avelut: mourning

Excerpts from Mudhouse Sabbath
Lauren Winner

…What churches often do less well is grieve. We lack a ritual for the long and tiring process that is sorrow and loss. A friend of mine whose husband recently died put it like this: “For about two weeks the church was really the church—really awesomely, wonderfully the church. Everyone came to the house, baked casseroles, carried Kleenex. But then the two weeks ended, and so did the consolation calls.” While the mourner is still bawling her eyes out and slamming fists into the wall, everyone else, understandably, forgets and goes back to their normal lives and you find, after all those crowds of people, that you are left alone. You are without the church, and without a church vocabulary for what happens to the living after the dead are dead.

Mourning, maybe, is never easy, but it is better done inside a communal grammar of bereavement. Christianity has a hopeful and true vocabulary for death-and-resurrection. It is Judaism that offers the grammar for in between, for the mourning after death and before Easter.

Judaism understands mourning as a discipline, on in which the mourner is not only allowed, but expected, to be engaged. Rather than asking the mourner to paper over his grief, the Jewish community supports him in mourning. (My priest, who is always urging me to pray the despairing Book of Psalms, says that Judaism mourns well in part because Jews understand lament. “Christians,” he says, “do not know how to lament.”)

Jewish bereavement marks the days, and then the months, and then all the years after a death. The first space, called aninut (literally “burial”), comprises the days after death and before burial. During these days, mourners are exempt from the other requirements of Jewish law—they are not obligated to attend prayer services or visit the sick or welcome guests, because they are devoted entirely to the one commandment of preparing the dead for a funeral, and that preparation is all-consuming. Rabbi Margaret Holub says that mourners are exempt from other commandments during aninut because only the living are obligated by God’s law, and in those first days after a death, mourners “border on death themselves.” The community is not obligated to visit or comfort or feed the mourners, explains Rabbi Holub, because until the burial, “the death is still happening,” so the work of comforting cannot yet begin.”

Then the counting starts. The next demarked days are shiva, or “seven,” the first week after burial. In that first week, mourners “sit shiva.” The expression to sit shiva is enacted literally—after the funeral, you return home to sit on low chairs, as Job’s friends did; “they sat down with him toward the ground for seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him.” All the mirrors are draped in black, and the mourner lights a memorial candle, and she does not wash her hair or wear perfume or put on lipstick. Mourners do not have sex, or listen to music, or wear shoes. They do not leave the house the whole seven days, except on Shabbat. Their neighbors bring food. At the first meal after the funeral—called the seudat havra’ah, or the meal of recovery—the mourner is meant to eat an egg, whose obvious circular fertility is to begin the slow work of reminding the bereaved that she will live.

The next unit of mourning time is shloshim, thirty, the first month after death. After thirty days comes the full year of mourning, a period designated especially for those who mourn their parents.

This calendar of bereavement recognizes the slow way that mourning works, the long time it takes a grave to cool, slower and longer than our zip-zoom Internet-and-fast-food society can easily accommodate. Long after friends and acquaintances have stopped paying attention, after they have forgotten to ask how you are and pray for you and hold your hand, the mourner is still in a place of ebbing sadness. Mourning plateaus gradually, and the diminishing of intensity is both recognized and nurtured by the different spaces the Jewish mourning rituals create—the harrowing shock of aninut, the pain of shiva, the stepping into life and world of sholshim. (The rabbis would be quick to point out that we do not observe the calendar of mourning because it is psychologically beneficial, but because it is commanded—and that is true, but why should it be surprising that God commanded something that therapists might now applaud?)

Whenever I have paid shiva a call…what has always struck me is the sheer crush of people. People in the den, people in the kitchen, people crowding out on the terrace and pressed into the hallway. The mourner who wants to weep in his cups alone is out of luck. On those days when he desires nothing more than to crawl back under the covers and shut out everything that breathes and has three dimensions, people pack into his home.

Not only is the community present for one’s mourning, God is present too. God is ubiquitous in Jewish bereavement because of the Kaddish. Countless commentators have observed that the Kaddish is a curious mourner’s prayer, because it says nothing about mourning. It is rather a prayer about God, describing Him as magnified and sanctified and worthy to be praised. It is not a prayer of rent garments and commemoration, but rather simply four verses of praise to God. “Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled, mighty, upraised, and lauded be the Name of the Holy One, Blessed is He, beyond any blessing or song.”

Even in the pit, even in depression and loss and nonsense, still we respond to God with praise. This is not to say that the mourner should not fee what he feels—anger, disbelief, hatred. He can feel those things (and shout them out to God; God can take it.). You do not have to feel praise in the intense moments of mourning, but the praise is still true, and insisting upon it over and over, twice a day every day, ensures that eventually you will come to remember the truth of those praises.

I can still number in single digits the funerals I’ve attended, and only one of them really mattered to me, the funeral of my nearest and dearest in England, just shortly after I became a Christian. Her name was Clementine…and she was driving on those swirling roads outside of Oxford and was killed by someone who later admitted to drinking seven or eight highballs before he got into his car.

It was sudden, of course, and horrible, and Clementine’s friends and family and all the people who loved her bricolaged their way into grief. We prayed the rite for the dead. We held an all-night vigil. We sent checks to Mother’s Against Drunk Driving. We sang her favorite hymns, and wore the sweaters she had loaned us and not yet reclaimed. And we put our pictures of her in picture frames, and were sad.

“Like all mourners,” I wrote to my friend in New York, “none of us who mourn Clementine really know what to do. It is all so shocking and unexpected and ridiculous and awful.”

I was not blood or marriage kin to Clementine, so according the particulars of Jewish law, even had I still been a practicing Jew, I was not a mourner, one who would sit on a low stool or say Kaddish. But I was reminded of the rhythm of mourning. I found, in the weeks after Clementine’s death, that I did not want to listen to music, that I could not, in fact, tolerate celebration of any kind. I even found it faintly annoying when a passerby whistled or hummed. Then, perhaps three months after Clementine died, some voice in my head told me that I was overdue, that I had been sitting sackcloth for far longer than the thirty days of shloshim. So that night I went to hear the choir performing at St. John’s College.

I have not said Kaddish. On the anniversary of her death, I will send another check to MADD. I have purchased a yahrtzeit candle and closeted it away in my linen closet, and on October 19 I will pull it out and find some matches and remember my dead.

For Katie and Chase, for their families, for our friends, for all of us:

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

John 11:25-26

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