sitting shiva




Coming out of our friends' apartment yesterday, having sat shiva with them for a few hours, the wise woman I was with said, "It's so amazing how you come outside and the world is still here." I'm paraphrasing. She probably didn't use the word amazing. But it was something similar. The shock and awe that the world doesn't sit still, when we are sitting with those who mourn. That this strong grief doesn't stop everyone. 

Shiva is itself a container for grief, a container to make the world - at least where the mourners are - stop. After seven days (the literal meaning of the word "shiva" is seven), the mourners get up and walk out into the world.

We walk ourselves into the world that doesn't stop, no matter the measure of our private grief.

It is a brilliant reminder. Our grief is important enough to wall ourselves away. To hold ourselves back from the world. And then, to walk back into the world, carrying the remembrance of those we loved.

That's a difficult step. The end of shiva is mostly symbolic: most mourners aren't ready to come back into the world fully, with only remembrance, for quite some time. (And that is how it is, and how it needs to be, unless it is different for you and then that is how it is and needs to be for you.) Mourning is still marked. At 30 days. At a year. And then every year, every year.

Every year.

We aren't getting out of this being alive experience without many griefs (unless we die too soon and then the grief is that we did not get a full measure). Every thing that is born, dies. Unless we harden our hearts, there is profound grief in living on, while others do not.

But here is an interesting thing about grief, to me. Aside from the initial shock, grief is mingled with so many other emotions. Despair. Anger. Love. Bitterness. Joyful memories. Awe. Even happiness, though that may seem very far off when we are still sitting shiva. Grief looks and feels different for each person; sometimes it isn't even recognizable as grief to someone else, but that doesn't lessen our experience of it.

And grief doesn't cease when we are able to go out into the world with our remembrances and participate again. It is tempered, as a sword is, the initial fire wearing off, leaving a bright edge of shearing pain with which all other emotions can be lived even more fully, present in the moment to them. The edge dulls as we go about living in the world. Sometimes it dulls slowly, sometimes quickly. Sometimes the edge is honed and the bright pain is sharper than before. Dull or bright, the grief itself remains, a memory.

We say, in Judaism: "May his (or her) memory be for a blessing."

Grief shapes the memory of our loved one into a blessing.

And so grief itself is a blessing. A fucked up, difficult, painful blessing, but a blessing, nevertheless. Eventually. If we allow it to be. If we let ourselves learn the lesson grief is teaching us: too soon, too soon. This fragile world demands your attention in this moment because all too soon we will be gone.

Grief forces us to open our hearts wider. The shearing edge of pain expands us. Our memories of grief, of love (which cannot be taken away) allow us to help others who mourn. And thus to help everyone. We will all mourn, in one way or another. We will all mourn. The shared experience of grief can bring us closer.

That's love. That's blessing.

Or as Issa wrote, one year after the death of his own beloved son:

The world of dew
is the world of dew
And yet, and yet...