I've walked the path of the seeker of a spiritual home for a long time. That path led me many places: from Zen Buddhism and Satanism to feminist witchcraft and Reform Judaism. Though I've found and created a path that feels like home, I'm grateful for everything I learned along the way.
Some of the most profound and beautiful teachings I received about grief were from mourning practices in Judaism. Since many of us may be moving in and out of grief for the pandemic, for the climate crisis and the hideous, unapologetic acts of genocide which were and continue to be committed, it seems fitting to share ways to be with our grief and to be with each other's grief.
In Judaism, there's a practice known as "sitting shiva". It's observed when someone very close to us dies. For seven days (the English translation of shiva), mourners wear dark clothing and either a torn piece of fabric or torn clothing as a physical marker of their anguish. Mirrors are covered, showers are brief, makeup, shaving and sex are avoided. Work is not done, likewise with listening to music or watching movies. Leather shoes are eschewed.
Mourners sit on low stools and community members visit, bringing food and sharing kind memories of the deceased. No one tries to cheer you up or make light of your pain. In shiva, there's an understanding that you may be too stunned to go to community, so community comes to you. Beyond that, it's a mitzvah, somewhere between a blessing and a responsibility to be generous to others, to rejoice with them and to be with them in loss.
For seven days, it's understood that you are in a liminal space, that your world has been shaken, so you are cared for. And on the seventh day, the mirrors are uncovered, your community helps you rise from the low seat, and bit by bit, you re-enter the world. There are prayers to be said at synagogue, and since some prayers can only be said with a minyan (10 or more Jewish adults), so even as you resume your responsibilities, community is holding you.
Part of the great beauty of sitting shiva is that it's a community and cultural norm. You don't have to ask for help when your world is upside down. No one has to feel awkward about wanting to reach out and help, but not knowing what to do. You show up. You bring food. You bring a story. Maybe you make a donation or do a mitzvah in the name of the deceased.
The next marker of grief is sheloshim, the 30 day mark from the time of loss. Further re-entry into the world. Then the unveiling of the headstone, the eleven months since the time of loss. And every year, the yahrzeit, the recognition of the death anniversary of a beloved.
Special prayers are said and a candle is lit-- a candle that must stay lit for at least 20 hours. There are teachings within Judaism about light and flames and souls and how they connect to the sacred.
In the early days of my business, I went through the breakup of a love relationship. I tried to power through, move ahead with client meetings and marketing plans, but everything tasted like sawdust, my eyes burned with tears and I couldn't focus on anything. After about a week of trying and failing to move past this deep pain, I decided to try the one thing I hadn't tried-- feeling it.
I decided to sit shiva for that relationship. I cancelled my work for the week, covered my mirrors and wore black. I spoke plainly to my friends about my heartbreak, let them know I was terrible company. They wanted to see me anyway. They listened. They held me. They made sure I ate.
And on the seventh day, I got up off the floor, uncovered the mirrors and gingerly headed in the direction of the outside world. I was not magically healed or saved, though there was magic and healing in the compassion and support I received. I don't believe in sanding down the rough edges of our lived experience to make for a more comforting narrative.
Grief has the power to temper us. It also has the power to break us-- to flood our nervous system with overwhelm and loneliness and devastation. Choosing to enter into grief practices can help us learn how to modulate our experiences with grief and it can teach us how to be present with others when grief takes them by surprise.
Within the Jewish framework of grief, there's an understanding that the loved ones we lose live on not just through the memories of those who knew them, but through good deeds. This is often why you'll see everything from hospital wings to library books donated in memoriam. What a beautiful thought, that our loved ones live on when we help others, when we make the world more just and peaceful.
In the times ahead, we will need to learn to wield the alchemy of grief. And so, if grief is wearing heavy on your heart and on your bones, maybe you sit for seven days letting it be heavy like wet denim after torrents of rain. Call it emotional wilderness training. Howl if you need to. Listen for who howls back. Maybe shiva is the medicine music that whistles you home to your heart.
"and I think of each life as a flower, as common as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth tending as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something precious to the earth.
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement. I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder if I have made of my life something particular, and real. I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened or full of argument
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world."
---"When Death Comes", by Mary Oliver