The Purpose of Shiva

23 02 2010

My aunt did not have a shiva, and, while I’m not the best Jew around, I found myself really missing Shiva.  I went to lunch with a friend who asked me why we covered the mirrors, and I told her a lot about Shiva.  I realized that I hadn’t talked about Shiva here, so, while I’m on this death thing, I thought I would take a few minutes to tell you my thoughts on the subject.

We Jews put our dead in the ground almost immediately.  Generally, we bury our dead the day after they die.  In the old days, this made a lot of sense.  You don’t want a dead body in the heat of the desert to just lay around for a long time.  Of course, with the modern age on us, with embalming and refrigeration, the rush to get people in the ground is a matter of tradition rather than necessity.

So, when someone dies, and you’re wandering around numb, you do all the things you have to do.  You talk to the funeral director.  You check the various plots to see which one has the best view.  I don’t know why that’s important, but it is.  And, you have to see who else is buried around there.  I mean, your loved one is going to have them for neighbors for quite a long time, so, again, it’s important.

Then, the next day, we have the funeral, and we retire to the bereaved’s home where there is food and many many people.  We sit, and talk, and cry, and compare stories.  And we eat.  Eat and grieve.  Grieve and eat.  But, after hours and hours of close family and friends, eventually, naturally, the stories go from our loved one’s last days to earlier times, and, soon the stories end in peals of laughter.  After hours and hours, perhaps a deck of cards comes out, or a Mah Jongg set, and maybe some booze.  And then it’s a party.  Which is fine, but, eventually, it gets late, and people go home, and the bereaved remains, of course, in his or her home, where the emptiness of their loss, of course, revisits them.  Perhaps they sleep in the same bed they shared with their spouse, who is now gone; or perhaps they walk past their mom’s room on the way to their own, knowing that mom will never come home.  And what happens then?

Well, that’s the beauty of Shiva.  Shiva goes on for 7 days.  7 days when the bereaved isn’t supposed to worry about cooking or cleaning or washing or shaving their beard; when they are allowed to wallow in their misery.  But, in the morning, while they are aware of their profound loss, there’s a knock on the door, and it’s Aunt Lois or Uncle Dave, bringing prune danishes.  They come in and tut tut tut the bereaved out of the way and go to make some coffee.  Maybe, at some point, the bereaved gets out of their bathrobe; maybe they don’t.  But, soon, there’s a whole house full of people, all descending with food.  And maybe the bereaved wants to talk, and maybe they don’t, but eventually, the stories come out, and maybe Cousin Phyllis has brought an old photo album, and, in the subsequent hours, there is much talking and laughing, and, again, maybe there’s some cards or Scrabble or who knows?  And, the bereaved is surrounded by people who care about them.  The hours go by, and, soon, people, in dribs and drabs, start to leave, and, again, the bereaved is back in the house that they used to share with the loved one.  And once, again, they are left with their loss.  But, a few hours later, the whole thing starts again.  For seven days, the bereaved is surrounded by people, and, for seven days, the horrible emptiness in the bereaved’s heart is filled by their friends and family in the light of day, as the natural grieving process becomes less.

It is my thought that death beckons death.  When someone close to you dies, you don’t want to eat.  You don’t want to go outside.  All you want to do is sit and be miserable.  Maybe sleep.  Thousands of years ago, Jews recognized this, that all the telltale signs of clinical depression, come right after death; and that support groups work.  So, Shiva (which shares Hebrew letters with “sheva”, meaning 7) was put into place to help combat it.

And, at the end of the 7 days, you take the drapes off the mirrors.  You shower and shave and go out into the world again.  You’re not healed, but you’re healing.  And, when you leave your house, the Shiva house, you don’t walk into the cold cruel world alone, you walk into the warm embrace of your friends and family, who remind you that you’re not alone, and that there’s so much to keep living for.

We didn’t have a shiva for my aunt, and I really missed it; I just didn’t know why, until Carmen asked me about the mirrors.  Thank you, Carmen!




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