I have just returned from the Shivah of one of my mother’s nicest friends, Miriam, a graceful lady in her eighties, who recently died after fighting to live and to continue breathing, a process lasting several weeks, the last three spent in hospital. The last two times I spoke with her on the phone and asked how she was, she laughingly said, “I’m younger and prettier,” her typical humor shining through. Having planned to visit her but procrastinating, not penciling it into my schedule, by now it is too late.
But I have discovered a multitude of people in her life, including her two sons and one lovely grand daughter, whose friendly smile reminds me of her grandmother and allows me to imagine what she might have looked like as a young girl.
While Miriam was very definitely missing from her living room, where we gathered this Saturday afternoon, there was a warmth and friendliness emanating from her family, which I can trace directly to her.
The Shivah is an important Jewish ritual, instrumental in allowing people to mourn their dead. Following the funeral, and till the end of the seventh day (interrupted only by the Sabbath or Jewish holidays in the case of traditional or observing families), neighbors and friends congregate in the deceased’s home to pay their respects to both the living and the dead, and to hear the accounts by surviving family members and close friends, of the circumstances surrounding the death of their loved one, and reminiscences about their shared life. Often photograph albums are leafed through, anecdotes remembered.
While exhausting for the family left behind, this coming together, a constant stream of people providing a kaleidoscopic picture of the life of the departed one, somehow eases the acute pain associated with the sudden rupture of death (sudden even when expected, as in the case of chronic illness). Of course the void remains, and throbs with each situation or context evoking the absence of the loved one, often taking one by surprise as years later, one sees one’s father or grandfather in people one chances by on the street, strangers who fleetingly remind us of them.
Regarding the unexpected “I” and “Thou” encounters that may emerge among relative strangers during the Shivah, I’m reminded of my days as a staff psychologist in Oncology, when the family members and often the patients themselves gave me the courage and the strength to continue my “work” amidst this never-ending train of arrival and departure.
People often die as they have lived. Let us live well and as fully as we can, while there is still time. Let us make the most of every moment we can savor. Let us be kind to ourselves and unto others.