Monday, July 28, 2008

The Shiva

I always get a little paralyzed here. Probably most people do.

You might know that shiva refers to the seven days of mourning that follow a close relative's funeral. Such a mourner, in Jewish tradition, sits at home, refrains from work and withdraws from the usual affairs of life; but takes visitors, dozens, sometimes, at a time.

Friends and relatives in a community come to visit during the week, even if they're not particularly close to the mourners. Sometimes the shiva is shorter than the traditional seven days. It may last only three days, maybe only one, depending upon the custom. But no matter how long, visitors serve to soften the intensity of the loss; the presence of visitors fills the void. For a little while.

It should be easy to make a visit like this one. A person isn't really required to say anything. All a person has to do is be there, take a seat and listen. In the more observant homes, the people sitting shiva are seated on low chairs, their blouse torn just a little; they face others, those who are not in mourning, who are seated across from them.

Usually someone's talking, not necessarily about the person who passed away, either. It's not unusual to hear people talk about anything but the person who has passed away. And that's okay if that's okay with the person(s) in mourning. Sometimes, as a mourner, you just know that it's going to be a very long week, so you're fine with the light motif, the banter that gives you a break.

It happens to be the three weeks,* an unlucky time for the Jewish people, so when someone passes away during this season we sort of look at one another and say, It's a three weeks thing, and everyone gets it.

But when it's cancer that takes a life during the three weeks, I always go, Nah, it's cancer. And everyone gets that, too. We know that many presentations of the disease are curable, and the survivors, the soldiers, are our heroes. But occasionally, it's not a winning battle, and the fallen become our sacrifice and we respect them even more.

So today I wanted to make a condolence call, but did everything in my power not to go, did an admirable job of sabotaging my time. I found an old chandelier in the basement and since I had a couple of hours to spare, decided that this would be a good time to wash the crystals, even though the thing has so many broken pieces it should probably go to Salvation Army and will.

After about an hour, though, I took the walk over to the shiva house. Slowly. I felt terrible that I hadn't visited her when she was sick. I've known she was sick for almost a decade. I'd walk by her house on any given day and sometimes she'd be sitting outside on a chair and we'd talk for awhile, maybe ten, fifteen minutes, just chew the fat about nonsense. She would ask about my kids; she remembered them, had taught them some twenty years ago.

But I never went in. You know what I mean. I never took that second step of going inside when she wasn't well enough to sit outside.

And boy, I'm so sorry about this. I feel so badly.

Earlier this morning I caught FD for just a second before he went to work, took him by surprise, made him face me as I shouted, "I just hate myself for not visiting her when she was sick!"

He totally understood and shook his head. "I know, I know, me, too. What was wrong with us?"

"We'll you're always visiting sick people. You're in the hospital and they're sick, or they manage to find you if you don't find them. It has to be a lesson for me, is all. This sort of thing just makes me feel like garbage. Had the chance. Let it pass. It'll never be there again. Gone."

I had ten years to do that, visit.

When my daughter heard about the death she said, "How could that happen? Wait a minute! You don't mean this! She was so young! She couldn't be much older than you, right?"

She was sick a long time, dear. Age has nothing to do with it.

So I shuffle along, finally walk through her door. Immediately I sense the atmosphere is light. My neighbor/friend's mother, the woman who has just lost her daughter, looks up at me, catches my eye as I get my bearings. She smiles a smile of confused recognition, one that says,

I'm sure we've met. Who are you?

We have never met. She has other people sitting with her, talking to her. I can see the mourner I know the best, my neighbor's husband, with a chair open right in front of him. He smiles, happy to see me. I sit with him and we talk awhile about how things used to be.

It's funny. We, the visitors, are only there because a person used to be there. A person used to be a part of the way things used to be, but isn't any more. And yet we're talking about grocery stores that are no longer, toy stores that have relocated, and how people used to be so nice in a snowstorm.

And then he inserts her. He says, "She told me that I had to fight her parking ticket for her because I didn't move the car in that storm, so of course I did, I fought it and won, and it's a good thing I did."

And there she is. And I feel better. The light motif is still light, but it's more meaningful.

At some point I see his daughters, young married women with young children, and I talk to them. They're very much about talking about their mother and their loss, and how we must, we simply must find a cure for breast cancer. Someone mentions Mike Dewey, the Texan who has offered $1 billion dollars to anyone who finds a cure. I feel the time slipping away, know I have to get to work, so I say the magic condolence formula that we say to mourners** and ask the younger women, "Where's your grandmother?"

