Jewish Social Skills: Death & Mourning

This afternoon and Wednesday I’m teaching my Intro classes about Jewish Death & Mourning. I am pretty sure that when they look at the syllabus, they are thinking about funerals, and they are mostly identified with (1) the dead person or (2) the mourners. That’s normal and human, to picture a topic with ourselves in the center.

My task as teacher is to teach them how to be members of a Jewish community that has mourners in it. True, sometimes they will be the mourners, and someday every one of us will be in that casket at center stage, but for most of our Jewish lives, we’re in the “mourner support” roles. And face it, that’s where the mitzvahs are.

Yes, it is a mitzvah to bury one’s dead. No doubt about that. But there are many other mitzvot that come under the general heading of “comforting the mourner,” most of which don’t sound like a modern idea of “comforting” at all. Here are ways we comfort the mourner:

  • Support our synagogue, so that there are clergy to assist mourners.
  • Support our local Jewish funeral home, so that Jewish mourners do not have the added stress of explaining everything.
  • Show up at funerals, even for people we barely know.
  • Show up at shiva, even if we are not “close” to the family.
  • Offer to babysit, run errands, wash dishes, answer the door during shiva.
  • Sit quietly with a mourner at shiva, just listening.
  • Refrain from telling mourners how they should feel “by now.”
  • Alert the rabbi if a mourner appears to be slipping into depression or otherwise in trouble.
  • Call or write weeks after the funeral, just to “check in.”
  • Say hello to mourners when we see them at synagogue.
  • Invite widows and widowers to events or to dinner in our homes.
  • Make sure that no mourner in our community feels abandoned.

The English word “comfort” in modern usage generally transmits an image of a pat on the back, accompanied by “there, there” or magical words of healing. Grief cannot be fixed by magical means. It can only happen in its own time. We can help by supporting, by being present to the mourner.

Those of us who have been mourners know how important this sort of support can be. Perhaps we received it; perhaps we didn’t. One route to self-healing is to take our sadly-won knowledge and turn it outward, making sure that the next mourner is not left to grieve alone.

Can I Go to Shiva Instead?

From the searches that brought people to this blog: “Can I go to shiva, instead of to the funeral?”

If you were to stop me on the street and ask me this question, I’d say, “Tell me more.” I am very curious about what’s behind the question. I’d buy you a cup of coffee and we’d chat.

However, I can imagine two possibilities:

(1) “I really cannot get off work but I want to comfort the mourners.” Sometimes we just can’t do everything we want to do. I’m so glad you want to comfort the mourners! It’s an important mitzvah, and you will certainly be performing that mitzvah if you attend shiva at the house. Don’t forget to give them a call a few weeks later, just to say hello and check in.

(2) “The funeral is at the cemetery and I hate cemeteries.” Well, let’s talk about this a bit. Are you so freaked out by cemeteries that you literally cannot enter one? Because if that is the case, perhaps I should offer you a referral to a good therapist. But if it’s dislike, let’s dig at that a bit: why do you dislike cemeteries? Cemeteries are uncomfortable for many of us because they remind us of our own mortality. It’s hard to avoid the thought that I am going to die someday, when I am standing by the grave of a friend. Jewish tradition tells us that our discomfort at that thought is a good thing: it can motivate us to live better lives, because we remember that our days are limited. If that’s the issue, and it isn’t at the level of a phobia, I’d be inclined to encourage you to grit your teeth and give it a try. Also, what if everyone gave in to discomfort and no one showed up? How would the family feel?

The funeral and shiva are not an either/or choice. They are actually two separate mitzvot. The funeral is levayat ha mayt [accompanying the dead] and it is the last good deed we can do for a friend. Attending shiva is nichum ahvaylim [comforting mourners] and while it also happens at the funeral, it really gets down to business at the shiva.

Mortality is a bummer. We are naturally inclined to think that we will live forever. However, that simply isn’t the case, and our tradition is clear that it isn’t good for us to entertain the fantasy of living forever. Getting in touch with our mortality, once in a while, is one way to truly appreciate the present.

How would you answer this person’s question? Have you ever been to a funeral that was very sparsely attended? Any other thoughts to share on this topic?

The Jewish Path of Grief

Kriah Ribbon: worn by a Jewish mourner to express grief
Kriah Ribbon: worn by a Jewish mourner to express grief

It is one of the great wisdoms of Jewish tradition that once the funeral is over, we do not leave mourners to their own devices.

Personally, in the initial stages of grief, I can’t sleep at all, I can’t eat, and I go back and forth between exhaustion and a wild desire to “get things done.” It’s awful. My web of relationships is torn, and I flail about, trying to get my bearings. Left to my own devices, I eventually go numb, a state that is interrupted for months by flashes of anger. Grief takes different forms in people, but at the bottom it’s all the same: we lose someone close to us, and we’re a mess.

Grief will not be denied. Fail to attend to it, and it will come get us later, at an even less convenient time.

