In Jewish tradition, when one loses a close family member such as parents, siblings or children, there are certain mourning rituals which need to be observed. These start out very stringent, in the period immediately following the death, and become less so in stages over the course of the coming year. During the period after the death until the funeral, which is held as quickly as possible, ideally later that day, or the next, very little is permitted at all except that which is necessary to arrange the funeral. Mourners will sit and sleep on the floor, will not eat meat, and will cease listening to music as marks of their grief and loss. After the funeral, a new stage begins, called ‘shiva’, meaning ‘seven’, referring to the week-long duration of this phase of the mourning process. During shiva, the mourners do not wash or wear freshly cleaned clothes or leather shoes, they sit on low chairs, wear a torn item of clothing, and cover all their mirrors in order to discourage vanity. The house of the mourners is open to the community, and guests come to pay their respects to the mourners and to help and comfort them, sharing memories, bringing gifts of food and assisting around the house.
Going through the shiva process after my mother died in December 2011, and witnessing the environment generated by its observance by both mourners and the wider community, I came to the realisation that the process could be described as a very intricate, very effective piece of social technology. It is a tool enabling everyone to come to terms with the loss and to accept that something is irreversibly different. It helps us to recognise that this difference needs to be adjusted to, and provides the framework within which to do so. In essence, with death the world has changed, and now we, both the mourners and the wider community, need to catch up. The focus on community at this time has a binding effect in that it can renew old acquaintances and even generate new ones, despite the unpleasant circumstances. Although it is easy to come together to join in one another’s joy, it is much more difficult to join in each other’s grief, yet it is equally important, and this is what the mourning process forces us to do, because the happy occasions and the sad occasions are all part of a whole, and Judaism is for life, not just for simchas (celebrations).
For the mourners, the opportunity is granted to focus on their grieving by sharing memories with visitors without needing to worry about the normal concerns of everyday life such as cooking, cleaning or, importantly, attending to the guests. The mourner is absolved of all responsibilities and allowed time to focus on adjusting to the new reality they are faced with. I felt that the constant presence of friends and family demonstrated the love of the community, who mourned with us, and also served the function of mandating social interactions rather than a reclusive state of depressing introspection. Although there was little to be said that would ease the pain of the loss immediately, the process does serve to buffer the pain somewhat, like a cushion, or padding around a spikey pill which one needs to take. Then adjustment to the new norm with which the mourner is faced can come with time. One thing that does help is sharing memories, and this, for the mourner, is one of the most important functions of the shiva process. Meeting my mother’s older friends from her university or even school days helped me to consolidate and reinforce these important memories, and has certainly given me new perspectives on her life. The turn out at the funeral and the shiva also demonstrated something very important to me, which is that we were not alone in our grieving: a whole community of loyal friends and family, both the Reading Jewish congregation and those from further afield, were mourning my mother with us. In that the magnitude of the grief indicates the magnitude of the loss, it was some comfort to see over the course of the shiva just how wonderful my mother was, and how amazing her legacy is.
For the wider community, the shiva actually forces (subtly) everyone else to also come to terms with the death, where some may have preferred not to face it. People don’t always know what to say when confronted by another’s bereavement, and now that I’ve been on both ends of this, it’s interesting how many messages I got from people saying they didn’t know what to say, and even apologising for not getting in touch earlier, their reason being they couldn’t find anything to say. Normally they resorted to the Jewish ‘set phrase’, and this is another very interesting aspect of the process. The fact that we have a set phrase to be said to mourners is important for everyone else, not least because the mourners themselves know to expect it because it’s ‘what you say’. The phrase, ‘May God grant you comfort and consolation amongst those who also mourn for Zion and Jerusalem’, expresses, in essence, all that should be said, which is the hope that the mourners receive strength from God to face up to their loss and continue with their lives, knowing that they are not alone in their grief, and knowing that others will not abandon them in their moment of need, but rather support them. Bringing everyone together for shiva means that others are not given the chance to avoid the mourners, as if the death might become a taboo subject which could make others in the community uncomfortable to confront. Additionally, the institution of helping the mourners allows the wider community to contribute, doing something productive, without anyone feeling guilty. The mourners don’t feel guilty for not working, and being helped instead, because they know it is part of the process. In turn, those helping know that the mourners are well aware of this, and this sense of being able to contribute productively to the situation has the effect of empowering everyone, and the community is strengthened as a result.
Like Judaism’s set phrases to say and to expect, the set rituals more generally also act as coping mechanisms, and provide a focus which helps to clarify all the confusion of the situation. Even in matters of death there is beauty in the approach of Judaism, and perhaps it’s unfair even to say ‘even'; after all, what other certainty is there in life which extends uniformly across generations and geographies, encompassing all people at any time and in any place? Whereas everything else may be contingent, everyone will experience bereavement at some point (and the alternative of not caring enough about anyone else to care if they die is simply no alternative at all), so coping becomes a priority common to all societies and all individuals. The ultimate end point or goal – the continuation of everyday life, the transition between the previous norm, prior to the bereavement, and the new norm – is achieved through the celebration of the life of the deceased. This is best done through memories, and memories are best shared through community, hence the focus of the shiva on bringing people in to the house of the mourners. So maybe as well as the set phrase used to console mourners, it is also fitting to wish pleasant memories of the deceased, and not just of the deceased, but that we should all maintain fond memories of those close to us, because this is what grants us solace in times of difficulty and loss. The shiva process is, I feel, a remarkably sophisticated system for enabling us this solace; this structure encourages communal support, empowerment and the consolidation and reinforcement of memories, and this is how we face up to the inevitable sense of confusion and helplessness at a time of bereavement.