I haven't posted in a week because, frankly, I've found it difficult to post on anything other than the contemplations on death that I promised last Friday and yet equally hard to address those issues at all. This waiting period and the difficulty in transitioning to non-morbid topics put me in mind of the stages of mourning. In Judaism, mourners go through several stages, during which they have different requirements and considerations.
The first seven days of mourning, the immediate family sits shiva ( the Hebrew noun meaning "sit," but it sounds awfully like the word for "seven"), during which they literally sit on hard, low chairs, wear sackcloth (or in this day and age, a torn ribbon; except in more observant communities, where they rend their clothing), and are visited by family and friends.
The first thirty days, the sh'loshim, the mourners get off their low chairs and can put on whole clothes again, but mourners don't shave, don't listen to live music or attend parties, and cover their mirrors.
During the first year of mourning, mourners can shave, but still cannot listen to live music or attend some types of parties, and some people hold that mourners should lead services because their obligation is stronger.
During this entire period, mourners say Kaddish, the Prayer for Mourning. After the first year, mourners say Kaddish on their loved one's yortzeit (the anniversary of their death) and during Yisgor, the Service of Remembrance.
Recently, I've been to several services with traditions surrounding Kaddish with which I vehemently disagree. Two years ago, at a Conservative shul* in Westchester, the rabbi had people rise according to the length of time they had been mourning: "If you are sitting shiva, please rise. If you are in the first thirty days of mourning, please rise. If you are in the first year of mourning, please rise. If you are observing yortzeit, please rise." I was pretty outraged in response, but this tradition was far less appalling than the one I observed at a Reform shul* last Rosh Hashana. The rabbi called out the name of people who had died and ask people to rise if they were mourning for that person (in order of how recently a person had passed). I was stunned, outraged, disgusted, and nauseated. My response may seem to be an over-reaction. Walking back from shul that afternoon, I had a lengthy discussion with a friend of mine whose shul follows that tradition. She argued that it made sense to recognize the recency of the loss and also alerted people to a person's stage of grief. I argued, admittedly from an extremely emotional vantage point, that it's difficult enough to stand up for kaddish without everyone knowing precisely how long you've been mourning. Announcing the stages implies that time correlates neatly with emotional impact or "level" of grief, when that couldn't be further from the truth.
Grief comes in fits and spurts, it's illogical and regardless of how we map it, we can never understand it. Even having had experience with grief hardly prepares you for the course healing will take in reaction to a new loss: a different person, a different relationship, a different reaction. In a tight-knit community, the announcement would be superfluous because the community would already know that a person is in mourning. In a diffuse community, that announcement feels like an intrusion. And to what end? Jewish tradition forbids going up to a person and drawing them out to speak while they are in mourning; we sit in silence until the mourners speak. So what's the purpose of call "fresh" mourners to rise in turn, based on how long they've been mourning?
I have not been able to find justification for this practice in Jewish law or tradition. If anyone knows where this tradition arose, I would like to hear how it developed. Suffice to say, I think it's a horrible, detrimental tradition that unjustifiably causes pain to those already suffering.
It's difficult to be sensitive to the needs of mourners because they are so varied, both from person-to-person and often from minute-to-minute for a single person. The solution is not to call them out, but to ensure that your community is supportive and open before a tragedy occurs. Religions were constructed for a variety of reasons, but in large part to create a supportive social network for the purpose of ensuring that members of that community survive pain and loss and are able to continue to be active, productive members. To the extent that religions work, they provide ritual in which people find solace and regain control, ritual that, in Judaism, requires an entire community (or at least a quorum of 10) to be present.
The cliquishness and exclusivity of some religious communities undermine their ability to be a supportive community. Not only does it preclude new members from joining and feeling comfortable, but it creates an atmosphere where people feel uncomfortable expressing vulnerability, exasperating the feeling of marginalization that results from losing someone (we'll talk about death euphemisms soon, trust me-- I mean, who thought up "losing someone," as if they've been momentarily misplaced or you weren't vigilant enough in keeping track of them).
I admit that I have a personal bone to pick in writing this last observation. As I've observed a yortzeit for the last decade and a half, I've had the opportunity to witness a myriad of communities (I've found myself in some pretty odd places on the date in question and made do with some uncomfortable compromises). The worst experience yet (although admittedly, saying Kaddish is never a good experience), was my freshman year in college. I was attending a certain Ivy League institution with a notoriously insulated Orthodox community who, unfortunately, were the only people holding a maariv minyan** in the middle of the week. I went with a more traditionally observant friend, dressed appropriately, swallowed my convictions, and stood on my side of the mechitza (the barrier separating male and female sides of the room). We got there before the service started and we were clearly new to this scene, yet not one person introduced themselves or even made eye contact. That was fine; I wasn't there to make friends or socialize; I was there to honor my mother's memory. Imagine my surprise when the service ended without Kaddish. No one asked if anyone needed to say Kaddish, no one considered that the random new girls were there for that purpose, no one even paused. I didn't know what to do. I didn't know the rules when it came to Kaddish, only that I needed 10 people and it came during a service. I had never been to a service where they skipped Kaddish. Panicked, I did it alone, with everyone milling around the room chatting, hoping that the fact that the necessary number of people were still present, if not still praying, was enough. Tears ran down my face as I went through the motions. I had never felt so entirely alone.
Maybe I'm hyper-sensitive to having people rise according to where they are in their grief because there are days when the pain of loss feels so fresh, it could have happened yesterday, when I feel my heart breaking all over again. Maybe it's because you never really get over death, you just learn to think around it, the way our brains work to form new connections around scar tissue. Maybe, I'm reminded of how people would stare at me and my father, pitying us; and later, when I went to shul alone, questioning me, wondering whom I had lost and how, asking if I understood that you only stand for immediate family. The feeling of everyone's eyes on me when all I wanted to do was shrink into a chair, to be entirely alone with my pain, that feeling stays with me. I shudder at what others feel when reminded precisely how long they've been mourning, in a place that's supposed to be safe for them, in shul.
*NB: I do not attend Orthodox shuls for religious and philosophical reasons, so I've left them out of this post, but I by no means wish to imply that these two shuls were representative of the Conservative and Reform movements.
** Maariv is the evening service; minyan is the minimum 10 people needed for a quorum to recite certain parts of the service and to say Kaddish.