This is why Jewish tradition gives us the practice of shiva. Shiva involves sitting down for a week to let the work of grief take place. It involves a certain lack of privacy, a lack that no one likes but that will ultimately speed along the work of grief. It involves letting people into my house to help, and allowing my Jewish community to organize on my behalf. It requires that I turn off my usual distractors (work, radio, TV) and feel the unbearable things I am feeling. If no feelings come, then I must sit with that absence of feeling: it’s all grief.

Shiva is something we do for one another. I take food to the home of a grieving person, knowing that she or someone like her will bring food to my home when the inevitable day comes that I must sit shiva. When I visit a shiva house, and see the mourner rushing around, trying to entertain, I say gently, “Let me take care of that” and begin greeting people at the door. A mourner is not a host, no matter how badly he wants to be anything but a mourner.

When I visit a shiva house, I arrive quietly, stay a while, speak gently to the mourner, perhaps leave some food, then move along quietly. It is not a party. I may check to see if there’s anything they need (groceries? errands? care for a pet?) but mostly I let them know that they are not abandoned by the rest of us and then I let them grieve. It is hard to let people grieve; we can’t fix it, and we mustn’t try.

Later they will need invitations to lunch, to Shabbat dinner, or to a movie. They will need distraction, after the first work of grief is done.

Eventually, we all take turns at all the roles: today’s mourner is tomorrow’s gentle helper. The person who brings food to this shiva house will be fed at some point in the future.

It is one of the great wisdoms of Jewish tradition that once the funeral is over, we do not leave mourners to their own devices.

Death and the Jew by Choice

How can a Jew mourn properly when his family is not Jewish? What about when the mourning traditions of the family involve things that a Jew would never do?

This is a situation that comes up eventually for most people who became Jewish as adults. Someone in the family of origin – the non-Jewish family – dies, and there’s no well-defined path for the Jew to follow. It came up for me a few years ago when my father died. My family is Catholic, and they observed Catholic and southern rituals for death: a “visitation” at the funeral home with the casket open, a funeral Mass, burial in the family plot with a priest in attendance, and a big meal featuring pork and shellfish and other treif afterwards.

In another family, there might be an expectation of cremation and scattering of ashes, or of ashes kept in an urn on the mantlepiece indefinitely. There might be a custom of no ritual at all. Other families may feel that an opulent casket and flowers are the way to show respect for the dead.

First of all, if you are reading this because you have suffered a recent loss, my condolences and sympathy are with you. The loss you feel may be made even worse by the awareness of this difference between your family and yourself. However, there are things to know that may help.

1. Call your rabbi for support and advice. The rabbi will want to know about your loss, and will want to support you in this time. You are not “less Jewish” because your family is non-Jewish: you are a Jew in pain, and your rabbi wants to know what’s going on with you. The fact that the person who died wasn’t Jewish is immaterial. You are a Jewish mourner, and you need the care of your rabbi and community.

2. Recognize that for the majority of your family, the customs they are used to are going to be the most comforting. “Viewings” and “visitations” are also a legitimate way to process loss and begin to grieve. It isn’t our custom to view a dead body, but for some people it is a way of showing respect. If you do not wish to participate in some aspect of the funeral process, you can simply skip that part, or participate minimally. At the funeral of a non-Jewish friend, I did not view the body, but I did visit the family at the funeral home. I simply hung back and did not go into the part of the room where the casket and body were displayed.

3. K’vod ha-met – respect for the dead – is a Jewish value.  By “going along” with funeral arrangements that aren’t in the Jewish tradition, you are honoring the wishes and traditions of the person who died. Making a fuss about the funeral because it does not conform with your present practice would not be respectful. At family meals, do not make a production of kashrut or other Jewish food practices – just take care of yourself and don’t eat anything you don’t want to eat. At the meal after my father’s funeral, I quietly asked in the kitchen if there were some fresh vegetables or fruit available.

4. Mourn as a Jew after the funeral. Jewish mourning practice really begins after the funeral (or in this case, after the customs of the non-Jewish family are observed, whatever they may be.) Call your rabbi or your synagogue and let them know that you will be sitting shiva. Sit shiva, and do it properly, especially after the death of a parent. What happens at shiva is not for the dead person. Shiva is for the mourner who needs to process the enormous change in their reality. Even if the relationship with the parent was not a happy one – especially in such a case! – mourning is necessary. Your Jewish community will show up for you, but they can’t do it unless you ask. The efficient way to ask is to call your rabbi or synagogue.

5. Ask for the help you need. If, reading this, you are thinking, “I wish I’d known that!” know that it is not too late to attend to old wounds. Make an appointment with your rabbi, or write an email, and tell him or her what feels unattended. It may be too late for shiva, but unfinished mourning is a genuine issue and the tradition has resources for that. If you see a pattern here of “ask your rabbi” and “seek out your community,” you are not mistaken. This sort of thing is one of the reasons that joining a comfortable synagogue or other Jewish community is a good idea for every Jew if it is at all possible.

