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Opening the Box

Why sit shivah for such a wayward sister?

A couple of weeks before Pesach this year, we got a call informing us that my husband’s 28-year-old younger sister Simone — formerly Simi — had died in a high-altitude skydiving accident.

Ephraim, my husband, was stone cold when he heard the news.

“So that’s how she went, huh,” was his reaction.

His first call was to our rav to ask if he was required to sit shivah.

“My sister grew up frum and abandoned Yiddishkeit in her early twenties,” he explained. “Not only was her lifestyle completely antithetical to Torah values, but she herself became an avowed feminist who was virulently antireligious and attacked Yiddishkeit at every opportunity, including on social media. For the past seven years, since she went off, I’ve had almost no relationship with her, as every conversation invariably turned into a diatribe on her part against some aspect of Yiddishkeit.”

Considering all this, the rav ruled that Ephraim was not obligated to sit shivah, especially because, with travel already suspended due to the coronavirus, there was no way he could join his family in Canada for the levayah and shivah, so no one in the family would have to know he was the only one not observing shivah.

“Don’t tell your family that you’re not sitting,” the rav instructed Ephraim, “and don’t tell people in your community that your sister died. Just keep this private.”

This was the psak Ephraim wanted to hear, and he hung up the phone looking quite satisfied.

I, on the other hand, felt uneasy. “Shivah is not just for the niftar,” I observed. “It’s for the family, too. It gives you a chance to process the grief.”

“What grief?” he scoffed. “Simone lived like a rasha, and she got what she deserved.”

 

 

When I heard this, a rush of sadness came over me. I thought back to my own experience sitting shivah just two years earlier.

I, too, had received a phone call, out of the blue, that a family member had suddenly died. In my case, it was my father, who, although suffering from some cardiovascular issues, had been relatively young — only 57 — and generally vibrant. My mother called me late at night, wailing hysterically, to tell me the news. She had found him in his study, slumped over his desk and nonresponsive, and he had been pronounced dead immediately upon arrival at the hospital.

Since my family refused an autopsy, the cause of death was never determined. “Cardiac arrest” was the reason given on his death certificate, but my mother whispered to my siblings and me that she had found a bottle of liquor near his desk, even though he was taking heart medications that made alcohol consumption very dangerous. His business had recently gone sour, and he had taken the downturn very hard.

“He was depressed,” my mother confided. “He knew alcohol could be deadly, but he was drinking anyway.”

Medical professionals agreed that my father’s heart failure was likely due to an alcohol interaction with his medication.

What was clear to my mother and siblings was that no one outside our immediate family was going to be privy to this information. My father had been a fine, upstanding member of the community, and we would not dishonor his memory by spreading rumors that he had been careless with his health and life — even if some of us felt intense anger toward him at the thought of this.

“How could he do this to us?” my sister raged.

While I myself did not feel angry, just sad that my father had been in so much pain, I could understand and empathize with those family members who had to grapple not only with grief, but with anger as well.

Our shared commitment to protecting my father’s memory actually brought our family a lot closer. During shivah, when the last visitor of the day would finally leave, my mother, my siblings, and I could finally share our true, conflicted feelings about my father’s death, and we could cry, or laugh, or just schmooze freely, without feeling that we were supposed to follow a script of how aveilim should behave.

Once the visitors were gone for the day, we all felt a sense of relief that we no longer had to deal with the painful question of “how did he die?”

So many people, shocked upon the news of my father’s unexpected passing, came to be menachem avel and, understandably, wanted to know what had caused this tragedy. Most people, thankfully, accepted “cardiac arrest” as a reason without probing further.

But one of my parents’ neighbors cornered my mother and told her, “The doctors are hiding something from you! Cardiac arrest is what everyone dies of. You should demand an investigation!”

When my mother feebly protested that in the absence of an autopsy there was no way to conclusively pinpoint the cause of death, the neighbor doubled down on her insistence that an investigation be conducted.

After that incident, I made a mental note never, ever to ask mourners how a family member of theirs had died. The death of a loved one, even under the most natural and peaceful circumstances, is painful enough without having to be pressed for details. Suddenly, I understood Chazal’s wisdom in prescribing that people who come to a shivah house wait in silence until the mourner speaks, and follow the mourner’s lead regarding which subjects to discuss. If the mourner wants to talk about how the niftar died, that’s his prerogative, but no mourner should ever be pushed into such a discussion — or any other discussion, for that matter.

While I quickly came to appreciate Chazal’s wisdom in their guidelines for how visitors should behave at a shivah, I found myself confused by some of the halachos that related to the mourners themselves, especially the restriction against listening to music. All I wanted to do at night, when sleep eluded me as I ached for my father, was to relax with some soothing music, and I couldn’t understand why Chazal had denied me this comfort. With time, however, I came to appreciate that the halachos of mourning were actually for my benefit.

Generally, when we are in pain, we distract ourselves with pleasurable or comforting activities, such as listening to music, going out for a walk, or taking a hot shower. The point of shivah, though, is for mourners to confront their pain, not to distract themselves from it. Later, after the aveilus has ended and the mourners have to go on with life, seeking distraction is healthy and legitimate. But if they did not confront the pain initially, and instead sought to mitigate it with distractions, then the grief won’t be fully processed, and will come back to haunt them later.

