Shivah, Memory, and the Lessons of Grief

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, January 13, 2022 / 20 Tevet 5783

Reading Time: Four minutes

This past week, I have been sitting shivah for my mother. It’s been a time filled with family, heightened emotion, and learning. One gleaning worth sharing is my recognition of what it means to hold shivah in a place where the deceased lived and was known versus shivah where the bereaved live. This is an important topic in a city like Portland where our CNS community is composed of multigenerational families as well as many transplants, such as my own family.

When we attend a shivah and support a transplanted family, what often happens is that the bereaved become primarily responsible for narrating stories about their deceased because the community didn’t know the person who has died. For some, this is just fine as they feel capable of overcoming the emotion of loss in order to talk about their loss and to paint a picture for the rest of us. As valuable as this is, the mourner also loses out on one of the healing pieces of shivah, which resides in the stories other people tell us about our loved one. Going back to New York was precious to me because people I had not seen in years or decades approached me to mention how much my mother meant to them. I recall the same experience when my father died—so many of his work colleagues who I never really knew filled in gaps in my understanding. These reminiscences created a much richer image of who Dad was.

I don’t have easy answers for how to address this important part of the mourning process for those of us who are transplants, particularly if our relatives were unable to travel or develop relationships in Portland. My mother was much better known at my first and second pulpits because she was younger and spent more time in each of those communities. The messages from those who did know her give her existence a sense of solidity now when her very existence is called into question. What has been particularly comforting is to reminisce with old friends who knew both Mom and me. My freshman roommate from college, Eric, shared fantastic recollections of my mom, my childhood home, which he often visited, and how much of my parents he discerns in me. As children, one of our important developmental tasks is to forge unique and separate identities. This crucial work sometimes obscures from us all the equally important ways that our parents “get inside us,” permanently shaping us. The lesson here is that whether or not you have maintained those early relationships, death provides us an incentive to reach out to those who share part of our biographies.

Oftentimes, transplanted congregants have stated that they didn’t want to hold a memorial service in Portland because no one here knew their deceased. They are confirming the way in which we are supported by those who also are experiencing and sharing the loss that we family members feel most deeply. At the same time, and here I am writing primarily to other Portland transplants, it remains worthwhile to hold shivah in our current home. Those who are part of our daily life—our geographical life, if you will—have a need to support us, and we benefit from their presence. What it effectively achieves is allowing us to be seen in a vulnerable moment; communities where that occurs are richer, more real, and “thicker.”

Ultimately, when we do have a connection with someone who has died, it brings tremendous comfort to mourners when we offer up to them those recollections. In the past, I have remarked that those memories become like precious jewels to those who are moving through the mourning process.

While the Portland part of my shivah was very short compared to the days I sat back east, I am grateful for those who were able to attend on Tuesday evening and to the Wednesday morning attendees who brought the minyan to our home. Todah. In addition, my family and I have received many cards, words of sympathy, or charitable gifts in my mother’s memory. Each of these has been tremendously supportive during this difficult transition.

Grief and its proximity to death removes a mourner from the normal flow of life. In our periods of loss, it is as though we exist in an alternate universe and operate out of a different set of concerns than we do in the thick of life. Simultaneously, while grief is not always comfortable, it is the body and the soul’s mechanism for honoring the memory of someone close to us. Each time a wave of loss sweeps through and over me, the significance of my mother and her impact on who I am is renewed. We all recognize this in our normal days, yet it is the very intensity of mourning that brings this home in the deepest way. Grief is a specialized form of gratitude.

Before we departed from New Rochelle, Laura and I drove by my mom’s old house, which she sold a year back to a contractor, who did a marvelous job updating it. I had only ever known the house to have siding and a bit of white painted brick, but in the renovation, the builder had removed the siding and blasted off the white paint. We were pleasantly shocked to see a beautiful chevron pattern in the brick work, punctuated by a course of dark-chocolate-brown accent bricks. Given that the house was built in 1931, this shouldn’t have been surprising; masons back then regularly incorporated this level of detail work. It was also a reminder that there are all sorts of beauty that our parents provided to us which often go unnoticed, covered up by the passage of time. Grief sometimes reveals that as well.

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D

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