I was twenty-eight years old when I attended my first shiva. I pulled up outside the house, a typical suburban house in Encino, now transformed, as though a giant neon arrow were blazing forth “House of Mourning!” or as if the figure of Death, in full noir regalia and holding a sickle, were poised on the roof like a Halloween decoration. I sat in my car a long time, trying to work up the nerve to go in. I couldn’t do it alone. Wasn’t I intruding on the intimate life of a family in their most vulnerable moment of loss? How should I behave? What could I possibly say?
The house belonged to the parents of my friend, Joel. His brother, Jordan, a shy, funny, recent graduate of dental school, with whom Joel had waged the most intense Scrabble showdowns I have ever seen—replete with chess timer and multiple 7-letter words—was the person who had died. He had committed suicide.
While the home was indeed a scene of unimaginable grief—Joel’s mother crying “my baby! my baby!”—the experience of shiva, both that night and for the several following that I persisted in attending, was nothing less than life changing. The house was full to overflowing with people. Platters of food balanced precariously on every available surface. The family, their eyes hollowed out by pain, were not expected in any way to host or to do anything to receive their guests. Joel seemed buoyed by the crowd, but when I hugged him, he was shaking with tears inside. Friends sat together for hours, talking and remembering Jordan, regretting his suffering as he struggled with depression, and laughing through tears at funny memories. It was transformative because it taught me that being present with people in their pain is not some caricature of utter darkness, it opens you to extremes of tenderness, love, rage—an all-embracing panorama of emotions. The whole cosmos in a tear.
Shiva means “seven”—a period of seven days of mourning following the burial of a loved one—and in Judaism seven always recalls Creation, from the abyss of nothing arise light, life, substance. Seven days after the birth of a boy is the bris. Seven circles of a bride around the groom marks the creation of a new entity—the unity of two as one. These days, some people cut shiva short, observing it for only two or three days, sometimes because a holiday, like Sukkot, will intervene, but often out of a sense that we must move on, as if seven days is too long for the community to be asked to attend to mourning. Perhaps it feels archaic, or imposing. But, as one friend who lost her mother a couple of years ago, said to me recently, when you are the mourner, shiva “gives you permission to withdraw, for a set amount of time, and there is great relief in that.” The beauty of it, I might add, is that shiva allows you to withdraw from everyday responsibilities, but also surrounds you with people, so that you are not alone.
Earlier this year, I witnessed a woman who had just lost her husband appear at her child’s soccer practice only three or four days after the funeral. I knew that she was using every fiber of her being to give her son a sense of normalcy and structure. But I had a visceral reaction; I wanted to shout, “No! no! no!” Not because she had transgressed some rule—for precisely the opposite reason, because I wanted her to have the protection that shiva affords, not to have to do anything whatsoever. To my eyes, she was as vulnerable as someone arising from a hospital bed immediately after surgery, with no time even to begin to heal.
I also have recently been a part of some conversations with people from a diversity of backgrounds who are working to develop instructions for “how to help people when they are ill or suffering a loss.” I think these kinds of things can be immensely useful, because we have all been in the situation of not knowing what to say or how to help, not wanting to impose, but not wanting to be indifferent either. Yet these efforts also make me feel that in contemporary culture we have run so far away from “organized religion” that we’ve essentially forgotten what it’s there for, what it can offer us.
Judaism (and this is true of many faiths and deep cultural traditions, but I am only speaking from the point of view of the one I am most familiar with) has been honing these guidelines around how to visit the sick, how to comfort the mourner, how to follow a path away from devastation back towards life, for three thousand years. It is not necessary to reinvent the wheel. The power of having a community that is familiar with these guidelines means that when loss happens to you, you do not have to organize; the people around you spring into action—they know what to do.
What to say to a mourner? Shiva is very clear about it: nothing. You don’t need to say anything at all. Don’t make the person in their grief have to explain or comfort you. Just be present. Show them by being there that they are not alone.
You cover the mirrors in a house of mourning. It seems so minor, and yet it is such a powerful message: they are completely inside themselves, they should not have to make themselves beautiful in any way for others. You bring food (always too much) so that basic needs are covered. For those for whom every other thing in existence has been blotted out, the community comes in to offer a tether holding them to this world.
Thirteen years ago, after that first shiva, I wrote about it, comparing it to my (non-Jewish) grandmother’s passing, which had taken place only weeks earlier:
“My grandfather received hundreds of sympathy cards, beautifully hand-written, with warm memories of her—her voice, how she laughed through her words, how she lit up a party—but no one came by the house, no one brought food over. And I compared that stack of cards in the entry hall to all the people milling about Joel's mother’s house: filling plates, patting shoulders, embracing. This community surging up around the family from everywhere, filling the house with life in the face of the gaping abyss of loss.”
And shiva is only the first ring of concentric circles of time that Jewish tradition prescribes for both memorializing a loss and recovering from it: there are rituals for the 30-day mark, over the course of the first year, and each year following. But the most important thing you can do, at the moment when you most want to avert your eyes and walk the other way, is the one thing that shiva asks of you: just show up.