This question was sent to the Mixed and Matched column in the J-weekly.
I am a recent convert and a single mother. My sister died recently. When I got the news, I was paralyzed and didn’t know what to do. I had been told that once the word of my sister’s passing got out, people would flock to my door with food, comforting visits and offers to watch my child so I could have time to grieve, but nothing happened. I went to work and kept up with my housework. My rabbi offered to help, but I really didn’t know what to ask for. And actually, I’m not good at asking for help. It felt like people were pretty hands off. People did attend the service, but there was no food since we held the shiva at the temple. My shiva experience could have benefited from more support. What should I know for next time? — Still grieving
Dear Grieving: Please accept my sincere condolences for your loss. I absolutely understand your paralysis upon learning of your sister’s death. The process of shiva, shloshim and the first year of mourning were set up because the rabbis recognized that we cannot function at times of deep sorrow.
Being a recent convert does not solely explain your experience. This could happen to anyone who is new to Jewish communal life or is not well embedded in a Jewish community.
I did some research to get a better understanding of what is happening on the “other” side of the shiva question. I called several synagogues and asked what their process is. This is what I learned.
Upon learning of a death, the clergy makes a call to the bereaved. The rabbi is responsible for asking the mourner what is needed. The clergy arranges for shiva and for any assistance the mourners need — meals, rides, etc. Due to privacy concerns (in my opinion, this has been greatly and sadly inflated in our culture), the clergy says very little to the members. That means that you need to be specific about wanting congregants to be informed. Many, but not all, shuls send an email alerting members to a death. Sadly, what I see is that we have an American (private, autonomous, even secretive) approach to a Jewish process — mourning in community.
Mourners are best served if they have friends in the congregation who are not afraid to ignore those privacy barriers and show up to clean house, do laundry, bring food or just hold hands. It is a mitzvah to care for mourners, to bring them meals and to help around the home. Don’t hesitate to ask for people to fulfill this commandment.
I have heard from some people that they wanted to give their grieving friend “space.” Space for what? To be alone and miserable? Certainly, there are mourners who don’t want to see anyone, but I think your situation is more common. Most mourners don’t know what to ask for, don’t know what they need and want someone else to manage things. Sometimes the best thing that a friend can do is to come over and sit with the mourner, maybe take her or him for a walk to the end of the block and back.
Because we live among mortals and someone is bound to die, you need to be better prepared for future tragedies. You need to set things up so that this doesn’t happen again. I suggest that you make an appointment with your rabbi. Say up front that it is a bereavement conversation. Then tell him or her what you’ve told me and feel free to share what I’ve told you. Also, you need to become more connected with fellow congregants. Talk to the rabbi about how you can become more involved. Make time to deepen your friendships. Go out for coffee or invite someone over. Be honest and say that you need company as you recover from your loss.
You also need to tell your clergy that, for future reference, you aren’t good at asking for help and probably wouldn’t know what to ask for anyway. It is fine to say, “When the next time comes around, treat me as someone who is mute with grief and may need more than I’m able to express.” Tell clergy and friends what you would have liked to have received this past time and what you may need in the future. It will be good for you to say it out loud and for them to receive a concrete request from you.
In times of mourning there often feels like we are helpless to comfort the mourners. Judaism provides a very tangible way to support the bereaved. It can be as simple as showing up. It is a mitzvah to attend a shiva. Rabbi Creditor of Netivot Shalom sent this tender letter to his congregation recently.
You have likely noticed that our community is enduring a large number of losses. Each one is a universe, and every mourner is unique. We, as a community, do this mitzvah right: we show up for each other.
If you haven't attended a shiva minyan before, please consider doing so. We will have simultaneous minyanim of comfort. That is a mitzvah we wish weren't necessary, one we take very seriously. It is less about the words than the quiet presence each one of us brings to a Shiva home.
