Life & Culture

‘Shiva was amazing. It really left me not alone’

The Jewish way of processing bereavement helps mourners change and grow, says grief expert Merissa Nathan Gerson


When Merissa Nathan Gerson found out that her father was dying from a degenerative brain disease, she sent an email to her close friends spelling out what she needed.

This included text messages and five-minute phone-calls to let her know they were thinking of her, not asking questions if she asked them not to and continuing to share with her the joys and successes of their own lives, writing that it was “weirdly soothing to hear about happiness and thriving.”

It was an act which flew in the face of the West’s “keep calm and carry on” approach to death and dying. But it paid off.

Within days, she was receiving texts, phone-calls and parcels. When she arrived home after her father’s death in December 2019, she found a friend had ordered groceries for her. “There was the fanciest yoghurt and the ingredients for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. It was the biggest gift because I could eat at home.”

This intimate recollection is included in Nathan Gerson’s book, Forget Prayers, Bring Cake: A Single Woman’s Guide to Grieving, which is both a beautifully written memoir and a “how to” book, aimed predominantly, but not exclusively, at women who are going through bereavement alone.

She realised that my way of dealing with my father’s death was really different from my sister and brother, who had partners. “

They both had this person who checked their feelings and was with them the next day. It doesn’t mean that their pain doesn’t come, but they were receiving differently.”

She says that other bereavement books she came across were failing to meet the needs of single people. “There were women who needed to be empowered to get through their own losses. This is the book I wanted to have.”

The book, which covers topics such as how to ask for help, understanding trauma and dating while grieving, was modelled on the popular “What to expect” series, which (notably) prepares parents-to-be for the start of a new life.

A writer and educator by trade, Nathan Gerson, 41, ends each chapter of prose with a series of instructive bullet points. “I know that a lot of people, when they’re grieving, can’t read because their brains are fried, so I wanted to write a book where they could just go to the section they needed.”

The world of grief and trauma is not new to Nathan Gerson, who is a visiting professor at Tulane University near her home in New Orleans.

Her Masters focused on inherited trauma and she is a professional “grief worker” —“a role I was born with.”

That might sound hyperbolic, but her grandmother was a Holocaust survivor and many of Nathan Gerson’s ancestors were murdered in the Holocaust. “I was raised with a lot of graves. Our family’s marker on my father’s side is a collective shrine to their town in a graveyard.”

There is a chapter on compounded grief — when people experience multiple griefs one after the other — and how that is made even more complicated when inherited grief (grief passed down through the family) is thrown into the emotional mix.

“Because I come from a Holocaust survivor family and we’ve had other losses, I’ve been asking for a long time: ‘What is it to grieve?’ ‘Why can’t we grieve?’ ‘How do we grieve?’. I was interested in what was trapped in my family’s dynamics from the past.”

Learning how to feel and express our grief is, she says, a lifelong process. “That is what my grief work has been about, helping people find ways to feel so [their feelings] don’t get locked inside of them because I do think that makes them sick.”

Nathan Gerson is fascinated by the different attitudes towards death and grieving. “There are cities where they have these ritual screams, where people just open their windows and scream out. People gave me advice to just scream, but I live with a wall that I share with another family, so a lot my sound had to go inward.”

A few days before our interview, Nathan Gerson, who is also a sex educator, was in London, running a workshop on finding sexual freedom. Somewhat surprisingly, she says the work she does on grief and sex is essentially “the same”, explaining: “They’re both asking us to be in touch with our body.

A lot of grief practises are about helping you be present to the room.”
While her father’s terminal illness and subsequent death left the writer drowning in sadness at times, she found a life-raft in Judaism’s bereavement rituals.

“I think that these are our best inheritance and I feel bad for everybody that doesn’t have them. Shiva was amazing. It really left me not alone.”

Even though she didn’t say Kaddish with a minyan every day, Nathan Gerson used the model to create her own rituals during the first eleventh months.

She ordered her father’s favourite foods, lit a candle every morning next to his photo and held informal events with friends to remember him.

“I help people understand that you either sink and let your grief and loss kill you or you let it change you. It has to change you.

"There’s no going backwards. I think that’s why the Jewish cycles are so special. They help you see that you’re changing.”

Shortly after her father’s stone-setting — and 13 months after Nathan Gerson, consumed by grief, had wanted to cut herself off from the world outside — she attended a Mardi Gras parade, dancing in a brightly coloured, glittery costume, complete with a shirt which had belonged to her father.

“I love the way they approach life in New Orleans. Horrible things happen in the world, but we have a choice to still love our lives and be completely vibrant. They have the same attitude that I want to leave readers with, which is: ‘I want to be alive. Even though they died, I want to be alive.’”

Forget Prayers, Bring Cake: A Single Woman’s Guide to Grieving is published by Insight Editions

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