Having learned this lesson myself, through the process of aveilus, I feared that if Ephraim didn’t sit shivah, he would never confront his grief and process it. As much as he claimed he had no feelings for his wayward younger sister and harbored no pain over her death, I was concerned that somewhere, deep in his heart, lurked a primal ache that would give him no peace unless he went through the motions of the grieving process and explored his conflicted feelings toward Simone.

This concern of mine became more pronounced in the two days after Simone’s death. Ostensibly, Ephraim was going about his usual daily routine — or at least the corona-lockdown version of it — but I could see he was tense and on edge. We got into a few silly arguments during those couple of days, and I was sure Ephraim was picking these fights with me because of his messy and unacknowledged grief over Simone’s death.

Also very telling, to me, was the fact that Ephraim quickly became very involved in Simone’s funeral arrangements. He said the reason he was making so many phone calls to his parents and siblings about the levayah was his concern that she have a proper Jewish burial, but I suspected he also desperately needed to connect with his family at this difficult time. Plus, his concern that his sister receive a kosher burial indicated to me that perhaps his feelings toward her were starting to change.

When I discussed this with Ephraim, he responded with indifference.

“I’m just doing what has to be done,” he insisted. “Besides, the rav paskened that I shouldn’t sit shivah, so what is there to talk about?”

“The rav paskened that you don’t have to sit shivah,” I corrected him. “The way you asked the sh’eilah, it was clear you didn’t want to sit shivah, and the rav echoed your preference by telling you that technically there is no obligation. But had you asked him whether you are allowed to sit shivah, the answer might have been different.”

In the two years since my father’s passing, whenever a wave of sadness and loss came over me, my mind would invariably travel back to the week of shivah, and remembering the shared time with my mother and siblings helped me to pick up and move on despite the grief.

“Shivah gives you a context for the pain,” I told Ephraim. “It’s like a box that you close after the week, but that you can always go back to and reopen later when the pain hits you again and you need somewhere to put it.”

“What pain?” Ephraim retorted. “You’re thinking of your father — I’m thinking of Simone, remember?”

“There was plenty of anger after my father’s death,” I reminded him. “Shivah isn’t just a time to be sad, it’s a time to process whatever negative feelings you harbor toward the niftar so you can ultimately achieve inner peace.”

“I’m totally at peace,” he declared.

I resisted the urge to challenge that assertion, telling myself this was his process and I had to respect it.

That night, we got into a huge fight, again over something trivial, and when we awoke the next morning, after failing to resolve the issue before going to sleep, I braced myself for yet another day of hostility. But instead of picking up the fight where he had left off the night before, Ephraim surprised me.

“I’m having a harder time with the no-shivah thing than I expected,” he admitted.

He decided to go speak to the rav face-to-face — or at least from as a close a distance as social-distancing regulations would allow — and ask for an eitzah, not just for a psak. When he came home, he informed me the rav had advised him to sit shivah.

The last thing Ephraim wanted was visitors who would inquire about his sister, about his relationship with her, or about the circumstances of her death. Few people in our community knew he had an antireligious sister, and he would not have felt comfortable talking openly about Simone even to those who did know, if others who were unaware were present. Fortunately for him, no visitors were allowed, due to lockdown restrictions.

Having a totally private shivah meant he could choose whom to tell that he was sitting shivah and whom to talk to on the phone, when, and for how long. Some people’s calls he ignored completely; other people he spoke to for a perfunctory minute or two until they bid him “HaMakom.” When he received calls from his family members or others who were close to him, he was able to open up to them as he wished, without the pressure of having other people in the room overhearing details they had no business knowing.

Most of all, he was able to just sit and feel the sadness of Simone’s death — and her life. And surprisingly, in her death there was unexpected comfort. A friend of Simone’s called the shivah house up in Canada with a story that floored everyone in the room. Just a few weeks before her ill-fated skydiving adventure, Simone had convinced this friend to sign up for beginner Torah classes.

“I was young and stupid when I rebelled against my tradition,” Simone had told her, “but you never even had a chance to explore it.”

“So maybe Simone had some thoughts of teshuvah before she died!” Ephraim exclaimed to me. “And had my family not sat shivah, we would never have known this!”

This one little story completely reframed Ephraim’s attitude toward Simone. Now, he could comfort himself with the knowledge that his younger sister, whom he had been disgusted with and ashamed of for years, was not quite the militant antireligious activist she had presented herself as. And now he could feel compassion for the misguided young woman who had chosen a path of hatred and emptiness that ultimately set the stage for her premature demise.

Besides Ephraim and his family, I know of numerous other people who have sat shivah alone recently, due to fears of spreading coronavirus, and my heart breaks at the thought of these people not having the opportunity to share their grief with visitors who could contribute their memories of the niftar and shoulder the burden of the loss along with them. In Ephraim’s case, however, the corona shivah was a tailormade gift from Heaven.

