Meredith lost her mother after a long and challenging illness at the beginning of the Covid 19 pandemic. Because of the depth of their relationship and her deep love for her mother, the loss was devastating. Previously, she and her family always mourned those who died according to the centuries-old traditions observed by those of the Jewish faith. But in 2020, these familiar – and comforting – practices were inaccessible because of pandemic restrictions and social distancing.
Based on ancient biblical principles designed to both honor the dead and help mourners accept and process the reality of the loss, Jewish mourning customs are quite ritualized and highly dependent on community participation. They are practiced in varying degrees throughout the faith; even those not strictly observant may follow the same basic structure and traditions. These rituals and practices are divided into four periods – between death and burial, the first week following burial, the first month after burial, and the first year after the death.
The First Week
According to Jewish law, the dead must be buried as quickly as possible, ideally within 24 hours. This period between death and burial is called aninut (mourning). It is believed the soul does not immediately leave the body, so to comfort the soul, which may be confused, the deceased is not left alone during this time. Community members pray around the body, which may be washed and dressed during this time by a special group known as the Chevrah Kedusha (holy burial society). The body is buried in a simple wooden coffin or a shroud so nothing can delay decomposition or ‘return to the earth.' If the deceased or family desires it, soil from Israel may be placed in the coffin. Family members will tear a bit of their clothing or wear a torn black ribbon to symbolize the end of their earthly connection to the deceased. Funerals and services may be held in the home, at a funeral parlor, or the gravesite, and attendance by community members is considered mandatory.
After the body is buried, a seven-day period of mourning called shiva (Hebrew for ‘seven’) begins. On the first day after the burial, mourners are only supposed to eat food prepared for them by others, so community members will cook and bring food to them. A special prayer called the Mourner’s Kaddish must be said daily with a minyan (10 people), who will come to the mourners’ home. The family is released from all religious obligations and receives visitors during this period. Some very observant families only receive the minyan at home in the first three days of the shiva period, with friends and family visiting on the fourth to seventh days, while others open their home to everyone for the full seven days. The purpose of paying a shiva visit is to comfort the mourners rather than to distract or attempt to cheer them up, and it is customary to bring food, especially baked goods or sweets. This practice is called "sitting shiva," as traditionally, the mourners sit on stools close to the floor, emulating the experience of Job, who sat "to the earth" as he was comforted by his friends after his multiple losses. The presence of family and friends and their support during these seven days is critical to the mourners as they start to accept their loss and begin the mourning process.
The First Thirty Days
This period is called shloshim. Once the seven days of shiva are finished, the family will walk around the block or neighborhood to begin their return to the world at large and symbolically walk the soul away from the body and release it. Slowly, the family will return to work and school but are supposed to refrain from merrymaking, parties, etc. It is still required that Kaddish be said each day in community at the synagogue. While many in deep grief inside and outside the Jewish faith may begin to isolate, the shiva and Kaddish connect the mourners to others and provide a ritual and a schedule intended to give them structure and emotional connection.
The First Year
The first year after the death (not the burial) is called shanah. After 30 days, the mourning period is considered complete for those who have lost a sibling, spouse, child, or other close relative. If a parent has died, however, active mourning and the daily prayer of Kaddish in community are required for an entire year. Gravestones are typically not erected for anyone until the year anniversary of the death, on which a yahrzeit (“one year”) candle is lit for 24 hours. The mourners will also say a special Kaddish at a synagogue on this day. Remembrance of the death anniversary is marked by the lighting of a yahrzeit candle and Kaddish recitation at the synagogue. However, continued deep mourning is not encouraged and is, in fact, frowned upon.
For Meredith, the social distancing necessitated by the pandemic had a very negative impact. She told me, "COVID presented a barrier to the rituals which are heavily focused on gathering with other people face to face…it's all about in-person community which eases the grief. The inability to gather with others made it impossible to honor rituals and harder to grieve.” During past shivas, her family had been carefully cared for and comforted by others who, as she says, practically moved into their home during the shiva period to clean, make food and coffee, and tend to all the visitors. Not being able to mourn in the community as she had in the past was, she said, "a loss in and of itself," on top of her grief around her mother's death. Although she was able to say the Kaddish with a virtual minyan, the immediate comfort provided by an in-person shiva and the daily interaction with others through the ritual of going to the synagogue was missing. The loss of community connection greatly magnified her sense of loss.
How can we harness the power of ritual and community similarly if we are not Jewish? You might join an in-person or online bereavement group to connect with others experiencing grief, make regular dates with family over the first months and year to come together and share memories, or develop your own set of practices each month of the first year to commemorate your loved one. Creating these connections with others and marking time as you move through the grieving process may come to hold significant meaning for you and lessen any feelings of isolation and disconnection you may have, as well as help create a powerful continuing bond with those you love who have died.