Minister’s Forum: Helping each other with loss
I am currently spending time with my father’s family, and at his side, as he passes his final days. All families cope with times of crisis differently, but the philosophies of coping with life’s ending in Judaism seem to be very well suited to human psychology. Since I am in the midst of thinking about such things, I will share some of Judaism’s more convincing insights.
Of course, before a person dies, all efforts must be focused on their health and comfort. As a person nears their end, their life and comfort always are of the utmost priority.
Similarly, after a person dies, but before her or his burial, Jewish traditions ask that we place the honoring of that person and the conforming to their pre-arranged wishes as the highest of priorities. While we may still deeply suffer from loss immediately following someone’s death, still their concerns come first until all the arrangements have been completed.
Once a person’s funeral has been completed, the family and Jewish community helps the closest mourners, immediate family members, go through the process of shiva — which means 7, and indicates the number of days which this first section of mourning lasts. During this time, mourners will allow themselves to be cared for by the non-mourners around them, and are encouraged to allow them to do so. The mourner will often not work, and dwell simply and without normal distractions. So community and family work to feed and care for the mourner at all times during this first week, not allowing them to be uncared for in any way. This creates an atmosphere of supportive care-taking that ideally helps a person move from dependence on someone who is not there, namely the recently deceased, to dependence on their reliable and caring living relatives.
This process continues in stages, recognizing that the 3 and 7 days immediately following a funeral are the most difficult, and continues in times of 30 days and then a year, when the formal process of mourning concludes, and mourners are encouraged to resume a totally normal schedule, that includes remembrances of their lost loved ones on the anniversary of their death, as well as on certain holidays that specify moments for commemoration.
This Jewish process, one that does not focus on the supernatural, but instead on the personal interdependence of people on both their lost relative and the living ones, and the movement from dwelling on loss to living with loss and coping with it, emphasizes the basic human need for family and community. As all of us face losses, I hope that these little pieces of Jewish experience might provide everyone some ideas about how best to care for each of us as we deal with loss and help others who are mourners as well.
– Jonathan Freirich is rabbi of Temple Bat Yam in South Lake Tahoe and the Valley Region Jewish Community.