Shiva is traditionally observed when one of seven primary relatives passes away; according to Jewish law those are mother, father, sister, brother, son, daughter, and spouse. That said, there are situations where, depending on the circumstances, one might not sit shiva for these relatives or one may sit shiva for others — a beloved teacher, for example. Shiva is about feeling the passing, honoring the memory, and taking time to pause one’s life in a drastic way. The pause reflects and signals the profound Jewish value placed on each and every individual human life. We tear our clothes, sit low to the ground, restrict our conversation, activity, and focus. Our lives come to a halt, as poet W.H. Auden writes in “Funeral Blues,” “Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone.”
—Rivy Poupko Kletenik
While immediate family is “required,” anyone touched by loss can sit shiva, if done with deference. Shiva may vary in form, perhaps depending on one’s relationship or proximity to the deceased. Some hold fast to age-old customs: minyan, kaddish, candle, sitting low, refraining from pleasure. Others might seek comfort more informally and consider it “shiva,” too: sharing memories, flipping through photos, journaling, singing. Shiva offers a structure to whoever needs it, to commemorate the person, and to process the depths and contours of the relationship and loss. It asks other people to be there, supporting through ritual, tears, talking, or silence, reminding us we are not alone in the experience. We all need this.
No two people process grief the same. Judaism recognizes that and provides a framework for that process. Children, siblings, parents, and spouses sit shiva — a seven-day mourning period — followed by 30 days of abstaining from overly joyous acts. Children mourning a parent keep these abstentions for a full year. Friends and other relatives offer comfort to the immediate family. And as we all embark on the healing process, we take comfort in the exaltation of the soul, for Judaism teaches that the “afterlife” is actually “continuation of life,” when the soul lives on in a higher realm.
—Rabbi Mendel Weingarten