Saturday, April 23, 2016

Reflecting on Sitting Shiva for My Father

My Father, Sidney Spiegelman, Z"L, 1920-2016
Photo I took just a few months ago, during my last visit with him.

Looking at this picture of my father, you wouldn't think that he had been "evaluated" as suffering from severe dementia. Dementia is such a strange condition. I don't think you can accurately call it a "disease."

During the almost three days I had to sit shiva for him, I tried to describe him as accurately as possible, the father he was to me when he was young, the man many of my neighbors knew when he lived with us, and the person he became afterwards when in Arizona.

Shiva is a wonderful thing and so helpful for the mourner. I'm sorry that my brother and sister didn't have the experience I did. That's for a few reasons.

The first is that my father's death was less than a week before Passover, so I couldn't attend. Because I stayed home in Israel I sat shiva pretty much from when I got notice until just before the holiday started. Actually I had ended the shiva even before he was buried. My brother and sister had no real time for a shiva, not even a short one, like I observed. And another reason is that they aren't involved members of a Jewish community.

"Shiva" the mourning period is a complex time according to Jewish Law. "Shiva" comes from the word sheva, seven and is that because under normal conditions, for seven days after a person is buried, the close family members, children, siblings and spouse, are supposed to take a break from their normal routines and responsibilities. The community and family members not required to "sit shiva" are to take over and take care of the mourner. Food and household chores are to be done by them, so the mourner can concentrate on being together, when applicable, and telling those coming to comfort לנחם linachem about the person who had passed away.

Those coming to comfort are to remember not to bring up other topics unless the mourner specifically asks. Generally, one isn't supposed to speak unless the mourner initiates conversation. But it's acceptable to ask about the dead family member, like:

  • How old was he/she?
  • What did he/she do?
  • Where was he/she born?
  • How old?
Yes, questions that will facilitate talk by the mourner. Most of the time, the people who came to comfort really kept the conversation on proper target, and I did find it very comforting. But I must admit that the rare times when visitors were too busy trying to "entertain" with their own news got not only me, but others in the room annoyed and upset. Sometimes I could get it back on track by starting to distribute pictures of my father, especially from his service in the U.S. Navy during World War Two. People usually got the hint and started asking good questions. 

Sitting shiva on my own was particularly exhausting. It also meant that when someone called me own the phone as a "shiva call" I had to speak even when the room was full. Those calls were important, as important as those who had been able to come to the house. Everyone understood that. 

Neighbors brought food for me to eat while I was sitting shiva. Normally, in previous times when my husband sat for his parents and I sat for my mother, the kids and I took care of all the meals. But this time, since it was just before Passover, and the cleaning and Passover cleaning had to continue, as I sat, though not by me, my children were very busy in the house. I didn't want to ask them to also make me food. My Israeli children, the grandchildren and my husband got the house all ready for Passover. At most I gave some instructions, especially about where things were or where they should be put.

If it had been possible, my children would have gotten a lot out of being part of the talk during the shiva. They would have found it a comfort, as I had.

I had really been hoping that my father would somehow have died during a time in the year when my sister could have come home to Shiloh with me and we could have sat together here for a few days. Many of my neighbors knew him and have very fond memories. 

Now it's already Passover, post-seder. One of my daughters did all of the cooking for us, though she wasn't with us for the seder. We were with two other children here at home. They did their best to make me a comfortable as possible. 

Yes, life must go on...


Chaya O said...

Thank you, Batya, for sharing your thoughts with us. It sounds like you have wonderful children who were able to pitch in during this difficult time, especially pre-Pesach. May you be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Yerushalayim!

Batya said...

thank you
yes, they are wonderful