Some members have begun learning how to lead Shiva minyanim. Please contact me if you'd like to learn as well. And, if leading isn't your next step, please make every effort to be there for the members of our shul family who are enduring a loss. We will, unfortunately, all be there. We can count on each other.
Please support our shul in making every minyan strong.
The Hebrew word "shiva" means "seven", and the official shiva period is seven days. The day of the funeral is counted as the first day of shiva, even though the practice does not begin until after the mourners arrive at the designated location following the funeral. On day seven, shiva generally ends in the morning, following services. On Shabbat during the week of shiva, no formal mourning takes place, but the day is counted as one of the seven. (You can read a detailed description from Chabad here and one from Reform Judaism here.
We asked people to share their experiences of sitting shiva. Below are some responses.
Looking back I can see that when my sister died it was the fact that there was a proscribed process that fell into place and that my community fulfilled their role of caring for me that got me through. A few months later I asked my husband, "was there food at the shiva?" I had this sudden worry that I had forgotten to feed people. But here's the thing, when you're in mourning, you aren't supposed to feed people; they are supposed to feed you. "Yes, honey, there was lots of food. People brought a lot," he replied.
In my case my dad passed away while I was still going through the conversion process. Still, keeping the rules of shiva, shloshim and kaddish helped me cope with the situation pretty well. But, above all, having my friends and my community around me taking care of me and helping me go through the different stages of mourning helped me a lot and left me with a sense of belonging and of gratitude hard to explain to outsiders. Guess this was my first strong experience of what converting means: not just believing or behaving in a certain way, but also becoming part of the Am Israel, part of a bigger Me called the Jewish Family.
About an hour before the service for my sister, I really wanted to cancel it. Felt like I was gonna throw up, just out of nerves and misery. My sister wasn't Jewish and it felt weird to have my long-standing Jewish life crashing into my non-Jewish family and past life. Ended up feeling deeply grateful and comforted, and glad I went through with it, but I sure was uncomfortable for a few hours.
I have just returned from my grandmother's funeral. In the collective experiences of converts, we do a lot of thinking and talking about dealing with “the Christmas season”, but do fairly little in terms of funeral traditions. I would be so very curious to hear other converts experiences of and reflections on participating in family end-of-life issues.
I have an admittedly skewed view on this, as I have connected with Judaism through working with the Chevrah Kaddisha (the “holy society” tasked with carrying out the various rituals and traditions around end of life). As a result, I likely have more familiarity with traditional Jewish practices than most.
I've spent the past 6 days with my parents and aunts and uncles planning and attending a funeral for my grandmother, who was a life-long Methodist. Over the course of the whole process, little things jumped out at me. I found myself very uncomfortable with the prospect of an open casket, but also realized that it was what my family members needed to support their grieving. In the funeral service, I asked myself “Should I recite the Lord's Prayer, (which I know by heart), because it would cause my grandmother so much pain to know I didn't?” At the cemetery, I found myself wanting to hang around, to be present for the actual lowering of the casket, and to shovel some dirt on top (which is certainly a very foreign custom to both my family and the cemetery staff in rural Oklahoma).
I was more acutely aware of my Jewishness – and more importantly, my non-Jewish origins – over the past week than I have been in a long time. It was an added stress on an already stressful time. All in all, I think I navigated it fairly well. I ended up avoiding the room whenever the casket was open. I arranged with the funeral home to sit with the (closed) casket the night before the funeral, in keeping with the Jewish tradition of Shmira. In the end, I found myself saying the Lord's Prayer in honor of my grandmother, but skipping the Affirmation of Faith. In exchange, I plan to say Kaddish for my grandmother and mark her yartzeit, even though she would have been uncomfortable with the thought of being honored in that way.
I understand that, much like the whole Christmas question, each person must find a balance. But the whole thing got me thinking about how I was going to navigate future funerals– especially those I was more intimately involved in planning. I would just be very curious to hear from others how they balanced their needs as a (Jewish) mourner with the beliefs and wishes of the deceased non-Jewish family members?
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