One of the things I learned at the Moving Traditions training conference was that no matter how much time I spent familiarizing myself with the curriculum, adapting activities for my group, and purchasing supplies, there would be instances when I’d need to scrap my plans and go off-script for the girls.
One of those times occurred last month. I had secured a host for my Rosh Hodesh meeting and was starting to plan out the session’s activities. The girls in my group requested a session on body image because they really enjoyed watching the Dove Evolution video and cutting photoshopped images out of magazines last year. I planned activities to continue that conversation.
Then right as I was about to send out the meeting confirmation, I got an email from Alicia (name changed), the host mom for the month. She wrote that one of the girls in my group, Emily had just lost her grandfather and that Emily’s parents, Anna and Eric were hosting a shiva at their home on the same date and time as our next scheduled Rosh Hodesh meeting. After a few back and forth emails with Alicia, Eric, and my synagogue supervisor, I decided to repurpose our Rosh Hodesh meeting as a shiva call. This way, I told parents, the girls would have the educational experience of attending shiva and Emily would have her Rosh Hodesh friends there supporting her through a sad and difficult time.
I asked everyone to meet me at a coffee shop in walking distance of Emily’s house for a quick pre-shiva chat. We pulled a bunch of small tables and chairs together in the cafe. Over Caramel Mocha Frappuccinos and hot chocolates, we talked about the shiva practice and rituals, common discomfort people feel when attending shiva, and what we might do and say to support Emily during her grieving process. At the end of this post I’ve included the notes I prepared for the conversation.
Some of the common questions were:
- Is it okay to have side conversations with people other than Emily and her family?
- What can I say other than “I’m sorry for your loss?” It seems wrong to apologize.
- Am I wearing the right thing?
- Is it appropriate to ask Emily to share a story about her grandfather? Wouldn’t that make her more sad?
This conversation provided catharsis for the girls who had previously attended a shiva for a family member. These participants shared how sad it was to lose someone they loved, especially when they were not expecting it and how nice and comforting it was to have family and friends surrounding them. One girl shared curiosity about why she had not cried at her grandmother’s funeral. Another reflected on all of the things she wished she could have said to her grandparent. I also told the girls about my grandmother’s recent death and how for me, my friends’ and relatives’ presence at shiva was meaningful in itself. That saying, “I don’t know what to say, but I’m here for you” was more than enough.
We walked together over to the shiva, and were warmly welcomed by Anna and Eric at the door. Emily was thrilled to see her Rosh Hodesh friends and came to say hello immediately. Leaving the girls to spend time with one another, I had some lovely conversations with Emily’s parents as well as other Rosh Hodesh parents (and prospective Rosh Hodesh participants’ parents).
I’ve spent time over the past year writing new curriculum sessions aimed to help teens develop empathy, practice vulnerability, and foster healthy friendships. The sessions I’ve written were informed by research, reviewed by a team of very intelligent women and girls, and they’re being pilot tested. However, as good as the curriculum is and as talented as the group leaders who use it are, the real, lasting magic of Rosh Hodesh exists in moments when girls apply what they learned in their group to their own lives. Shiva at Emily’s house was a rare occurrence of Rosh Hodesh and life coming together. I was so impressed, seeing the girls with Emily. Many adults find it difficult and uncomfortable to be with a friend who has experienced loss and here, six tweens were navigating the experience admirably: being vulnerable, listening and supporting one another, and all within a Jewish framework. I couldn’t have written a better session.
As Emily’s mom said at the end of the night, “Best Rosh Hodesh ever!”
Notes from Session:
Ask the group what they know about Jewish mourning customs.
What is Shiva? What is the purpose.
- Shivah is the seven-day period following burial when mourners stay inside, reflect on the life of the person who died, pray, and grieve. (comes from same root as shevah Shiva means “seven.”)
- Designed to make sure mourners have time and space to grieve away from routine.
- On the fourth day of shiva, mourners emerge from the stage of intense grief to a new phase of grieving in which they are more prepared to talk about their loss and accept comfort from friends and neighbors.
