Why death becomes us

November 24, 2016 23:12

I am writing this the Sunday before Rosh Hashanah, just before I head to the cemetery to visit my father's grave. If you were hoping for a cheery, honey-dipped, shana tova-ish column, then hang in there, for there is a feel-good factor, even if it does involve a dead dad. For, like rugelach, self-deprecating humour, and pickles, I think we Jews are quite Mr Kipling when it comes to death - exceedingly good at it.

Of course, everyone's bereavement is different, even when it comes to mourning the same person. When I lost my dad, those around me lost a husband, a brother and a son, and we all dealt with it differently. My dad died after a near-decade-long battle with Alzheimer's so we had really lost him many years earlier, but a death in the family, in whichever form, is a shock. The reality of that person no longer being there makes the world feel completely unreal. Chaos can ensue.

That's when being a Jew comes in handy. Thanks to all of our codifying rituals and customs, order is restored.

I've never been more thankful for Jewish rules than when my dad died, from the demand to not leave the body alone running up to the funeral (which led to friends and family illustrating a moving display of loyalty that will never be forgotten) to the speed in which the funeral is arranged, a scheduling device akin to ripping off a plaster. There almost isn't time to dwell on your grief - you must put it in a box in for a while.

And then of course there is the party - the shivah - when you need to put that box out of the way of the guests. Oh, how we laughed. Seriously. That week I spent continually with my family yielded so many comedic moments that I won't share here because they will likely offend/ I am saving them for a screenplay.

A shivah house is the epicentre of a family's support system

Of course, it's not always jolly. But there is something so reassuring about knowing where you are going every morning and what is expected of you when you wake up that week.

A shivah house is the epicentre of a family's support system. From those friends who take charge of the endless delivery of food parcels, to those you haven't seen for years but spot at the back of room. Everything is thought through, from the specific chairs to the covered mirrors, releasing everyone from the burden of vanity (although one of my favourite stories comes from a friend who arrived at her best friend's shivah house before the mirrors had been covered up. She caught sight of herself, said "ugh, I look like death" and won Most Awkward Shivah House Moment of the Year that year. This year's entries are now open).

Shivah and the other customs by no means cure grief. But, for me, they made bereavement bearable. And while I don't exactly look forward to heading to the cemetery each erev Yomtov, it is another custom I'm glad I have. I miss my dad all the time but I've learned to live a life when I am not constantly looking in that box of grief. Days like last Sunday or yarzheit, when I let myself take the grief out and have a rummage around, are good for me. I can then put the box away for a while and try to keep things tidy.

A non-Jewish friend of mine lost her father a few years ago and, as the thought of his funeral loomed over her for weeks and various people knocked on her door at all times of the day to pay their respects, she turned to me, looking very tired and said: "I wish I was Jewish right about now." I knew exactly what she meant.

November 24, 2016 23:12

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