I'm asking about the woman who caught my eye when I walked in the door. She has vacated her seat. I want to meet her, to tell her how much I admired her daughter, how I'll miss her, too. They tell me, "Try the kitchen."

Where else?

So I head there, to the kitchen, and sure enough, the elderly woman with that certain spark, that glint, smiles when she sees me. I recognize the spark because her daughter had it too, that quick way of creating humor, a way of making things light, happy. Humor is communicated through the eyes of these people, the ones with the sparkle in their eyes.

I introduce myself. I say I'm So and So's niece. Everyone knows my aunt in this community, there weren't that many Orthodox families in town when my mother, my aunt, and this woman were girls. Chicago has grown, but the native Orthodox all know one another.

"You looked familiar! I knew I knew you," she exclaims. "And now I know why! You have the family resemblance."

I don't want to disappoint her. I look like my father's side. But it's okay. We shmooze awhile, standing in the kitchen.

"And how did you get this?" I ask, pointing to a sling on her arm. "It's very stylish, but still."

She's coy, lowers her voice, the twinkle is blinding. She says, "Well, I'll tell you the truth. I just. . .I just wasn't getting enough attention on Thursday (the day of the funeral) so I tripped and made them take me to the hospital. I think it was brilliant." She's smiling the smile that caught the canary, making this our little not-so-private joke, and it is, it is really, really funny.

"You go to a lot of trouble for attention. You could go pro."

"I know," she says proudly. "And look! It worked!"

"Except," I correct her, "that you're stuck with a lot of pain for who knows how long."***

"Four weeks, the doctor says. It could hurt for four weeks. I'll need a lot of attention."

"Four weeks if you're lucky!" I cry. "It could go on for six weeks, eight weeks!"

"I told them! I told them this!" she exclaims upon hearing my prognosis, triumphant. "I told them it could go on for eight weeks. Come. Come with me. You have to tell them." She takes me by the elbow, guides me back to the living room where they're sitting shiva.

"Tell them!" she commands, for all to hear, pointing in the direction of her daughter, the only daughter left, the only mourner I've yet to meet. There's a small crowd of women sitting around her but I introduce myself, tell the only daughter left that I'm sorry about her sister.

"Tell her!" the matriarch insists. "Tell her how long it could take for this arm to heal!" She's having a ball. She loves this.

"Are you a doctor?" asks her daughter.

"Not a medical doctor. A PhD."

"That's fine. Even better," the daughter affirms, going along with the script. "So tell me, doctor, how long will my mother need this sling?"

I shake my head gravely. "I don't know. It could be very, very bad. Could be six to eight weeks. Maybe more. Could be years."

No one's got a straight face here, but boy, I'm trying. I shrug. "I would keep a good eye on her if I were you," I say, looking up and to the right, clearly deep in thought.

Then I tell over the condolence blessing to the only daughter left, kiss my new friend and say it again, and leave, always amazed at how these things go.


* You can read more about the three weeks on the Cirque du Soleil post, there are links at the end from bloggers who know the rules.

** It's in Hebrew and basically says The place of all comfort should comfort you among the mourners within the gates of Jerusalem. Some prefer to say simply, We should meet at simchas, happy occasions, or You should know no more sorrow, like that's possible, but it's a blessing, basically. All positive shoulds, you should, are blessings in this religion, or can be.

***for who knows how long is a Jewish way of marking time that goes on and on, as it does.

Other bloggers who have posted on shiva include:

Amy Kronish writing about Shiva the movie (who knew?) directed by Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz

Patti, not religious at all, but still sitting virtual shiva at Live to Lounge writes about having lost her brother very recently. If you're very sensitive, you may not want to gaze at the banner, nude art alert, consider yourself warned. But say hello, wish her well. Why not?

Oaxaca is interested in comparating religions over at the Bed and Breakfast.

Vesom Sechel , kind of serious, but okay, this is a serious subject, generally, that is.


Anonymous said...

You really do write beautifully. This certainly took me back to a lot of mostly dormant memories of attending shivas.
I'm probably biased but I think the rituals based around death in the Jewish religion can be very comforting - mind, they've been designed that way over many centuries.
Just when I think I have just about completely made the leap to the secular, some things you say spark a little wistful light in my head, thinking of how it might have been if I'd gone down a different path!

therapydoc said...

Thanks cb. The paths aren't so different. Both could be a little wider, I feel.

Jack Steiner said...

