On Saturday, I went to another lunch gathering for folks with one or more dead parents. It is always a bizarre mixture of relieving and exhausting to talk about this with people who actually understand how such a thing feels. I maintain, though, that everyone’s experience is different, thus keeping us perpetually isolated from each other, even though we share something that at this point in our lives, is fairly unique.
At some point during the conversation, I realized we were talking about two completely different experiences, albeit described by the same word. It was like when people use the term “hook up,” sometimes to refer to sex and sometimes to mean just fooling around, but you have to ask if you wanted to know the specific context. In this situation, though, the word in question was “shiva.”
In Judaism, shiva is the period immediately following the death of first degree relatives (parents, siblings, spouses, children) where the most intense demonstrations of mourning occur. Basically, everyone you know comes over, you eat, people talk to you, and you want to run away. Depending on how observant you are, there might be some praying, you might cover the mirrors in your house, you might sit close to the ground, and this may or may not go on for seven days.
Here is what I remember from the period in which I sat shiva for my mother: introducing my extremely uncomfortable boyfriend to my family, not being hungry, keeping one eye on my grandmother at all times, feeling completely overwhelmed, never having what seemed like the “right” thing to say to anyone, creeping people out by laughing and smiling, and how desperate I was to get back to school. I don’t think the shiva lasted more than a day, and I know I had no idea about the other things you’re not supposed to do when a parent dies, like not wearing clean clothes, not doing sexual things, not showering, and not cooking. I’m pretty sure I did all of these in the days after my mother died, but I decided not to mention that on Saturday.
I did say out loud at one point, “I think that during shiva, you should get to act however the fuck you want.” This is clearly not the object of shiva, or of Jewish law in general, but as the least observant and the person most currently and publicly frustrated/angry/disillusioned by Judaism in the room (I think), I had to say what I really felt.
It’s not a secret that no one in my family is super observant, but I don’t know if not sitting shiva for my mother (or my grandmother years later), was about what made sense to us Jewishly or what was most convenient. I tend to think it was both, and when faced with a group of folks who did “the whole thing,” I wonder if telling it like it was then makes people on the outside think no one loved my mother.
But then, shiva isn’t actually about a demonstration of love, it’s about creating a structure in which people can confront their loss and mourn openly, if such a thing is even possible. The personal experience of mourning is contaminated by other human beings. If what you do is laugh, people think you’re crazy, that you’re not handling it, you’re inappropriate. If you cry, you’re behaving correctly, but also, you should stop crying and move on with your life before too long.
Reflecting on what shiva we did sit, in a way, has little to do with considering my past, present and future commitment to Judaism and everything to do with the question that relentlessly haunts me – did I love my mother enough, and did she know it?
By the way, I meant what I said: You should get to act however the fuck you want, because in the end, you are the one who has to live with the now distorted past and the new reality.