Shivah needs deco­rum

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - COM­MENT ANONY­MOUS

THE ROOM was full of peo­ple, their voices in­creas­ing in vol­ume as each per­son sought to make him- or her­self heard above the noise. I gazed up at the sea of faces, snatches of con­ver­sa­tion wash­ing over me — hol­i­days, wed­dings, a burst of laugh­ter that struck me like a punch in the gut.

It had been less than 24 hours since my mother died in the next room, fi­nally suc­cumb­ing to a cruel dis­ease that had caused her years of suf­fer­ing. And yet, here we were, her sur­viv­ing chil­dren on our first night of shivah, sit­ting in an at­mos­phere in­creas­ingly re­sem­bling a so­cial gath­er­ing.

As peo­ple chat­ted and the noise lev­els rose, I felt an urge to scream; to si­lence the chat­ter with a heart­felt plea for deco­rum and re­spect.

How can you talk of hol­i­days and wed­dings and the daily mun­dan­i­ties of life, I wanted to cry out, when the im­print of my mother’s once warm body still lies on her bed-sheet and our lives are up­ended in grief?

Vis­i­tors who come to a mourn­ers’ house do so with the right in­ten­tions. But too of­ten we lose fo­cus about why we are re­ally there. In­stead, this most won­der­ful rit­ual pe­riod of mourn­ing which ex­ists to shel­ter and of­fer com­fort to those who have lost loved ones, is at times hi­jacked by a flood of peo­ple — al­beit all well-in­ten­tioned — who have lost sight of the orig­i­nal pur­pose.

Justafew­months­be­fore­my­own mother died, I vis­ited an ul­tra-reli­gious shivah house so quiet and re­spect­ful, you could hear the rain fall­ing against the win­dows. Vis­i­tors wished the mourn­ers long life, shared a mem­ory of the de­ceased, then left within ten min­utes of their ar­rival. Alas, this type of shivah eti­quette is fast be­com­ing a lost art.

Com­fort at a busy shivah house such as ours came in the small­est yet most sig­nif­i­cant of ways; in the quiet con­tem­pla­tion dur­ing dav­en­ing when the deco­rum was at its best; in the shep­herds’ pies, pasta bakes, fruit plat­ters and count­less other dishes de­liv­ered by thought­ful friends and rel­a­tives which nour­ished us from the in­side out; in the re­call of sto­ries and mem­o­ries of our mother that we savoured and cher­ished. Com­fort came with­out words, too; in a heart­felt look, or a gen­tle squeeze of the shoul­der.

Even a sim­ple recita­tion of the shivah bless­ing — Hamokom Ye­nachem — was enough, the beauty of those words lin­ger­ing long af­ter the vis­i­tor had left, wrap­ping them­selves around us like a com­fort­ing em­brace. Con­trary to what some think, com­fort doesn’t have to mean stay­ing a long time, nor does it re­quire turn­ing up on the first few — of­ten busiest — nights.

In the first days af­ter a loss, it is as if your skin is un­peeled and you are at your most vul­ner­a­ble and raw. If the de­ceased was ill, as in the case of my mother, it is also likely you are emo­tion­ally and phys­i­cally ex­hausted from weeks and months of worry and care.

You don’t have the strength to en­gage in long con­ver­sa­tions or even a long stream of short ones but, some­how, in the scrum of well-mean­ing well-wish­ers, this is for­got­ten and shivah be­comes more about en­durance than com­fort.

In the past, I have been guilty of all th­ese crimes. I have turned up to shivah houses, grav­i­tat­ing to friends on ar­rival and mind­lessly catch­ing up on news be­fore talk­ing to the mourn­ers for a good 15 min­utes at least. How shame­ful that I had to sit my own shivah to learn a les­son. I only hope we pass th­ese sim­ple learn­ings on to our chil­dren be­fore they find out for them­selves.

Af­ter that trau­matic first night of shivah, I asked that deco­rum no­tices be posted on the win­dows and doors, a mes­sage needed to be spelt out. A life was lived here. A life is mourned here. This is what shivah is about.

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