My mother died, and she wasn’t Jewish. I am, and sometime after I converted, it occurred to me to wonder, “Do I sit shiva if my mom passes away? “ The word shiva comes from the Hebrew word for “seven” and refers to the week of intense mourning just after a loved-one passes away. Since my mother wasn’t Jewish, sitting shiva didn’t really make sense.
Judaism has some fairly precise customs for mourning a parent…sit shiva for a week, limit your activities for 30 days (in Hebrew, shloshim), say the mourner’s kaddish—a special prayer praising God—for the next 11 months, erect the tombstone, and get on with your life. Observe the yartzeit, the anniversary of death, going forward. Seems a rather neat and tidy prescription compared to the actual messiness of grieving.
As it turns out, my husband and I had a beach vacation planned to begin the day after the funeral. We went and it was the best thing imaginable. In late October, the beach was deserted and it was certainly too chilly to swim. There was nothing much to do but sit and stare at the ocean, read, eat, stroll the empty beach and cry. Not the type of shiva observance I had become accustomed to. No rabbi, no prayer service, no egg salad.
Then there was the matter of saying the kaddish prayer: should you say it for a non-Jewish parent? The original intent of the prayer has been lost; it doesn’t mention death at all but is a long list of praises for God, used in the beginning to punctuate sections of serious study. For centuries, people believed that saying kaddish would shorten the amount of time the deceased spent in Gehenna (hell) before ascending to Gan Eden (heaven). Whatever it is now, it’s certainly a Jewish custom to say it for Jewish parents. Most people who recite the kaddish probably don’t understand it in the Aramaic, but the sound of it is a familiar, comforting refrain. I couldn’t resist saying it at Momma’s graveside. She wouldn’t have minded.
It’s been a month now—shloshim—since Momma passed away. In some ways, it has been good for a new-Jew to ponder Jewish mourning rituals. We do things because they are custom, but do we really know why? One thing became clear: these rituals are for us, not for the dearly departed or for God. Having such a prescribed process isn’t a pass for us to avoid work or chores or social responsibilities; they do let others know how to deal with us while we are mourning. The length and intensity of the actual grieving may not fit into the shiva/shloshim/kaddish slots neatly, but the rituals give us a start. Time, and love, do the rest.