(Originally appeared July 2015 in Mixed and Matched column of the J-Weekly)
Recently a woman wrote to me about her first experience with death and shiva as a Jew. Here’s what she said:
I am a recent convert and a single mother. My sister died recently. When I got the news, I was paralyzed and didn’t know what to do. I had been told that once the word of my sister’s passing got out, people would flock to my door with food, comforting visits and offers to watch my child so I could have time to grieve, but nothing happened. I went to work and kept up with my housework. My rabbi offered to help, but I really didn’t know what to ask for. And actually, I’m not good at asking for help. It felt like people were pretty hands off. People did attend the service, but there was no food since we held the shiva at the temple. My shiva experience could have benefited from more support. What should I know for next time? — Still grieving
She is not alone. Anyone who is not securely embedded in their synagogue community could feel at sea when grief hits.
Please accept my sincere condolences for your loss. I absolutely understand your paralysis upon learning of your sister’s death. The process of shiva, shloshim and the first year of mourning were set up because the rabbis recognized that we cannot function at times of deep sorrow.
Being a recent convert does not solely explain your experience. This could happen to anyone who is new to Jewish communal life or is not well embedded in a Jewish community.
I did some research to get a better understanding of what is happening on the “other” side of the shiva question. I called several synagogues and asked what their process is. This is what I learned.
Upon learning of a death, the clergy makes a call to the bereaved. The rabbi is responsible for asking the mourner what is needed. The clergy arranges for shiva and for any assistance the mourners need — meals, rides, etc. Due to privacy concerns (in my opinion, this has been greatly and sadly inflated in our culture), the clergy says very little to the members. That means that you need to be specific about wanting congregants to be informed. Many, but not all, shuls send an email alerting members to a death. Sadly, what I see is that we have an American (private, autonomous, even secretive) approach to a Jewish process — mourning in community.
Mourners are best served if they have friends in the congregation who are not afraid to ignore those privacy barriers and show up to clean house, do laundry, bring food or just hold hands. It is a mitzvah to care for mourners, to bring them meals and to help around the home. Don’t hesitate to ask for people to fulfill this commandment.
I have heard from some people that they wanted to give their grieving friend “space.” Space for what? To be alone and miserable? Certainly, there are mourners who don’t want to see anyone, but I think your situation is more common. Most mourners don’t know what to ask for, don’t know what they need and want someone else to manage things. Sometimes the best thing that a friend can do is to come over and sit with the mourner, maybe take her or him for a walk to the end of the block and back.
Because we live among mortals and someone is bound to die, you need to be better prepared for future tragedies. You need to set things up so that this doesn’t happen again. I suggest that you make an appointment with your rabbi. Say up front that it is a bereavement conversation. Then tell him or her what you’ve told me and feel free to share what I’ve told you. Also, you need to become more connected with fellow congregants. Talk to the rabbi about how you can become more involved. Make time to deepen your friendships. Go out for coffee or invite someone over. Be honest and say that you need company as you recover from your loss.
You also need to tell your clergy that, for future reference, you aren’t good at asking for help and probably wouldn’t know what to ask for anyway. It is fine to say, “When the next time comes around, treat me as someone who is mute with grief and may need more than I’m able to express.” Tell clergy and friends what you would have liked to have received this past time and what you may need in the future. It will be good for you to say it out loud and for them to receive a concrete request from you.