchen became crowded with people, and the quiet atmosphere lightened. Another friend arrived with her son, a 10-month-old baby named Eric, newly adopted from Vietnam. Howie picked up the baby and held him high as if he was flying, and Eric smiled and laughed.
At some point I paused to take in the atmosphere of our shiva, which was evolving from a hushed sadness into almost a party. Jean-Paul began mixing drinks, and cheerful conversation drifted around the kitchen and the living room. People hugged Jean-Paul when they entered the house, offered their condolences, then settled in to eat, have coffee, catch up. It was not a large gathering; by 10 p.m. seven friends had come and gone, and only Jean-Paul and I, Beth and Mike, and Howie and Amy were left. We had been snacking all night but someone suggested that we order a pizza, and before I knew it the evening was winding down with the six of us gathered around a large mushroom pizza in the kitchen, eating slices, laughing and debating who would drive the foursome home.
Should we have been laughing at a shiva? The tradition is not about laughter; for religious Jews, shiva is a period of deep mourning for a parent, spouse, sibling or child. Among other customs, the mourners tear their clothes, do not bathe and sit on low chairs or stools in their grief. They do not work or participate even in Torah study during this time, because such study is considered a source of delight. Still, despite my uncertainty, I could not help feeling warmed and comforted by the presence of our friends. At 11 p.m. when they all went home, the house felt less empty than it had the day before. The emptiness had been replaced; we no longer felt alone.
My parents, who live two hours away, were not able to come to the shiva. On Sunday morning my mother called to ask how it had gone. I expressed my concern that perhaps we had not honored the Jewish tradition in the proper way, because at the end it had felt almost like a party. In fact, we had done many things wrong, starting with acting as hosts and serving food. "The point is just to be together," my mother said, reassuring me.
Since that night I have read some things about the shiva tradition, and one point that I came across in particular made me feel better. In a religious shiva, guests take their cues regarding what to talk about from the mourners. One of their roles is to help the mourners re-affirm life and the importance of living.
At the end of that Saturday night in our home, two days after my mother-in-law died, while our guests were eating pizza and enjoying drinks served by Jean-Paul, I had looked over at my husband. Just one day before he had been so isolated in his grief, but at that moment he was smiling, enjoying our friends, comforted by their presence. They were helping him to go on living, something that can be hard to do in the first days after a loved one dies. And for that I was thankful to whatever small pieces I had been able to gather from the shiva tradition.