What do you think of when you think of grieving? Is it something to push away? Is it something to be hidden? Is it something to avoid? Many of us in modern society today think of grieving is something to be avoided or at least minimized, but there’s one tradition that embraces grief and all of its facets – including the healing that can come about when grief is truly honored and addressed. It’s called sitting Shiva, and those of the Jewish faith often participate in this time-honored tradition as a means to honor loved ones into fully honor their own grief, as well.
Who can sit Shiva?
If you are of the Jewish faith and someone in your immediate family has died, you can sit Shiva for them. If you are the father, mother, brother, sister, son, daughter, husband or wife of the deceased, you can sit Shiva. Other relatives and friends join you in the mourning process, although they don’t actively sit Shiva.
What does sitting Shiva actually “do”?
At its essence, what Shiva does is to open up space in mourners’ lives to actively sit and embrace their grief. It’s also a way to honor the deceased and to remember him or her during this seven-day period of mourning, time in which literally nothing else is done unless absolutely necessary.
Those of the Jewish faith who sit Shiva generally don’t do anything else for those 3 to 7 days. (“Shiva” means “seven,” hence the traditional Shiva period of seven days, although some traditions have now shortened it to three days.) That means mourners can entirely focus on their grief and on healing. Other more modern death traditions don’t give this kind of “mourning space” to grieving family and friends, simply expecting bereaved loved ones to pick up the pieces and move on. The Jewish tradition is certainly respectful of the time necessary to mourn then move on. Notably, although openly mourning and grieving during the time of Shiva is expected and even encouraged, it’s also frowned upon to be overly “dramatic” with one’s mourning.
If you’re not of the Jewish faith, can you help?
If you’re not of the Jewish faith, of course, sitting Shiva is not something you’re going to do, but you can still honor the deceased and help Jewish friends celebrate the deceased’s memory by making a Shiva call. You are very welcome to visit the Shiva house even if you’re not of the Jewish faith. It is considered a great honor, in fact, to have friends and family call during Shiva, to sit with the bereaved, offer condolences and comfort, and remember the deceased.
In addition, those sitting Shiva don’t do anything except for the “bare necessities” when they are sitting Shiva. They don’t do errands, they don’t watch any kind of entertainment or do anything for enjoyment or work, and they don’t generally even leave the house. Therefore, it falls to friends and family to pick up these tasks for those sitting Shiva until such time as they can resume life and these tasks once again. If you want to help a friend who is sitting Shiva, ask the rabbi or a close friend or family member not sitting Shiva what you can do to help. Your efforts will be most appreciated.