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My First Shiva: Understanding What to Expect Helps

When someone we love dies, we are hit by a waterfall of emotions: shock, anger, pain, sorrow, sadness, fear, anxiety, guilt, loneliness, emptiness, and sometimes even relief. Although our reactions may vary depending on the situation of the death, experiencing a loss is never easy. Rituals and customs can help us through the early days of mourning by providing structure and meaning.

In Judaism, there are two basic considerations at the heart of laws and practices concerning death and mourning. The first principle is kevod ha-met, treating the dead with respect, and the second is kevod he-chai, concern for the well-being of the living. Knowing that these two principles are embedded in many Jewish rituals and customs can help you understand why certain things are done. More importantly, when you are unsure of the "right" thing to do, you can guide your actions by these principles.

For Jews, the immediate period of mourning is known as shiva, a period of seven days (shiva means seven in Hebrew) that include and follow the funeral. During this seven-day period, mourners refrain from their usual activities. Some people observe a shorter period, but at least three days usually are designated. The phrase "sitting shiva" often is used to describe this period of intense grieving because of an ancient custom of sitting on the floor to symbolize being struck low by the loss. Today, some mourners sit on low stools or benches, or remove cushions from furniture to be closer to the floor. There are other traditions that may be observed, such as covering mirrors and washing hands before entering the house of mourning after coming from the cemetery.

Learning from Memories

When I think back to my first shiva over twenty-five years ago, I remember that I didn't understand very much about Jewish mourning practices. I was not Jewish when my husband's uncle died. We were newly married ourselves, so I had not yet experienced the loss of any of our Jewish relatives. I was somewhat anxious because I did not know what to expect and feared that I might offend someone by making a false move. I approached the funeral and shiva like a visitor to a foreign country.

My husband gave me a crash course in what to do and how to act. I learned that in Jewish tradition the burial takes place quickly, followed by a time of mourning that was not unlike what I was used to during a wake. At first, it felt as if the funeral was taking place too soon. I was used to a slower pace following a death because Catholic practice involves a wake being held before the funeral and burial. It also seemed strange to me to have the funeral in a funeral chapel/funeral home rather than in a synagogue. Although I was familiar with having wakes in funeral homes, I was used to having the funeral service in a church. The service was new to me, too: There were no familiar prayers or melodies to help me feel a part of what was happening.

On the way to the family's house for shiva, I wondered how people would act and hoped that we would encounter family members I knew. Once we arrived, my anxieties melted away because the relatives welcomed me as part of the family. As people gathered to share food and reminisce about my husband's uncle, I realized that our presence was supportive to the immediate family. My attention shifted to their needs and I knew that being together eased the sadness of this difficult time.

My first shiva experience taught me that although specific practices among religions differ, the primary purposes of providing comfort to and showing concern for the mourners, and showing respect for the person who has died, are the same. After these many years, what I remember most is that it was comforting to spend time with the family in the mourners' home during shiva. The observance was not unlike what goes on during a wake, when people come to express their concern and honor the dead. To me, that's the ultimate goal of mourning rituals--to help us cope with the sorrow death brings, and to provide support for others.

Being Ambassadors

Funerals and mourning practices are inherently stressful even when people are familiar with what will happen. For people who are not Jewish, not knowing what to do or expect at a Jewish mourning practice heightens anxiety. Those of us who are knowledgeable about Jewish practice can help our non-Jewish loved ones, friends, and relatives through their initial shiva experiences by being their ambassadors.

The following suggestions may help you guide others.

  • Find out which practices will be followed and describe exactly what will happen during the funeral and shiva.
  • Provide a script. Explain what behavior is appropriate and what is not. People who are unfamiliar with Jewish ritual often worry that they will offend the mourners by doing something wrong.
  • Draw parallels to what is familiar. For example, people who have attended wakes may see a similarity in purpose to making a shiva call: Both are ways to show respect for the dead and concern for the bereaved.
  • Explain that it's a good idea to ask someone for assistance when feeling unsure about what to do.
  • Consult books that explain Jewish practice, such as The Jewish Book of Why and its sequel The Second Jewish Book of Why by Alfred Kolatch, or Living a Jewish Life by Anita Diamant and Howard Cooper.

I've learned a lot since the time of that first shiva. Through knowing what to expect and why certain customs and rituals are observed, I have become less concerned about myself and can focus more on the needs of the bereaved

With experience, practices that once seemed odd become supportive. As I put the finishing touches on this article, I'm thinking about tomorrow's funeral for a member of our synagogue. What was once a foreign experience is now a familiar and comforting ritual. Despite the sadness I feel, I know that attending the funeral and visiting the family during shiva will help me grieve the loss of a special person and bring comfort to her loved ones.

B' Shalom (with peace).

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "seven," refers to the seven days of mourning following the funeral of a family member.
Dr. June Andrews Horowitz

Dr. June Andrews Horowitz is an Associate Professor in the Psychiatric-Mental Health Department of the School of Nursing at Boston College. She has more than a decade of experience leading counseling groups and workshops for interfaith couples and she is a member of the Regional Outreach Committee of the Northeast Region of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC). Dr. Horowitz, her husband and three children are active members of Temple Beth David of the South Shore (a Reform synagogue) in Canton, Mass.

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