Sitting Shiva

Barely a week goes by without my being consciously grateful for the preciousness of the Almighty’s gift of a weekly oasis, Shabbat. Last week I had the opportunity to be thankful for another of His gifts, one that is also related to seven days.

My sister, Ellen, passed away on Sunday morning a week ago. From the moment Jews hear news of the death of one of our closest relatives (mother, father, husband, wife, brother, sister and child), there is a path to follow. Starting Sunday and continuing through the burial and for the next seven days, my father and I were guided by our tradition. Sunday’s focus was relegated to organizing details and my husband and I taking a ‘red-eye’ to the east coast. The burial was on Monday, and my father and I returned from the cemetery to start a process known as “sitting shiva.” For seven days – shiva means ‘seven’ in Hebrew- the mourners withdraw from the world, cocooned in the smaller world of family, friends and community.

At a time when one feels unmoored by coming face to face with death, there is tremendous comfort in following a proscribed process. Since Jewish burials take place as quickly as possible after a death, the bereaved family usually starts sitting shiva within a day or two of the death. For the entire week, the outside world disappears. I was completely ignorant about and disinterested in what was happening on the national or global front. On a personal level, I was utterly removed from those tasks that usually consume my day. Having worked on our new book, Buried Treasure, for over a year, it rolled out without my input. I had no idea what, if anything, replaced my weekly Musing. I awoke at 2 a.m. one morning to the sight of my husband crouched over his computer trying to handle my responsibilities as well as his own. I knew that my amazing assistant, Crystol, was similarly acting in my stead. Although a five-minute consultation might have saved them hours of work, my ‘shiva space’ was never violated.

The shiva home is a busy place as the mourners are surrounded by others. Compassionate friends and relatives provide meals, listening ears and affection. My children, whose lives are always hectic and full, took responsibility for dozens of small and large matters. The three women who lovingly tendered round-the-clock care for my sister over the past few years came to share our loss. Among other visitors were a cousin I had not seen in decades, my eighth grade history teacher, my late mother’s closest friends and the boy who was my assigned partner for walking down the hallway in first grade.

The shiva week provides many benefits. It is a way of showing respect for the dead, and as such, its observances are unrelated to whether the death was sudden or long expected, whether the deceased is young or old, cherished by or alienated from his or her immediate family. Shiva is also a process for the living: it comfortingly protects one from the jarring juxtaposition of life and death. Certain mourning processes such as not wearing new clothing or attending public celebrations will continue for an additional three weeks (when mourning a parent’s death, that period extends for a year) but as shiva ends one is firmly prodded back to a productive and involved life.

Ellen faced physical and emotional challenges from the time of her birth. As an adult, she accepted responsibility for her own happiness. She rejected viewing herself as a victim of manifold problems and exhibited great courage as she strove to be an exemplary employee, a loving friend and an affectionate daughter. Her last years were a testimony to the strength of her personality as she chose humor over bitterness when faced with a body that continually failed her. Bed-ridden she maintained relationships via email; when she could no longer type she preserved connections over the phone; when she could not even do that she exuded gratitude for each visitor. My prayer is that she finds a peace and joy that eluded her in this world as she enters another, more permanent, existence.

17 thoughts on “Sitting Shiva”

  1. Prayers for you and Ellen. So sorry to hear of your loss. Ellen reminds me of so many of the brave people I’ve met along the way who are struggling tremendously compared to most people, and yet show such grace through it all. Your description of her is touching. It sounds like she was a wonderful person who blessed many with her life example. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Dear Mrs. Lapin, may the Lord comfort you during your grief for the loss of your sister. We must be on parallel life tracks, for last week I lost my father. And the aching heart saps the mind’s concentration, so I can well understand why you had to skip a week. Thank you for returning to the therapeutic discipline of writing.
    May I offer a comment on the Rabbi’s posting this week about talking animals? In 2007 a cute little baby squirrel was just getting established in our yard. He / she lived in a tall sweet gum tree in the pine island in our front yard, and was on its own on the ground for the first time. We had taken the little creature under our wing, guarding it from the depredations of our two cats. We watched our cats to keep them at bay when the squirrel was on the ground.
    In 2007 I had to sell a prefab office desk. I gave it to my neighbor, who kindly incorporated the desk into his yard sale. To set up the desk, he had to move a car. When he moved the car back about ten feet to accommodate the desk on his driveway, the tiny little squirrel lost its life. It was taking refuge from the cats behind the tire and its little head was crushed. My neighbor’s heart was broken and so was mine.
    About two hours later I heard a stringent trisyllabic call I will never forget, repeated over and over and over again. I went outside to investigate what could make such an eerie, soul-wrenching cry. I looked up into the tree and it was a grown squirrel. Its mother was keening bitterly over the loss of her baby. Two feet above my head, unflinching and keening throughout, she stared me straight in the eye as if she knew it was my stupid old desk that caused her baby to die. I was chilled to the bone. I was so unnerved that I bit down on a fork at dinner and chipped a tooth.
    Later I scavenged a pound of miscellaneous nuts and dropped them around her tree as an offering. We are surrounded by little woodland creatures, and we can learn amazing things about them if we just open our eyes and ears.

  3. Jean Westenfelder

    I have spent enough time with you and Rabbi Lapin through your TCT program, and website, that I feel comfortable that you will appreciate the condolences I am sending along. Even though the Rabbi fails to mention your Musings, it is the first thing I read!
    God bless..

  4. Thank you for taking time in the midst of your grieving to continue reaching out to, and teaching, us your online friends. My heart and prayers are with you, may you be comforted by family, friends, and God.

  5. I pray the Lord comforts you during this time of loss as He has me in the past three months after the death of my 37 year old brother. It is hard and tragic, no matter the cause. This person you don’t seem everyday will suddenly be a hole in your daily life, I know. It hurts. It aches. But, God is faithful and His strength has sustained me as I pray He will for you.

  6. Michael Feldbauer

    It appears that by your closing comments that you believe as I do that there is an after life so I hope you will accept this statement. For those who pass before us are not in our past but in our future. My hope is that the blessings of our Lord bring peace to you in this time.

  7. I enjoy reading your column very much, Susan, and I always feel that you have wisdom to impart. Thank you, and please accept my condolences for your loss.

  8. Another great ritual. I can see this as a good way to force family members who do not like each other and never have to get together to actually interact in person for an extended period and present an opportunity for the Lord to reopen the interpersonal channels and work on the sickness.

  9. My heart goes out to you. May God surround you and yours with peace and strength. May the memories of your sister’s connections to you and those who shared in her life bring comfort and light to you. My deepest condolences. God bless you and your family.

  10. Lovely eulogy for Ellen–not only the testimony to her valiant efforts to connect and maintain her attitude, but also your description of shiva. Thank you; it must have been difficult to write this.

  11. I am so sorry for your loss. I am so glad you had traditions and family and friends to help you manage the roughest patches. May God bless you and your family and continue to help you through your loss.

  12. HaMakom Yenachem Otach B’toch Shaar Aveilei Tzion v’Yerushalayim. Sending love from our family to yours!

  13. My heartfelt condolences to you and your family. As you reflect publicly for our benefit on your sister’s character and the beauty of Shiva, your words are like apples of gold in settings of silver.

  14. You have my sincere sympathy. Losing a sister requires much of you. May the time you spent sitting shiva give you the strength she would want you to show.
    Susan, this blog entry is one of the most meaningful to me which I have read. It resonates with my personal history, and I thank you for sharing what happened in your life in such a way that my life will be enriched.

  15. Deepest condolences on the loss of your sister. May God bring your family comfort and peace.

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