May 25, 2024
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May 25, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

After experiencing the

death of my father, Dr Saul Agus A’’h, over three months ago, I have decided to share some thoughts in hope that this can help our friends who try to comfort mourners during these difficult times. Specifically, I would like to focus on the funeral, shiva week and post shiva. Some of you might be surprised that I am writing because I tend to keep my feelings to myself, and I do not typically emote. However, I was very inspired when I read Sheryl Sandberg’s post on the death of her husband a few months ago and felt that writing out my thoughts could be inspirational or helpful to some.

My intentions are not to offend anyone with my viewpoints. I am also not interested in starting a debate on the etiquette of shiva. Rather, these are my own feelings about the process, based on my experience.

I feel so fortunate to live in a community with tremendous support from everyone. It is amazing to experience comfort from family, friends, colleagues, synagogues, rabbis, schools and other organizations. It is with gratitude and hakarat hatov that I write this.

The Funeral

1. Always sign the funeral book. If you made a point of going to the funeral do not assume the mourner will know you are there or remember speaking to you. In my situation, about 75 people signed the book. There were over 700 people at the funeral. I obviously remember the Hasidic guy running around on stage (it was comical) but if you did not sign in I probably did not know you were there (even if we spoke at the funeral).

2. It is my belief that going to the funeral does not replace paying a shiva call. The funeral allows you to learn about the deceased and family dynamics. The shiva call gives you an opportunity to express your sorrow.

Shiva

The week of shiva was very therapeutic for me. I hear all the time that the Jewish way of mourning is designed brilliantly. I was mesmerized and overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of people who came and by the wonderful stories people shared about my father. It was incredible to be surrounded by family for such an intense period of time. I am constantly asked what I learned at shiva about my father that I did not already know. For me, I learned about the tremendous impact my father had on so many lives. He treated everyone equally and it was amazing to hear story after story of the lives he saved and the time he gave to others. We were so affected and touched by the patients we had never seen before who came to express their grief. Overall, I would say that the shiva week is designed to be a source of comfort to the mourner. For me, my comfort was listening and hearing stories about my father.

I would like to offer some suggestions to people who have never experienced a loss of a close family member.

1. When in doubt, always pay a shiva call. If it is someone who lives in your community, goes to your shul or your children’s schools, it will be uncomfortable to bump into them at the supermarket or at school if you did not pay a shiva call or write a note. Trust me. I remember who paid a shiva call and who did not pay a shiva call.

2. One spouse does not represent a married couple. If a couple are both friends with the mourner, they both should pay a shiva call, either together or separately.

3. If you cannot attend the funeral or pay a shiva call, write a letter or send an email. We loved getting written notes or emails about people’s interactions with my father. These memories were so meaningful and comforting to my family and me. We treasure these notes and continue to welcome any memories.

4. There is nothing wrong with saying nothing. It can be very uncomfortable to pay a shiva call. Silence makes people uncomfortable, but it’s normal at a shiva house. If the mourner is not engaging with you, express your condolences and leave after 10 minutes. Short visits can be just as meaningful. For me, people just showing was comforting enough.

5. Do not ask about the details of the death. Stay away from conversation of how the person died or if you were there when they died. I was not there when my father passed away, and I did not want to speak about that with others.

6. Do not discuss the medical aspects of the deceased’s illness, unless the mourners ask about it.

7. If the mourner is trying to listen to someone else tell a story, do not try to interrupt or get the mourner’s attention. I personally enjoyed hearing other people talk about my father and did not appreciate when people tried to start a new conversation.

8. Do not stay too long. Five to 15 minutes is plenty of time. If it is crowded, there are others waiting to see the mourner. If it is not crowded, the mourners might appreciate some quiet time.

9. Shiva is about the mourners, not about the visitors. If the mourners make a request that seems odd to you, keep it to yourself. For example, one of my greatest sources of comfort came from the numerous rabbis who regaled us with amazing stories about my father and the many lives he saved. They were there to comfort my family and me. They entranced me. I apologize that people were offended that some of them asked to switch seats so that men and women sat separately or that women were asked to leave the room. However, those rabbis gave me tremendous comfort during the shiva week. Do not worry; I am not becoming a Skeverer, Bobbover or Spinker Chasid but I certainly have more respect for them. (I say that, as I am currently engrossed and fascinated by Shulem Deen’s book “All Who Go Do Not Return”).

Post Shiva

1. Do not assume to know how the mourners feel about finishing shiva. The actual day of getting up from shiva was the hardest day for me. Yet, many people assumed the opposite. It is probably best to avoid telling mourners things like they must be so happy or relieved to get up. You do not know how they feel. I was not happy nor did I feel relief. Some might, but I certainly did not. The bottom line is that getting up from shiva sucked for me. I left a cocooned, regimented week of hearing the most amazing and beautiful stories about my father. I was surrounded by my family and loved ones and then I was expected to be back to normal. I felt like I could not breathe. My heart was breaking.

2. It is very nice to send the mourner a simple text, email or phone message that you are thinking about them. However, please do not expect the mourner to text or call back. Do not expect routine communication from someone after shiva.

3. The return back to the real world is different for everyone. I have friends who ran back to work and that was good for them. For me, returning back to work was extremely difficult. Everywhere I went, everyone knew my father. I work in the same neighborhood where my father worked. In retrospect, I should have taken more time. I returned too early and I think that made things harder for me.

4. Be very careful before attempting a “flyby” shiva call. People meant well; however, stopping in the hallway at work and having a shiva call right before a parent meeting only made things more difficult for me. This is particularly true for people who did not make a shiva call (see Shiva Point #1 above). If you did not make the effort to come or write a note during shiva, the mourner is unlikely to be very receptive a week after shiva in the middle of work. That said, it is appropriate and helpful to tell someone a week or two after shiva that you are still thinking about them, or you hope they are doing well, etc. It’s a fine balance.

5. It takes a lot of time. In reflecting back at the past three months, I would say that the pain becomes less intense but does not go away. It hits me at different times and different moments. I find tears in my eyes at different unexpected scenarios. At the supermarket, practicing yoga, eating at the Shabbat table, in my dreams, or planning my daughter’s bat mitzvah—the intensity comes and goes but I feel a continuous, big void in my life that I assume will only grow over time.

Michal Agus Fox is married to Natie Fox. They have four children and live in Englewood, New Jersey. Michal works as a school psychologist at the Ramaz Lower School.

By Michal Agus Fox

 

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