By Rev. Sarah York
My husband, Chuck received the news of his son’s death on a Sunday night. After keeping some appointments on Monday morning, he caught the first available flight to North Carolina. I met him there on Tuesday evening, the funeral was Wednesday, and we took a flight back home on Thursday. Chuck missed four days of work.
That’s about as much time as most people are allotted for grief in our Western culture: three days to a week. Time to “make arrangements” for a funeral or remembrance ritual and time to gather for what author Lynn Caine calls “the great memorial cocktail party.” Then it is expected that they will reenter the world of the living and “get back to normal.” From there, they will deal with their grief privately – certainly not on company time.
Jewish tradition is an exception and offers an exemplary model for creating a calendar for moving through the stages of grief. Recognizing that people grieve much longer than three days, Judaism provides a community context for grief through time-tested practices and rituals. Those of us who are not Jewish will not derive the same meaning from traditional rituals when we appropriate them out of context, but we can certainly draw from the wisdom and practice that mark stages of grieving and create a community consciousness of the needs of those who grieve.
From the moment of death to the completion of burial, the focus of Jewish rituals is on showing respect for the dead. When burial is completed, those gathered at the grave form parallel lines facing one another, and the mourners walk through this corridor of comfort. As they walk by, others recite the Hebrew words Ha’makom yenachem et’chem b’toch she’ar avelei tziyon vi’Yerushalayim, “May the Lord comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” This begins the formal period of mourning.
Jewish tradition recognizes five stages of mourning for which there are prescribed rituals. Only members of the immediate family are the mourners by obligation, but others may participate in the rituals of mourning as well.
1. Between death and burial. During this intense time of despair, the mourners do not receive visitors. The first full meal that they eat upon returning from the burial is called the meal of condolence. It is important that the meal is prepared by friends, not by the mourners, and conversation is discouraged while the meal is shared.
2. The first three days following burial. This is a time designated for weeping and lamentation; the mourners stay home.
3. The first seven days following burial. Called shiva, this is a time for receiving visitors. (This week includes the first three days, but visiting is discouraged during the first few days.) A candle or oil lamp is lit in each household where shiva is observed and kept burning for the entire seven days.
4. The first thirty days following burial (includes shiva). Mourners are encouraged to leave the house during this time and slowly rejoin society, avoiding events such as parties or entertainment.
5. Twelve months after death. During the next eleven months, life returns to its normal routines, but it is understood that the mourner is still wounded by the rupture of relationship that has resulted from death.
Yahrzeit marks the anniversary of the date of death. A ceremony to unveil the gravestone is conducted by or before this date.
During the periods of mourning, particularly the first thirty days, the mourners observe customs with regard to their clothing, personal habits, and religious practice. Of course, what people actually do varies according to their personal needs, the practices in their local religious community, and their level of adherence to Orthodoxy.
American culture would do well to incorporate the wisdom of Jewish practice into rites of death. Consider first the contrast between the traditional “wake” and the Jewish practice of “sitting shiva.” A typical formal visitation period in American custom occurs prior to the memorial or funeral and lasts about two hours. It is a consolation blitz that serves more to exhaust many people than to comfort them. Their wounds are fresh, but they are expected to “hold up” through this time. If they manage to get through this occasion shedding only a few token tears, they are described as “doing well.” Many take tranquilizers just to “get through it.” By postponing shiva until after burial and marking a full week for visitation, Jewish practice provides a more sensible and sensitive context for offering comfort.
To keep a candle or oil lamp burning night and day for a full week is a simple ritual that says this time is set aside for grieving. Likewise, practices with regard to personal appearance, posture and recitation of prayers all say I am different now because I grieve.
For those who lack the community context for marking the stages with ritual, it is certainly more difficult to set aside this kind of time. It is possible, however, to create ways to say the same thing. It is a traditional but out-of-favor custom to hang a wreath on the front door of a house where there has been a death in the family. The wreath is a way to say that the door is open to visitors. The custom of wearing black for a designated period (then gray, then mauve) has all but disappeared, but that, too, was a way of reminding people that someone in the stages of grief is in need of special caring. I know of a woman who purchased a particular piece of jewelry after her husband’s death and designated it her “mourning pin.” She told her family, close friends and a few coworkers that this was her way of marking the first month as a widow. She felt that both their awareness and her own helped her through these painful days. She also wore her “mourning pin” on occasions throughout the year when she felt particularly vulnerable.
The occasions when a grieving person feels most vulnerable provide opportunities for the healing power of ritual. During the first year after a death, each birthday, anniversary and holiday is a painful reminder of absence and loss. These occasions are also opportunities to create rituals of remembrance and mark milestones of memory.
• The Art of Losing
• The Purpose of Grief and Mourning
Also by Sarah York:
• Giving Sorrow Words
• Creating a Caring Space through Prayer
• Creating Inner Space through Prayer or Meditation
Sarah York is an author and Unitarian Universalist minister. Her book Remembering Well: Rituals for Celebrating Life and Mourning Death, now available in a new paperback edition, speaks to people who do not want a religious or spiritual context for ritual as well as those who do. The book received outstanding reviews from numerous publications, including Publishers Weekly, USA Today, The Washington Post, and the American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Care. Ms. York is semi-retired and is available as a keynote speaker and workshop presenter on topics related to her books.
Image: Flickr Creative Commons / TheLizardQueen