When someone dies people are often unsure what to do and how to help. I just got up from shiva, the week-long mourning period for my father, and I thought it might be useful to record some of my experiences.
I appreciated every call, message, visit and offer of help. My father died in New York on Tuesday, and my sister and brothers arrived midday Thursday for the burial here in Israel. I called one local friend, ET, who notified the rest of the English-speaking Emunah chapter. When these women spring into action there’s no stopping them.
I very much appreciated the phone calls and offers of help before the funeral. I had a feeling of numbness and an inability to make decisions. If they lived nearby, I told them what I needed at the moment.
Late Tuesday night, I told my husband that I would try to find a friend to come over to sit with me, and the next morning M called and asked if I would like her to come over. She helped me make up a shopping and to-do list and brought over a hot water urn. J culled her freezer and brought over food for Wednesday, while ET made arrangements for all the meals of the shiva.
What we needed to do before the funeral
Even though the funeral arrangements were done by others, my family here in Israel had to deal with many practical considerations:
- Collect enough linens, blankets, pillows, towels for everyone who would be sleeping over.
- Clear the refrigerator to make room for the food that would be coming.
- Laundry, general cleaning and decluttering of the entire house.
- We made a list of things that the kids would do at the end of each day to keep the house organized, including sweeping, wiping off counters etc. In practice this didn’t happen much.
- Prepare a eulogy. (This will be posted soon, God willing.)
- We had time to go through a file of clippings about my father and put them in plastic sheet protectors.
- Notify people. The Yeshiva University alumni list has a huge reach among English speakers in Israel. I also put it up on my site, on Facebook, the local email list and several others. We had a poster printed—the ones with the black border. I made corrections via email and they delivered it to the house. Their email is firstname.lastname@example.org, phone 052-686-4000. We also posted a notice in the print version of the Jerusalem Post, which also has wide reach even on a weekday. All of these notices took involved phone calls, emails and multiple revisions.
- Personally notify a few old friends. This was a bit awkward because I didn’t want to put anyone in the position of feeling obligated to attend the funeral or shiva. I didn’t rack my brains to think of people.
- Make a shopping list for a friend who was on call throughout the day as I added to the list. Among the things I needed to have on hand were drinks, paper goods, a 7-day memorial candle, coffee, tea, herbal tea, and fruit. Much of it went unused, especially soft drinks.
- Make an arrangement for my two youngest children for after school on the day of the funeral.
- Cover the mirrors, which is harder than you might think.
As you can see there were many things to think about. Even though the sign went up a full day before, no neighbors offered help before the funeral. I asked one of the neighbors who said it simply didn’t occur to her—she just noted the time of the funeral and shiva. One neighbor did mumble an apology for not coming by sooner. I would have appreciated an offer of bed or blankets, but it was really more the idea that my neighbors were available. Had I asked they would have done whatever I needed but I didn’t want to ask.
A shiva visitor said she imagined me during this time sitting in my house with my hands clasped. The period before the funeral in Jewish law is known as aninut. The mourners are free of halachic obligations including prayers, tefillin and blessings so that they will be able to bury the deceased. But in modern times the family doesn’t take care of the technical arrangements. In Israel, funerals are often arranged within several hours of death. In my father’s case we had an extra day.
Someone who wishes to remain anonymous made a comment about my —œbreaking new halachic ground in nichum avelim (consoling mourners) over the internet.— Both before the funeral and after, I did check messages and respond when relevant.
Things I appreciated during the shiva:
- My brothers and sister. So often weddings and funerals are the catalysts for family conflict. Old hurts come out because of the emotional weight of the event. The four of us lead different lifestyles, but everyone arrived with good will and a desire to accommodate. I don’t want to idealize things but I didn’t notice any instance when someone insisted on others doing things in a certain way. Those few days with them will be a memory that I will treasure.
- My sister’s daughter Shifra, who came along from New York and helped out in countless ways. She is going to be administering a memorial page about my father, on this site. You can send her material or links to her at BZWacholderMemories@gmail.com.
- My husband, who will be embarrassed if I write any more. And of course my children, all of whom were good-natured and cooperative throughout the week. My teenage daughter’s close friend lost her own father on Shabbat.
- All friends who came to the funeral in the middle of a weekday. My father’s colleague’s son, who was with me all through school, stayed until the end to share memories with the family.
- My husband’s immediately family plus a few more relatives, all of whom came to the funeral with their spouses. My husband had yahrzeit for his mother over Shabbat, and the family —œtook a tramp— on my father’s funeral to say kaddish for her then instead of coming the next day as originally planned. When this idea was first broached I worried that my siblings would be anxious to get back to my house after their flight, but they didn’t mind at all and even appreciated it, another example of how smoothly everything went. I was especially touched by my sister-in-law’s insistence on coming back to the house with us after the funeral even though she lives in the opposite direction—she had a long drive home afterward. Most came again for the shiva.
- The notes, emails, blog comments, Facebook, Twitter condolences, etc. I hope to acknowledge them individually but if not, know that they were read and appreciated.
