The shelf life of shiva support

It is now post Shiva, and for the bereaved, the challenge has just begun.

Cemetry (R370) (photo credit: REUTERS)
Cemetry (R370)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I have seen it as often as you have. When someone loses a loved one, family, friends and acquaintances close ranks around them, attend shiva, coordinate details, bring food and provide comfort. Then, when shiva ends, everyone bids the bereaved farewell and return to daily life.
It is now post shiva, and for the bereaved, the challenge has just begun.
They return to an empty home, to pictures that remind them of their loved one and to fragrances that stir their senses. They have no hold over emotions. One moment a wave of fatigue, the next a torrent of tears. Then comes courage and resolve followed by weakness and depression. One mood follows the next and the army of friends is nowhere to be seen. Turns out, shiva support has a definite shelf life.
I am as guilty as the next. We console ourselves with the excuse that life must go on and we can’t coddle the bereaved forever. At some point they must face life and it may as well be now. Comes the Torah and offers perspective. Life must be faced, but it need not be faced alone. At least not in the beginning.
In Biblical Hebrew, there are two ways to say post-shiva. Achar hashiva and acharei hashiva. They sound similar, but they have different connotations. Achar means shortly thereafter, acharei means well after.
The Torah tells us that “acharei mot shnei bnei aharon,” well after the death of Aaron’s two sons, G-d instructed Aaron not to enter the Holy of Holies without Divine sanction. At first blush one wonders why this instruction appears in the Torah fully, three portions after the episode of their death. However, when we note that the term acharei is employed, we realize that this instruction was given well after their passing, not shortly thereafter. Allow me to suggest that this instruction is read three weeks after we learn of their passing to teach us a lesson.
The first few days after a passing, mourners are numb to pain and distracted by funeral arrangements. The ensuing week of shiva is difficult to be sure, but they are buoyed by the presence of family and friends, who envelop them in a blanket of warm comfort. The next week they are consumed with cleaning up from shiva and picking up the pieces. By the third or fourth week, the frenetic pace slows somewhat and the painful realization sinks in. Now, post-shiva, they really need help.
It was at this point that G-d reached out to Aaron and offered guidance and support. This was a very different kind of support than the one G-d had extended immediately after his loss. Back then G-d offered instruction on how to grieve; now, three weeks later, G-d offered guidance on how to live.
We too must pick up the phone at this point and call our bereaved friends. We feel that we were there so much during Shiva that now, post-Shiva, the bereaved might want some quiet time alone. Don’t let this discourage you. If your friends don’t want your company they will tell you, but they will still be grateful that you called. If they do want company, your call will have arrived at exactly the right time.
During Shiva you helped them cope with loss. Now you can help them cope with life. They won’t need you forever, but for the next little while, they can use a cup of tea, a listening ear, and a caring heart. You encourage the bereaved to remain afloat and not let their sorrow drag them down.
It is too easy to be overwhelmed by grief and to drown in sorrow. It might begin for them with allowing themselves an hour of rest or a day in bed, but if they don’t force themselves out of grief and into life, their loss can become all consuming. It is your role to tell them that returning to life is not a betrayal of the dead. Their loss will always be close to their hearts and they will never forget it, but their loved one would want them to live.
In this vein, consider the following Midrash. Our sages wondered why the Torah informs us that G-d’s instructions on how and when to enter the Holy of Holies were given after the passing of Aaron’s sons.
They explained it with an analogy. If a doctor instructs a patient to avoid cold drinks and damp beds, he may or may not be obeyed. If the doctor instructs a patient to avoid cold drinks and damp beds to avoid dying as another patient did, he will certainly be obeyed. G-d wanted Aaron to obey Him so He added the fact that if Aaron obeyed these instructions, he would avoid the fate that had befallen his sons.
However, when you consider that Aaron had never refused a Divine order, you wonder why G-d felt it necessary to reinforce this particular instruction.
Allow me to suggest that it was all about the timing. When in grief, it is difficult to pull oneself together and embrace the joys and duties of daily life. Aaron was a High Priest, a position with many responsibilities and duties, but in his grief, he might not have been up to the task.
G-d said to Aaron, avoid cold drinks and damp beds. Don’t allow your heart to grow cold to life, to its sanctity, to its pleasures and to its rewards. There are tasks that await you and duties that beckon. Life lies ahead of you and it is time to embrace it. You might not be ready, but there is no use waiting. Begin anew today or you might drink the cold drink, your heart might grow cold. Embrace life today or your bed might grow damp, your cocoon of comfort might grow into a den of depression.
If you become apathetic to life, you might share your sons’ tragic fate. They died physically, but you, though alive, might be just as dead. Don’t let this become you. Avoid the cold drink and the damp bed. Get up, get dressed and fulfill your duties. Allow life to rouse you.
This might be the most critical message you can offer to your mourning friend. Many can help them cope with death, but only the best of friends can help them re-enter life. If you are a good friend, you are perfectly positioned. It might be post-shiva, but you are needed now more than ever. Pick up the phone and make the call. Don’t delay. Do it today.
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, a respected writer, scholar and speaker, is the spiritual leader of Beth Tefilah congregation in London, Ontario. He is the author of Reaching for God: A Jewish Book on Self Help, and his new book, Mission Possible: Living With Higher Purpose will be released this spring and can be pre-ordered by emailing [email protected]