6. Be gentle. If you go to a family funeral, and things do not go well either for you or with the family, know that all funerals are a difficult time. Be as gentle as you can be with yourself and with your fellow mourners. If you wind up eating something you normally would not eat, if you do something you would not ordinarily do because you don’t have the presence of mind to make a better choice, make teshuvah and leave it behind you.

Mourning is a difficult time. There is no easy way to do it. Our tradition offers tremendous resources for the mourner, if only we will make use of them.

Learn from the Best
Image by Tony Alter

Today I attended a funeral for a wonderful woman. It was sad, as all funerals are sad, but it was also a celebration, because Henrietta Garfinkle, or “Hank,” as her friends knew her, had been waiting for this day. She buried her great love, Vic, 18 months ago, and while she was not a person to grieve herself to death, she looked forward to spending eternity with him.

A lot of people avoid funerals. It’s too bad, because at the funeral of a mensch – a deeply good person – you can learn a lot about how to become a mensch yourself. We heard stories from Hank’s children, and her children’s spouses, about how she had been with them. We heard from her rabbi. And as is the case with Jewish funerals, they told the truth about her. That is actually a rule about a Jewish hesped, or eulogy: it has to be true, even when the truth is difficult.

I can’t remember everything that was said. What I know is that I left that funeral with a clearer idea of exactly the sort of mensch that Henrietta was, and that as a result, I know some new things about how to be a good Jew and a good person. I learn not only how the person was good, but I get a sense of what their challenges were in being a good person. This happens every time I attend a funeral.

So the next time you hear of a funeral in your congregation, consider attending. It is a mitzvah to attend a funeral, even if you didn’t know the person well. If they were part of your community, it is a mitzvah to go, period. If they were especially beloved in your community, be SURE to go, because it’s a great opportunity: you’re going to learn from the best.

Jews at a Christian Funeral: Some Thoughts

Recently I attended the Christian funeral of a man who had been an employee and friend of my congregation for many years. He was a good man and dearly loved, and I would make a rough guess that there were as many Jews in attendance at his funeral as Christians.

We were all there to remember and say goodbye to a good man, a man without whom the world is a poorer place. Two communities with very different beliefs joined together in grief and love to remember Jim. At the same time, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the many differences between Protestant and Jewish funerals.

The differences boiled down to two things: the handling of the body, and the beliefs about afterlife.

• THE BODY – At this Protestant Christian funeral, the body of the deceased was dressed in his best suit and embalmed for display at the service. This was a bit of a shock to Jews in attendance who are not accustomed to it. The Jewish thinking is that it is disrespectful to look at the dead, and disrespectful to disturb the body other than washing and dressing it. The Christian thinking, if I understand it correctly, is to honor the dead by making the body look as good as possible before laying it in the earth, to provide mourners with a last memory.

• BELIEF – At a Christian funeral, there is a firm belief that this person has gone on to another life with God in heaven. The service made reference to this again and again, and the minister admonished the congregation to get into a right relationship with God, so that when their time came, they too would go to heaven. At a Jewish funeral, on the other hand, there is little if any talk about afterlife. Jews have a variety of thoughts about what happens after death, but our focus is on this life. At a Jewish funeral there is more of a focus on grief and on the importance of memory.

What was the same was the human need to stop and pay respect to a loved one who had gone from this life. We may believe different things about the mysteries of life and death, but Christian and Jew, we were awed to stand on the brink of eternity to say our farewells.


How to Help a Jewish Mourner

standing shivah
standing shivah (Photo credit: glsims99)

At a time of trouble, good friends are apt to say, “Let me know if I can help.” However, the worse the disaster, the harder it is for the suffering person to articulate what they need. Here is a list of things you can offer to do for a Jewish mourner:

During shiva (the week following the funeral):

  • Bring food
  • Clean the kitchen
  • Pick up the children from  —
  • Assist with pet care
  • Run errands: grocery, dry cleaning, etc.
  • Make coffee or tea
  • Greet visitors at the door
  • Answer the phone
  • Make phone calls

After shiva is over:

  • Invite them to lunch or dinner
  • run errands
  • help with household chores
  • help with transportation for children, pets, or the mourner herself
  • invite them for part of Shabbat or a holiday
  • listen when they talk about the deceased or about their sorrows

Do not:

  • Tell them you know how they feel
  • Speculate about the afterlife
  • Tell them that they should get over it, or that they will get over it
  • Ask when they will be dating
  • Press them about anything that they don’t want to discuss
  • Ask for the belongings of the deceased

Mourners have been left behind by someone they loved. They may also feel abandoned by the living. You can help by including them in your life, and by making genuine, concrete offers of assistance at a difficult time.

A friend is a wonderful gift, but a friend who is willing to be present and help at a time of trouble is a treasure.