- All the people from various parts of my life who helped out with or visited the shiva. I’ll give a shout-out to the bloggers: Hadassah Levy, Rena Reich, Our Shiputzim (a couple people asked how I know you, and I told them you were semi-anonymous on the internet), Mirj, Israeli Kitchen, Baroness Tapuzina, Anne, Robin and Yosefa.
- The people who stayed at the shiva. Usually people stay for about 20 minutes, but I noticed that many of the visitors stayed longer and it wasn’t a function of how well I knew them. Unless it was crowded, or very late, I was quite happy for people to stay as long as they wanted. The few times I was alone I wandered around the house quite pathetically. I also caught a cold. It was so important for me to be able to share stories about my father and I’m glad that people took the time to listen.
- The people who offered to help with the kids, although in most cases the older children took care of things. My second-grader is in a dance performance today and she needed black —œtaytz,— not to be confused with tights. Taytz are close-fitting calf-length pants. A friend had offered to shop for them but didn’t get a chance. A girl in the class offered to bring an extra pair but I was appalled to see that they were threadbare with gaping holes. Even I would have thrown them out long ago. Late last night I repaired them as best I could (—œIma, you can’t see any of the holes!—) but wish I had made more of an effort to get new ones. My point is that there are other things going on that the mourner usually takes care of, especially mothers, and they have to get done somehow.
Tips on Preparing Food for a Shiva
My husband said the problem with shiva isn’t that you aren’t allowed to cook—even the mourner can prepare food if necessary—but that there is simply no time because people are always coming in. We were blessed in that we had many more offers of food than we needed. Often the main problem with shiva is having to deal with an overload of food. ET tells how she once shopped and cooked for a shiva meal, but asked to bring it home because the kitchen was stuffed with food.
The most helpful things:
- A coordinator. Anyone who offered to cook,including from our shul, was directed to ET. She diplomatically convinced people only to bring what might be really needed. Some people still brought unsolicited offerings. There’s really no way to avoid this completely, and no way to predict exactly how much will be needed.
- A list. ET wrote me a list of who was bringing each meal—two meals a day. A friend who had recently sat shiva said she felt that was excessive, but I appreciated it even though we didn’t know which kids would be eating at home all the time. Two meals a day meant more variety for picky eaters. I put much of the food in the freezer for next week.
- Convenience. Everything was welcome, but the best were foods that saved time. A casserole in a foil pan can be heated in the oven and the leftovers put back in the fridge. But soups need a pot, ladle and container for leftovers. Salads, fruit or vegetable plates, and small whole fruits work better than whole melons.
- Healthy foods. People brought snack foods and cakes, which we preferred not to have around not including the brownies made with butter, walnuts and white chocolate. We also didn’t drink soft drinks but every family is different.
- Disposables. ET said there should be a rule about only bringing containers that don’t need to be returned. I didn’t find this a big problem but ET took it upon herself to remove a few items.
- Labeling. Each item should say who brought it, what’s in it, and whether the container should be returned.
- Shabbat. The most helpful labels were the ones that said Friday night or Shabbat lunch. Setting up the food Friday afternoon was stressful enough without having to check inside containers and make decisions. We were mostly adults, but a family with small children could use a neighbor during this time.
General observations about my shiva
- About 90% of the people who came were women.
- The only time it felt crowded was Motzei Shabbat. That was also the time that my brothers and sister were still around so there were multiple conversations. The rest of the time there were anywhere between one and seven people.
- I directed whoever came in to sit directly in front of me, and seated additional people next to them in a row. I strained my neck if I had to turn my head to see people at the side—an occupational hazard of shiva. The low, plastic mourning chairs provided by the shul were reasonably comfortable but may have contributed to the neck strain issue.
- Phone calls. My attitude toward phone calls changed throughout the week. Before the funeral I made an announcement to my family that all phone calls should be screened during the shiva, and that I would not take most of them. I stuck to this early in the week, but agreed to speak to more people as the week went on and even answered several calls when no one was around. I also asked visitors to answer the phone—a charity telemarketer convinced my sister-in-law to give a donation for a kid having surgery in chu—l (out of the country).
- It was good to have food and drinks available for people who were hungry, but only a small amount got eaten.
My friend ET pointed out that everyone has to go through this stage of mourning for your parents. Because the only reason you don’t is if you die before they do. One visitor said that he learned that the saying, —œVelo tosifu daavah od,— or “Shelo ted’ee od tzaar” (you should have no further sorrow) is only a blessing for mourners who have lost both parents. No one looks forward to sitting shiva, but it’s part of the normal cycle of life.
I found this idea comforting. I wouldn’t have appreciated it twenty years ago when my mother died suddenly at age 65, but my father lived a productive life for nearly ninety years (no one knows for sure). He died peacefully at home with loved ones around him.
Thank you again to my wonderful friends, both “real-life” and “virtual” (you are also real), who aided and comforted me during this time.
Extra tip: The visits I will remember with the most pleasure were from those who asked thoughtful questions about my family, helping me to recall old memories or process them in different ways.
Related: Notes from a Granddaughter