Lessons I have Learned as a Mourner

How Are you? and other Questions – Some Lessons I have learned as a Mourner by Rabbi Marc

How are you?  How are you doing? What’s up?  Questions we all ask, but what do we really want to know when we ask them?  In the midst of sitting shiva for my father, still wearing the torn white linen shirt that I ripped at the funeral, a childhood friend said “hi Marc. Nice to see you. How are you?”  It came from a well-intentioned place, but I just did not know how to respond and I found myself saying something like “I am sitting shiva for my dad, how am supposed to be?”  Even now, people ask in the way of normal social discourse, how I am and I still usually have no idea how to respond as I am not even sure what is being asked.  Mostly I have no idea how I am really in this new normal. Some mornings I wake up feeling so sad that I can barely function.

There are many lessons that I have learned since my father’s death on July 1st and I now find myself part of this society of grieving people that I was not expecting to join yet and obviously not wanting to,  and my whole world has changed.  Suddenly I feel this powerful kindred connection with others who have recently lost a parent and realize the inadequacy of my own previous attempts to support others.  I too have asked people raw with grief how they are and now I understand how jarring that can be.  So what do we say? How do we support and comfort each other during these times?  As a rabbi I have been around death and dying dozens of times. It is all so different now and I have a new understanding of what it means to be held with presence.

In the deep wisdom of our tradition, a shiva house is supposed to be a place of silent gathering without the norms of social interaction where we take the lead from the mourner, should she or he wish to speak.  That kind of silence is excruciatingly uncomfortable for most of us and we are programmed when we find ourselves in social space with food, to engage in nervous chit chat that  is often not about the need  of the mourner but about our own awkwardness of not knowing what to say or how to behave in such a situation, so we fill the space, rather than let it fill us.  So what do we say?

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, wrote a post that got about a million likes, to mark the shloshim for her husband who died really suddenly while working out. She said: “When I am asked “How are you?” I stop myself from shouting, My husband died a month ago, how do you think I am? When I hear “How are you today?” I realize the person knows that the best I can do right now is to get through each day.”  So, the qualification of the moment by moment, day by day changing reality is an improvement on a simple, well meaning “how are you?” and can be very helpful and affirming.  During the intensity of shiva, even this would not have worked for me, so if silence is too awkward to be an option, what else might we say?

In England, the standard greeting to a mourner is “I wish you long life,” based on the Hebrew phrase chayim aruchim.  I found that quite helpful and comforting most of the time in its affirmation of the continuing blessing of life amidst the pain.  The more traditional formula often offered to mourners is “hamakom y’nachem etchem b’toch sh’ar avlei Tzion v’Yerushalayim – May God (literally here ‘the place’) comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”  The phrase is cumbersome for most of us and some people offer a simpler “I wish you strength,” or “May you find the comfort you need.”  Another simple, but meaningful phrase that acknowledges the experience of the mourner  is “I am so sorry for you loss.” There is something very different in offering words of encouragement and blessing like this, rather than asking unanswerable questions. Words such as these can have the power to make a person feel held and seen. There are some questions that can work better than that ubiquitous how are you, but that may also not have clear answers, like “do you need anything?” or “how can I support you?”  Asked in the right way, these inquiries can lead to real practical needs being met, although often a person in grief simply does not know what they need and it may be more helpful to show up with a pot of delicious homemade soup and leave it at the door with a note, or say what we are going to do or bring, rather than ask and make sure that it will be useful.

The absolute hardest and most inappropriate shiva visits of all were the ones where the visitor somehow manages to make it all about them, with apparently no regard for the deceased, nor for the mourners.  We had a few of those; people so unable to be present with us that they just talked about themselves the whole time, as if oblivious to where they were.  Oy.

This isn’t about me, of course, nor even about the complex journey of mourning, it is about all of us, in family and community and how we can show up and be there for each other in meaningful and helpful ways, which leads me to what I really want to say.  Thank you! Thank you to everyone at Bonai and the wider Boulder community for supporting me in unbelievable ways through my father’s illness and death.  It is hard to express the depth of my gratitude for the gift of being able to be so present with my family through it all until the very last moment, and the unconditional encouragement to stay in London.  So many people stepped up to make that happen; everyone in the office and our lay leadership who committed to do everything to ensure that life at Bonai continued to thrive without me.  I am also so grateful for the incredible messages of support through emails, cards, calls and the many donations in my father’s memory.  Not to mention the food – the amazing deliveries of food that showed up for my family in London, as well as those of you who brought me food back in Boulder. I also thank everyone who showed up to help make a minyan after I got back to Boulder.  The structure of our tradition and the ability to say kaddish has been a great source of comfort and strength for me and I hope that, together, we can create more and more opportunities throughout the week for those of us in mourning and observing yahrzeits to be able to recite these life-affirming words in community. A heartfelt thank you to everyone for everything.

So, as we enter another year in the mindfulness that the holidays can be really hard for those among us missing loved ones in these times, may we as a community become better and better at supporting each other, knowing that sometimes the question is “how are you today?” and sometimes it might be “what do you need?” or we might just offer loving support and friendship in the depth of silence, or through a warm hug.

May we all have a year sweetened by the presence of people who care and held in our sorrow and our joy by family, community and the great wisdom of Jewish practice.

Shanah Tovah!