How Jewish Death Rituals Help Guide Family Through Grief Death is a natural, permanent part of life. We are all effected by it. It is a powerful time when we lose someone we love. It can feel over whelming and heartbreaking. Dealing with death can be challenging for people. It is hard to know what to do and how to behave when such a profound event takes place. Recently I lost a close family friend. He was Jewish. I was in his family’s home during the first week of his death and then a month later. I learned how helpful the Jewish traditions can be to guide a family through the process of grief. I found that the age old traditions helped to soothe the family. It gave them some structure when everything felt like it was falling apart.
Shiva is a term in Hebrew that means seven, seven days of mourning for the first degree family members. It is a time when many specific traditions take place. It is time when the family in mourning stays home and receives visitors. Jewish families may wear torn garments of the loved one who passed away and cover the mirrors in their homes. The family will stay with the body until the burial has taken place and avoid bathing with warm water and men usually do not shave. Shiva involves all the family gathering in one home for the seven days and it is usually in the home of the deceased. Family and friends from the community bring food. People sit low on the ground, tell stories and cry. The Jewish community have prayers that they sing and foods that they eat during mourning. I was soothed by how much purpose and mindfulness takes place around the grieving process.
During the funeral family members are encouraged to rip a piece of clothing and pin it onto themselves. The torn clothe is worn on the right side of the chest, unless you are a parent of the deceased and then they wear it over their heart. This is called keriah, which means rending. Keriah is very therapeutic for mourners. It can show the pain they are suffering. They will continue to wear the ripped garment for the seven days of Shiva (Wahlhus, 2005).
When a family covers all the mirrors in the home during Shiva it is because family members are praying, and it is believed that no one should see a mirror while in pray. Also the mirrors are covered so that no vanity will distract the mourners (Enkin, 2013). It is a way to help the family keep their minds on the one they are praying for. With the beginning of Shiva the family in mourning is encouraged to withdraw into their home and into themselves. By turning the mirrors away they can reflect on their inner loss instead of the outside world. (Wahlhaus, 2005).
It is important that the family has the community’s help. The visitors take on role of hosts in the family’s home, by greeting and serving other visitors as they come and go. The community brings food and cleans the home. The family is not supposed to cook or clean during Shiva. The mourners sit on low stools or couches, many directly on the floor. This signifies how humble and low they feel, deep in their grief. When grieve is so heavy it changes people. The community comes forward and is expected to care for the family in pain (Wahlaus 2005).
From the burial all the way through the Shiva family members say a prayer called Kaddish. This is a declaration of God and does not talk about death. It is a way for the family to still have faith and let go. Both men and women can say the Kaddish. The prayer issaid in the morning and the evening, except on Sabbath, which is on a Friday. As the family comes out of the seven day Shiva they enter a new stage called Shloshim, which lasts for thirty days. During the Sholshim period the community is less involved. The family members are still encouraged to say the Kaddish prayer morning and night. Many mourners will stop after the month unless they are a parent and they are encouraged to continue the Kaddish for eleven months after the death (Wahlaus 2005). Losing someone that is very close to you can feel unbearable. From that moment on your life is forever altered. By witnessing and being a part of some of these Jewish traditions I greatly appreciated the respect that was given to the family in mourning. These rituals help the family themselves to remember to treat themselves carefully . The rituals and prayers create a special space of deep reverence. Death and grief are intertwined into all of our lives, and the Jewish culture make space and time to process such a dramatic event.
Rabbi Ari Enkin, About.com,( 2013). About Judiasm. (2013, 11, 03) Ask a Rabbi. http://judaism.about.com/od/deathmourni2/f/mirrors.htm?r=et
Wahlhaus, E. (2005, spring). The psychological Benefit of traditional Jewish Morning Rituals: have the progressive movement enhanced or diminished them. European Judaism, 38 (1), 95-109. Retrieved at firstname.lastname@example.org