There is something uniquely beautiful about a house of Shiva. To review: Shiva is the seven day mourning period Jews observe that begins with the day of the funeral. Based on the people a Cohen may bury, we understand that people sit shiva for their parents, their spouse, their children, and their siblings.
During those seven days there are both negative and positive commandments. People sit on low stools, they remain in the house, they do not shave, they refrain from marital relations. Also during that time people come to the house to visit and pray. Family often gathers together to remember their loved one and to comfort one another. Sometimes a house of Shiva has the feel of a family reunion as young cousins run around together and older relatives catch up, talk, and hang out. That sense of togetherness, even when focused on topics other than the loss, is itself a source of comfort.
The beauty of Shiva starts from these practices. It invites the family to create space for their mourning. The sorrow and feelings of loss aren’t forced into a day or two, or a single ceremony. Instead, there is time for feelings to ebb and flow and find expression in stories, in hugs, and in distracting moments with family. The rituals of Shiva also intentionally create a different kind of time, a break from reality, that postpones some of the emptiness that emerges from a return to a routine that includes beloved absence.
The visitors in a Shiva house are sacred witnesses. They do something very counter cultural: they wait and they listen. Emulating Job’s friends, the visitors wait for the mourner to speak. That interaction instructs the visitors on how best to offer comfort. I have seen mourners who needed me to listen, who needed me to tell stories, who needed me to just sit quietly with them. As a visitor, I wait to be taught by the mourner.
A person may bring food into the house of Shiva, but not out. This mitzvah inspires several acts. First, it encourages the visitors to host the family in their own home. It makes the home a gathering place in which visitors linger even after the service. That fills the home with people, adding to memories of loss and grief, warmth and comfort. By creating a space for mourning, Shiva paradoxically reclaims the house for living.
Finally, the stories I hear in a house of Shiva have a marvelous quality. Even the closest relatives often learn new facets of their loved ones. Especially in these days, when people often live so far from family, Shiva is a chance to learn about the relative of a dear friend and about that person’s upbringing and early life. There is an intimacy to the encounter that supports community and friendship.
Shiva does have its challenges. Being seven days in one’s home with visitors and family can be overwhelming. It is intentionally a relief when it is over. I believe the practice has great wisdom in filling our time and effort to carry us through those most intense days of loss and grieving.
By the same token, it can be especially hard for those who are more private. I also notice sometimes that people who have lost someone due to dementia, a stroke, or some long term illness that impacted cognitive ability, have already gone through much of the mourning and loss. Sometimes there are feelings of relief after someone has died simply because of the burden of caring. Such feelings are all normal and can be carried into a house of Shiva. In such instances, I see people abbreviating the Shiva or using the shul as the space for prayer.
I pray that all of us are kept away from loss, and that when we do experience loss we will find these rituals here to hold us, to comfort us, and to carry us back in to living.
Rabbi David Booth