The mother of one of my daughter's friends lost her mother quite unexpectedly this week.

I don't know her very well and have been wrestling with whether to send a card or pay a visit.

Shiva calls don't usually throw me, but this one is a little bit harder. Or maybe it is just because more of my friends seem to be losing their parents and it makes me wonder about my own.

Sorry to think out loud here in the comments.

Isle Dance said...

Even when we say the things we want to say while much goes unsaid. It's boggling how that happens.

therapydoc said...

Yeah, Isle, it's all too complicated.

and Jack, it is a little scary, isn't it? The whole thing.

pinky said...

Wow. Never did know what a Shiva meant. I had my own personal Shiva when my Dad died. It consisted of me sitting on the couch staring out into space or crying. It lasted almost exactly a week then I just snapped out of it.

therapydoc said...

Pinky, it's so interesting that you did that, and here you have all those visitors. Isn't the internet fabulous?

Anonymous said...

you may get a kick out of this but the first place I ever hear the word sitting shiva (i had to look it up) was in the song "weapon of choice" by fat boy sliM-the video with christoper walken is very funny too)

therapydoc said...

For a minute, Anon, I thought you were going to tell over the joke about the son who comes home to his Jewish mother with his American Indian bride. Someone else tell it. I'll blow the whole thing.

Anonymous said...

I'll be at one sooner than I would like :-(

Anonymous said...

you write so powerfully.
I had a long conversation with my mom recently (hopefully FAR AHEAD OF ANY NEED) where she expressed the desire to have us sit shiva for her.
it surprised me that she thought there was a chance we wouldnt.
that in 2008 Judaism has become that watered down that I wouldnt think to.


shrink on the couch said...

Its so hard to know what is the right thing to do when someone is sick and suffering. Maybe she came outside when she wanted visitors, stayed indoors when she wanted solitude. You may have given her exactly what she wanted?

Batya said...

Shiva's an amazing thing. Different every visit.

Converts really appreciate it, since no other religion has anything like it.

A Living Nadneyda said...

Beautiful, beautiful post.

We all have stories of avoiding sick people until the time has past.... I know I do.

I thought of you when I wrote this one (although I'd been meaning to write it anyway, but your post gave me the extra push).


Anonymous said...

I happened to have been at a difficult shiva the day I read this - a 50 year old man who died of a heart attack the week after his son's bar mitzvah with no warning.

I procrastinated until the last day of the shiva.

Somehow, when it's a very close friend sitting, I can deal better with the visit, because we know each other so well, and we know how we each deal with our stuff.

Or, if it's someone I barely know, there are less expectaions. Just going and sitting there can be enough.

In this case, I was just getting to know the family, and somehow, I think some of the awkwardness came from that.

I really felt like hugging the widow, but just couldn't do it.

Anyway, glad I went.

therapydoc said...

Dd, definitely a just do it thing.

Anonymous said...


I wonder how a person becomes like your friend's mother? Where does the sparkle come from? It must be natural; genetic...

... or if spiritual, I think I'm still looking.


therapydoc said...

Boy, you figure that one out, bottle it, Amber.

Dr. Deb said...

What a poignant and moving post.

The Rebbetzin's Husband said...

Boy, been there and done that, in terms of feeling deeply guilty for not visiting. With me, I get to experience it as both personal and professional guilt.

Of course, I do generally see people when they are sick - but it's terrible when there was one last visit I could have made, and didn't make for one reason or another, before the person passed. That always gets me.

Anonymous said...

I had to make 2 shiva calls this week, one to someone from our shul who lost a child, another (by phone) to a friend who had also lost a child. Care to comment on parental bereavement?

therapydoc said...

Malky, Sure. It's the worst type of bereavement. You can't move for two years. Then you can. There's more to say, of course, but not right now.

rabbi neil fleischmann said...

I was taken b this piece. I loved the way you captured the big picture using sroken deltails - line the chandelier, and the stylish sling, and the fact that you actually resemble the other side of the family.

This line is great:

"We, the visitors, are only there because a person used to be there."

Its poetic - compact yet expansive.

My mind imagined it as a haiku:


We the visitors
are there because a person -
well, used to be there

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your experience. Glad you made a new friend (and fellow conspirator).

I still remember my grandfather's shiva in 1987. Worst blizzard in 100 years in Denver, Colorado, but everyone came: even the people on the other side of one of the many family feuds. We all sat around, talked, and caught up. It was, as you describe, strangely light & social.