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Chapter Eleven:
The Door is Partly Ajar: the Shiva Visit

The sounds from within are intimidating. This is the moment we dread — walking though the door to pay a shiva visit.

Before we even enter we ask ourselves, where should I sit? If I sit too close does it mean I'll have to be more involved and talk more, or should I sit in the back? But if I sit in the back will they notice I was here? How long should I stay? How should I act? Should I tell some stories about the deceased? Would that make it more difficult for them? Should I say something amusing to get their minds off things? Talk about politics or a shared interest? What if I just sit quietly in a corner? That way I'll be here but I won't do or say anything that I'll regret later." Can I eat?"

All these questions go though our minds as we walk though that door. Visiting the bereaved is difficult, particularly if the person died young. Is this because we fear the knowledge of our own mortality? Are we afraid as we discussed before that death might be catching? Whatever the reason, we are unsure about how the mourners are "taking it" and how to relate to them during the visit.

All religions and social orders have death and mourning rites. In some ancient societies, servants were "volunteered" to be buried alive with the king since it was believed that the kings needed servants to help them in the world beyond. It was so common for survivors to injure themselves as a sign of respect, that the Torah specifically forbade this. Instead, we have the present of shiva: Seven days in which we do nothing except work through our loss, to help us deal with the fact that a loved one has departed.

What is the purpose of the shiva visit? Talmudic sages wrote that when someone visits a sick person he takes away 1/60 of the illness. How? Are the visitors doctors? Does the Talmud ask us all to be medical professionals? No, but more and more medical research points to the psychological aspects of healing. When a person (even if he is in pain) is given some measure of comfort, of care, his heart rate stabilizes and he breathes more easily.

You do not need a degree in social work or psychology to make a shiva visit and/or help someone in mourning. What you do need is an ear, patience to listen, and love to give. You need to be able to examine your own fears and to be careful not to project them on to the mourner.

Do You Feel Uncomfortable?

All of us try to avoid situations that make us uncomfortable. This is particularly true of the approach to death in the Western world. For instance, as we discussed in chapter 1, a phrase like, "Susan lost her husband" is equivical— does it mean he will be found? Did he have Alzheimer's and cant remember? Or "David is no longer with us" — with whom is he? Some phrases at least try to confront the issue. "Simon passed on" is an acknowledgment that a certain transition took place, by which Simon has moved on to a different type of existence. Of course, if you do not believe in an afterworld, then death is far more difficult to accept, whether that of a loved one or your own.

These phrases are there to protect us, to put up a barrier against our own fears because we cannot even talk about mortality without some discomfort.

Fear of death often expresses itself by the avoidance of people who have been "contaminated" by close contact with death.

My mother related a disturbing incident that occurred after her second husband died, "About two weeks after David died, I was walking downtown and noticed a friend of mine coming toward me. He saw me but didn't realize that I had seen him as well. He quickly crossed the street, becoming very absorbed in the store windows. He only turned around when I was well past him." My mother was certain that the only reason he behaved like that was because he didn't know what to say to her.

In a similar vein Shifra related the following, "A childhood friend who I hadn't been in touch with since a teenager, called me from the US to express condolences after my father died a year and a half ago. I was dimly aware that she had disappeared from my life at some point, but never knew why. Now, close to 35 years later, she apologized and explained that she disappeared when my mother had died, when I was 17 because she didn't know what to say!"

Janet's experience shows how this discomfort can be expressed in a different way, "Ten days after my father's death I returned to work a day earlier. People greeted me as they had before my father died: 'Hi Janet, did you see the vacation schedule at work?' Only a few asked how I was getting along. Most would not even look me in the eye."

Many people are embarrassed to show a need to hold, to comfort and, yes, to be comforted. They view, as proof of weakness, the fact that they can't react to tragedy with the strength that overcomes all odds, that is displayed by stars of disaster movies. (...The camera moves in on our hero [low angle shot] against a backdrop of destruction, smoke, rising flames. . . Our hero has a number of wounds that he bears stoically, with no signs of emotion on his face. The overhead formation of fighter planes flies by; the music reaches a crescendo, and down goes the curtain!) Do I exaggerate? Not by much.


But what if you don't know what to say?

The best advice I heard about this issue came from Rebecca Weinberger of Kids4Kids, "If a person doesn't know what to say...say absolutely nothing, just sit there. Small talk doesn't really belong at all; it belittles the memory of the deceased and the feelings of the bereaved."

However, most people become uncomfortable during a period of silence during a shiva visit. Eventually someone feels the need to break the silence and asks a benign question. Most of us are simply not at ease with silence. But there is nothing wrong with silence itself. The mourners may be thinking about something mentioned or recalling some memory evoked by something that was said. We must remember that it is we who are uncomfortable with the silence.

At times I have sat with someone for 5 minutes or longer without saying one word. Then the person, with a warm smile will thank me for being there.

What do You do if You didn't really Know the Deceased?

First of all let's agree that we would all rather do almost anything other than making a shiva visit. Certainly we'd rather be reading a good book, watching the sports channel, even doing the breakfast dishes. Making a shiva call is a chore to most of us. Like a visit to a dentist, it is something we have to do, something we know is the right thing to do, but something we want to put behind us as soon as possible.