Before I sat shivah myself, I never fully understood the purpose of the mourning restrictions of the Three Weeks, the Nine Days, and Tishah B’Av. Was the discomfort caused by these restrictions some kind of guilt-inducing punishment for our lack of true grief over the Churban? Or were we perhaps supposed to go through the motions of mourning in order to pretend we really are devastated over the lack of the Beis Hamikdash?

After sitting shivah, and especially now, after seeing how beneficial shivah was for my husband, I have a new appreciation for the mourning of this time of year. The point of these mourning practices, I think, is to give us a context for the very real and raw national pain of Churban and galus and the resulting distance from our beloved Father in Heaven.

Most of the time, we do a great job of distracting ourselves from that pain — through our busy daily routines, and through the myriad comforts and indulgences of modern living. We do such a good job, in fact, that we actually convince ourselves the pain is not there, and that our outer show of mourning during the Three Weeks is artificial and fake. Some of us go to lengths to circumvent these restrictions, thinking, as Ephraim initially did, that we don’t really care about our loss, and that aveilus is unnecessary and pointless.

In truth, however, the aveilus of this period is for our own sake. We — all of us — are in pain, deep down, and denying that grief only damages us and prevents us from rebuilding the relationship with Hashem that will bring us the deepest possible joy and fulfillment. Only by forcing ourselves to slow down our busy lives, strip away all numbing distractions, and open the box of pain that exists within us will we be able to truly mourn, and through that to experience the ultimate comfort.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 817)

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Comments (3)


  1. Avatar
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    S.G.

    I was very appreciative of the narrator in the LifeLines story about a man who didn’t want to sit shivah for his anti-religious sister. When I read about the insensitive questions of shivah visitors while the narrator was mourning her father, I remembered how it was when my mother sat shivah for my grandfather.
    Similar to the narrator’s story, there were circumstances surrounding my grandfather’s death; and similarly to the narrator, we experienced some inappropriate questions in the shivah house. My grandfather was murdered in a random act of street violence. But since my grandparents were not frum and lived outside the community, many shivah visitors knew nothing about them or what had happened. Some assumed (probably based on my grandmother’s age) that this wasn’t sudden. People came in to be menachem avel without a clue of the circumstances. When they heard the story, they were in shock and (understandably) upset — leaving the mourners in a position to comfort them.
    You would imagine when a family opens up to the community in such a time, they expect the people coming to be menachem avel would be a comfort the mourners, not the other way around! In my family’s case, my father ended up becoming a sort of door guard, preempting visitors with a quick explanation about his father-in-law’s death.
    I don’t know how often something similar (lo aleinu) happens to others, but I want to stress the importance of letting the mourners lead their shivah house. Take a cue from the family and see what they need. Be as kind and sensitive as possible, think before you speak, and do some quick research before you stop by a shivah house so you can appreciate the context of this loss for this family.
    Hopefully through following the halachos that Chazal outlined for us regarding this mitzvah, we can avoid uncomfortable questions such as the “was he sick long?” faced by my mother mourning her murdered father.


    1. Avatar
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      A Lonely Avel

      The letter from S.G. about insensitive questions at a shivah house was extremely informative. However, in her experience at least the visitors attempted to do the mitzvah of nichum aveilim to some extent.
      When I sat shivah less than two years ago, a group of women from the neighborhood came to the shivah house. They sat in the back and talked among themselves for about a half hour. They got up and left without a word to me whatsoever. This painful scene repeated itself every day of my shivah, albeit with a fresh group of women.
      I learned from this experience that while the frum community prides itself on doing chesed, in reality they only do chesed for their inner circle of friends. While S.G.’s complaint is valid, at least her family had many friends to come and be menachem avel.


      1. Avatar
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        Mrs. R. Atkins

        I was sorry to read the letter titled “Is this Chesed?” in your Inbox page, in which “a lonely avel” described her difficult experience of sitting shivah after the loss of a relative.
        Obviously, a person sitting shivah is in a vulnerable situation, and it sounds like she was hurt by the behavior of some of the visitors, who “sat in the back and talked among themselves.”
        Whilst acknowledging her pain, I would like to reassure her that I am sure there was no ill intent here, and the behavior that understandably upset her was the result merely of thoughtlessness, embarrassment, or lack of awareness of how to behave in such a situation. After all — although not overly endowed in the tact department — these people did take the trouble to come!
        Additionally, the writer may not be aware that halachically, until the avel initiates a conversation, the visitor is not meant to say anything to them. If the visitors “got up and left without saying a word to me,” maybe this conversation was not initiated, and therefore they were not able to respond.
        I feel that to extrapolate from this admittedly challenging experience that people in the frum community “only do chesed for their inner circle of friends” is mistaken. The frum community worldwide is renowned for its exceptional levels of chesed and volunteerism. In my own community in North London we have dozens of chesed organizations and gemachs — and this is typical of such communities all over. Those ladies who lacked the awareness of how to behave at a shivah are likely the very same people cooking for new mothers, visiting the sick, and raising money for charity — often without even knowing the name of the recipients of their chesed!
        May Hashem comfort all the mourners, and may we celebrate only happy occasions together.