- Primary purpose is to create an environment of comfort and community for mourners; it helps guide friends and family members through the loss of a loved one. Throughout the weeklong shiva period come together in one family’s home to offer their condolences and support.
- It is a mitzvah to visit the house of a mourner. (Nichum Aveilim)
- The shiva process and practices associated with Jewish mourning add structure to the life of a mourner following a death. In the period after suffering a loss, a mourner may be comforted by the structure and routines prescribed by traditional Jewish mourning laws.
What are the customs?
Jewish mourning customs vary from family to family. Here are some of the customs we may see tonight:
- Mourner stays home; shiva is usually held at the home of the person who died or the home of an immediate family member. Mourners stay inside to reflect on the life of the person who died.
- Mourners sit on low stools – symbolizes humility and pain of mourner being “brought low” by the loss of a loved one.
- Wear a torn garment (oftentimes a ribbon) – symbolizes a “torn heart”
- Refrain from bathing, shaving, and grooming
- Cover mirrors – many explanations. Most widely heard is that mourners should not be concerned with their physical appearance during shiva
- Recite the kaddish – Upon reading the Mourner’s Kaddish in English for the first time, many people are surprised to find that it does not mention death. The Kaddish is actually an affirmation of the holiness (kedushah) of God and an expression of the hope that we will live to see the day when all the earth is filled with holiness and peace. Jewish tradition teaches us to affirm the goodness of life even at those times when we feel painfully sad. It is customary in most communities to recite the Kaddish for a close family member for thirty days and for a parent for eleven months after he or she died and every year thereafter on their yahrzeit.
- Burning a seven day candle – a time-keeper, and a symbolic memorial to the deceased in keeping with the biblical sentiment, “the flame of God is the soul of man.” (Proverbs 20:27)
What to do when visiting a mourner’s house?
- Most mourners keep their doors unlocked. The custom is to enter quietly without knocking or ringing the doorbell.
- Allow mourners to start the conversation.
- Your presence alone at the time of someone’s grief conveys your support and caring.
- What to say? There are no “right words.” Grief is a process that is real and difficult and that takes time. Be patient and supportive of emotional release (allow mourners to cry).
You do not need to offer reassurance. Invite the mourner to share feelings and memories, or express needs: “Tell me about ________.” “Tell me what ___ was really like.” “What is this is like for you?” “How can I help?” It is best to take your lead from the mourners. Find out from them if they want to share stories about their loved ones. Psychological research shows that mourners usually do want to talk about their loss.
- What not to say? Do not tell mourners not to cry. Do not try to distract mourner from thinking about their loved one. Let them set the pace and tone of the conversation. Conversations during shiva are not designed to distract the bereaved but to encourage the mourner to speak of the deceased
- What to bring? Oftentimes community members come together to organize the delivery of meals. For instance, we have organized a platter from hummus to be delivered.
What you might hear:
The traditional greeting offered to mourners is
HaMakom y’nachem etkhem b’tokh sh’ar a’vaylay Tzion v’Y’rushalayim,
“May God comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”
Also: “shelo ted’u od tza’ar,” – “that you should know no further sorrow”
In this blessing, God is referred to by a specific and little-known name, “Ha’makom,” which translates simply as “The Place.” God is referred to as “place” because space affirms stability, solid ground, rootedness—the opposite of ethereal. A “space” term is used instead of a “time” term such as the Tetragrammaton–the four-letter word for God’s name, which signifies eternity—because mourners need to inhabit the here and now.
Remembering the Teachings of Our Loved Ones
When we speak of a person who has died, it is customary to say zih. ronah livrah. ah (may her memory be a blessing) or zih. rono livrah. ah (may his memory be for a blessing) after her or his name. When we keep a loved person’s memory alive by recalling what they have taught us, their memory is indeed a blessing.
Giving Tzedakah (charity)
It is customary to contribute to a charitable cause in a loved one’s honor on his or her yahrzeit. This practice is another way to make someone’s memory a blessing.
Categories: Jen’s Blog