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.