What makes it even more awkward is that we make most shiva calls because the people sitting shiva are acquaintances — a colleague from work perhaps, or a neighbor. We may have never even met the deceased. These are the visits we dread. We look for excuses not to go; usually a spouse or a parent has to nag us into it and agree to go along with us. When we finally go, it is on the condition that we "make it as short as possible."

In such a case, it is hard to find anything to say during the shiva visit, so we sit in the back of the room, listen for a few minutes to the talk and try to find an easy way make a quick getaway. We look at the door and breathe a sigh of relief when a new group comes in, feeling that we now have a legitimate reason to leave. (We have to make way for the next group of people, right?)

When we finally leave the shiva house it is with a feeling of both relief and depression. We wonder if the bereaved even noticed our presence — or when we left. Was the whole big effort we made a complete waste of time? Did it really make a difference that we were there?

I have news for you: they notice, and it does make a difference — and anyone who has ever sat shiva can confirm this.

After my father-in-law passed away I remember how the main subject of conversation at my mother-in-law's apartment was who came, who didn't, and do you know who came twice? Even in the midst of her grief, my mother-in-law was able to tell me who came to the funeral — and even more important — who didn't.

One of the main consolations at a shiva is: "Look how many people came to pay their respects." Attending the funeral and making a shiva call are very important ways of showing the bereaved that his loved one meant something. This is true even when we are only vaguely acquainted with the deceased and are just making a shiva call because we feel obliged to for business or social reasons.

I remember visiting an acquaintance who was sitting shiva for his father, a former politician. The only time I'd ever met his father was when he came to talk at my university many years earlier. After his speech I'd gone up to him and begun to argue with him about certain policies he advocated. The argument went on for about 10 minutes. The conversation remained in my memory specifically because he hadn't talked down to me, and while he told me I was wrong, he had not de-legitimatized my views. I debated bringing this incident up at the shiva. After all, who would be interested in a conversation that took place 30 years before? Despite my reservations I found a quiet moment to talk to his widow. I told her that although she has no idea who I am, I wanted to share a memory about a moment when our lives touched. Two months later I received a beautiful letter from her telling me how much her husband used to love arguing with "youngsters", and how much pleasure it had given him. She had forgotten all about that aspect of his personality until I brought it up — and was grateful.

Each person contributes a different color or pattern to the tapestry of our lives and memories, and the more participants there are, the richer that tapestry will be. People want to hear stories about the one they lost.

When Danny's brother Jacob was killed in the army, Danny stressed the importance of having that part of his brother's life revealed to him. He only knew certain facets of his brother's life - facts that most brothers know about each other. What he wanted to do after the army. Favorite foods and the problem with his latest girl friend. After his brother's death he discovered a whole world he had not been a part of. From his brother's army mates he learned how respected he had been by his friends and commanders. How he would use his humor to encourage others when thing were getting a bit difficult. He learned how his commanders had recommended him for officers' school. His brother's high school classmates gave the family a small notebook containing pictures they had never seen before, together with quotes by his friends and even some of his teachers, noting what they liked best about him and what they would always remember about him. The book was not fancy and some of the pictures were a bit dog-eared, but the family treasured that book more then anything else. During the last days of the shiva they showed the book to whoever entered, saying, "We never knew this about Jacob..."

Even if you never met the grieving family members, it means a lot to them if you just take a moment to get down to eye level (remember, during shiva, the mourners sit on low stools) and tell them who you are and that you felt you had to come and share in their grief. Shifra related, "My friend Paula's cousin, who lived in the same community as my father, came to pay a shiva call, even though she had never met me or my father — and it meant so much."

Two women were killed in Efrat in a drive-by terrorist shooting. I vaguely knew the family of one of the women, so it wasn't very difficult to make conversation and get to know the relatives who came from abroad. The other victim was a young woman whom I'd never met. I had the choice of sitting in the back of the room, eating a few almonds and drinking some warm cola, or talking to the family. Pushing myself, I took a seat next to her brother and quietly introduced myself when there was a lull in the conversation," I didn't have the honor of knowing your sister. Would you please tell me a bit about her?" He began to talk, crying or smiling, depending on the memory he was sharing.

Many of those sitting nearby whom also had never met her, leaned forward, captivated by this description of a person none of us would ever have the pleasure of meeting. His father, after quietly listening for a while, joined in on one of those "Do you remember...?" trains of thought. A short time later, I got up to leave. As we hugged goodbye, I felt richer for having shared, even for a few minutes, in their memories of a wonderful sister/daughter. For that short time she had been back in the room with those who loved her most. For that short time she had again been alive to those who really cared.

Shiva gives the mourner time to learn about the one he loved. Adding to this knowledge will not make the mourner more miserable, as some may think. On the contrary, it will deepen his love and appreciation for what he had. It is comforting to know that the loved one touched many lives and was in turn loved by so many. Each of us can contribute to the creation of a memorial that will last as long as our memories.

This is the essence of the shiva