Shivah needs decorum
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.