First I want to acknowledge with gratitude the outpouring of love and support for me and my family on the loss of my father. The journey through shiva gave me insight into a profoundly healing ritual that I had never fully experienced. The first time I sat shiva was for my infant daughter. The shiva minyanim morning and evening were important, but because we had two of her siblings in the hospital, we left the house every day to go visit them and focus on their needs. This time I experienced shiva in a form closer to its intended state. Except for the travel day between Minneapolis and Grand Rapids, I stayed in the home and stayed away from activities that would distract me from thinking about my father.
I talked about my father to Marisa and kept in touch by phone with my mother and sisters. I did some writing with my father in mind, created a slide show of pictures of my father, and watched it until I could do so without crying. I also sat or lay down doing nothing but thinking about him, stories he told, things we did together, and particularly how he handled the last week of his life.
The day my father died and the following day, the day of the funeral, I was an emotional wreck. The time I spent with my sisters and my mother, all grieving the loss of this person who meant so much to each of us, was enormously healing, and the time I spent in Grand Rapids with my community was comforting. In accordance with shiva customs, I didn’t get up to greet visitors. I waited until they came to greet me. I did that because even when I was in my home, I was not a host and didn’t want to act like one, which would have taken me out of the mental space of mourner.
Some people don’t know what to say to a mourner. For this reason, some visitors avoided me, not speaking to me until they were ready to leave, when they shared a few brief words of condolence, like “I’m sorry to hear about the loss of your father.” Other people said that or the words that Judaism supplies, “May God comfort you among all mourners of Zion and Jerusalem,” as they entered, but disengaged as soon as possible afterwards. There were times, especially at the shiva in Minneapolis, that I was sitting by myself just watching people come in and stand on the other side of the room from where I was sitting.
It is difficult for many people to talk about death. To speak about my father would stir up uncomfortable feelings either about their own parent’s death or about their own mortality. They may have projected those feelings onto me, thinking that I would be uncomfortable having to speak about my father. The most uncomfortable moments for me were when people engaged me in conversation that had nothing to do with my father or when they launched into some kind of sermon telling me what I should be feeling, thinking, or believing about my father’s soul.
I found great wisdom in the traditional approach to shiva, suggesting that visitors sit with the mourners in silence and let them open the conversation however they want. I wanted to talk about my father and when I found opportunities to share stories about him, it was a comfort to me. I was looking for the shiva visitors to provide me with an opening. More than anything, I wanted them to say very simply, “Tell me something about your father.” This, more than anything, is the enduring lesson I will take away from this shiva experience. Again, I am grateful to each one of you who called, visited, sent a note, made a donation, brought food, or spoke to me personally about the loss of my father.