After the week of shiva, what then?
February 04, 2013
This is something I've been working on in my capacity as a congregational rabbi. I'll be sharing it with my synagogue community. But I wanted to share it here too. This blog is part of my rabbinate, and I'm blessed to be in relationship with "internet congregants" who are spread pretty far and wide.
If you've just found this blog through searching for resources for the end of shiva, I welcome you to Velveteen Rabbi, and I hope that what follows is helpful to you.
So you're approaching the end of shiva. That first week of mourning after the funeral, after the first mourner's kaddish, after the unthinkable act of shoveling a spade-ful of earth and hearing it thud on unvarnished wood. Shiva means seven, the number of days of this first stage of grieving. One week: the most basic unit of Jewish time. After those seven days, a mourner enters the stage called shloshim, "thirty," which lasts through the first month after burial. But what does entering into shloshim mean? How does it, might it, have an impact on your life?
In the tangible world, the move from shiva to shloshim can have palpable implications. Traditional Jewish practice places a variety of restrictions on mourners during shiva -- for instance: not wearing leather shoes, sitting on the ground or on a low stool (closeness to the earth is a sign of humility and mourning), not going to work, not engaging in physical intimacy. All of these restrictions are lifted during shloshim.
For contemporary liberal Jews who do not consider themselves bound by traditional halakhot (laws / ways-of-walking), the restrictions and their abeyance may or may not have meaning. You may not have given up leather or sex or anointing yourself with perfume or listening to music this week. But the psycho-spiritual shift of moving from shiva to shloshim is still significant. The shift from shiva to shloshim is all about expansion.
During the first week of mourning one's life may contract to a very small space. Perhaps you haven't left the shiva house at all. Or even if you've gone in and out of your home, you may have felt constricted, your life seemingly shrunken. Once shiva has ended, it is time to start expanding again. Open yourself to seeing more people. Allow yourself to immerse in your work life again. Expand your self-perception: you are not only a mourner, not only someone who grieves, but also someone who lives, works, struggles, and loves.
This may feel impossible. If it does, that's okay. Just know that our tradition believes that it is good for a mourner to try to open themselves to life again after that first most-intense week of grief. Your sorrow may ebb and flow. You may experience times when you think you're close to okay again, and times when the floodwaters of emotion threaten to swamp you. Keep breathing. The emotional rollercoaster is normal. You won't always feel this way, but -- as the saying goes -- the only way out is through.
If you've been burning a shiva candle all week, your candle will naturally flicker and gutter and run out of fuel as the week of shiva ends. (The candle is designed to last for seven days; that's what makes it a shiva candle.) When the candle extinguishes itself, that may feel like another blow, another loss. Remember that the candle is only a candle: a symbol of your mourning, but not a barometer of your spiritual state or of your loved one's presence.
You can still talk to your loved one, if there is meaning for you in that practice. You can talk to God. You can pray or meditate or sit in your silent car and wail -- however you can best express whatever you're feeling. You might try writing a letter to your loved one at the end of shiva, telling them where you are and how you are as the first week of active mourning comes to its end. (What you do with the letter is up to you: save it? burn it? shred it and use the paper to mulch a new tree?)
Above all, be kind to yourself. Pay attention to what your heart needs.
This second stage of mourning lasts for one month, the time it takes for the moon to wax and become full and then wane again. This is an organic cycle, a mode of measuring time through observing the ebb and flow of the natural world. Just as the moon grows and shrinks, so our spirits and our hearts experience times of fullness and times of contraction. The end of shloshim is a time to begin looking toward fullness again. We trust that after the moon has disappeared, she will return; we trust that after our lives have been diminished by loss, light and meaning will flow into them again.
If you are moving from shiva into shloshim: I bless you that the transition should be what you need it to be. May this ancient way of thinking about mourning and the passage of time be meaningful for you; may time soothe your grief. One traditional practice is to mark the end of shiva by going for a walk around the block -- a symbolic step out of the closeness of your home, into the wide world around you. (See Ending Shiva by Rabbi Peretz Rodman.)
If you are moving out of shloshim, I offer you the same blessing: may this transition be what you most need. For those who feel the need for a ritual to mark that shift, I recommend this Leaving Shloshim Ritual by Rabbi Janet Madden. (Ritualwell has a wide variety of materials relating to mourning and bereavement, so if that ritual isn't what you need, feel free to browse.)
May the Source of Mercy bring you comfort along with all who mourn.