May 16, 2024
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Shiva is the Hebrew word for seven, and when we use it in the context of “sitting shiva,” it refers to the seven days of mourning observed by the first-degree relatives of a person who has died, spending much of the time sitting on the floor or a low chair. We have a beautiful mitzvah to visit the people who are sitting shiva so that they can share stories and memories about their loved one, and we offer our comfort, condolences and support.

In every shiva house I have ever visited, there is always a number of people hanging around, often in the kitchen, in the hallway, or in the corner of the room where the aveilim (mourners) themselves are sitting. Some visitors to the home may acknowledge these people with a nod or a quick greeting; they are not, however, the people these visitors have come to see, as they are not sitting shiva. Typically, the people hanging around in a shiva house are the people “standing” shiva. They are grandchildren, nieces, nephews, in-laws and good friends of the deceased and the family. They are people who may well be mourning deeply and feeling a profound sense of loss, but they do not have a technical halachic (legal) requirement to sit shiva.

On Sunday night, February 27, my family will be commemorating the third yahrtzeit (anniversary of the death) of my dear father-in-law, Professor Leo Taubes. I was blessed to have two fathers in my life. My own father, Rabbi Chaim Shulman, raised me, taught me how to think, listen and learn critically, to love literature, swim, appreciate nature and drive a stick shift. My father loved me like most fathers love their children.

I remember the very first time I met my then future father-in-law. I was terrified to even open my mouth. I was aware of his reputation as a very tough English teacher, and I was afraid I would unintentionally “dangle a participle” or utter some other grammatically incorrect phrase and he would think me illiterate and thus not worthy of his son. My anxiety was of course unwarranted; he never corrected my English. He was my father-in-law for 37 years and during that time, I grew to care for and love him deeply. He was not only my father-in-law; he was a close friend. When he died after a very short but difficult illness, I was heartbroken. My husband and his siblings lost their father. My children, nieces and nephews lost their beloved Saba. And I lost someone to whom I was so close. It was during his shiva that I thought seriously about all the people who love someone who dies and mourn for that person, but don’t have a formal mourning process—the people who hang around in the kitchen, on the phone and upstairs in the mourner’s home.

My own children were devastated by the loss of their confidant, cheerleader, mentor, critic—their dear Saba. Seeing their pain, and feeling my own, has made me take more careful notice of the non-shiva mourners. I realized, probably like many of you, that I had never really paid much attention to the non-first-degree relatives in a shiva home before.

Visiting a shiva home can be uncomfortable and awkward; navigating the seating by trying to get a chair close enough to hear the mourner share stories can be challenging. The entire process—being careful to say the “right” thing, being supportive and interested, being mindful not to talk about one’s own experiences and problems, keeping track of the length of the visit (making sure not stay for too short or too long a time), being aware of others in the room who may be standing and want to sit so that they too can visit the mourner, standing in line to share a few private words before saying “HaMakom” (the traditional closing words) to all the mourners, and then quietly leaving—can be emotionally draining. There is very little room to take note of the other people in the house who are also mourning. If you can, though, and if you have the time, speak to them too. Let the grandchildren tell you a story about their grandparent. Tell them how sorry you are for their loss.

If you are “standing” shiva after the death of someone you love, you may long for others to recognize and acknowledge your pain. Talk to your friends and family. Share the details of your warm relationship. When even well-meaning people ignore or minimize your loss, you may feel like they are undermining the person’s significance in your life and taking away your right to feel pain. This often seems to happen when an elderly person dies. It is the nature of life that older people die. The death of a grandparent is expected as part of the natural world order. But it’s not helpful when grieving to be reminded of the person’s age; it does not ease the pain caused by their absence. Grief reflects one’s unique relationship with the person who has been lost and one’s own ability to cope with loss. People who stand shiva don’t always recognize the need for help in dealing with their grief. But we can acknowledge and address that need.

May the memories of the people you loved warm your heart; help make you smile, shed a tear, and share a story; and bring you comfort.


Beth S. (Bassie) Taubes, RN, CHC, CYT, is the owner of Wellness Motivations LLC. She motivates clients of all backgrounds, ages and health conditions to engage in improved self-care through nutritional counseling, personal fitness training, yoga practice, tai chi and stress-reduction techniques. She is currently seeing clients in her outdoor studio or on Zoom. She is also the rebbetzin of Congregation Zichron Mordechai in Teaneck.

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