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Sitting Shiva at the Home Depot

Ours was never the traditional Jewish family. When my father passed away, a strange new question arose: How does one mourn?

Kelsey Liebenson-Morse
February 21, 2018

When my father died, there were eight people gathered around his bed. There was also a hospice worker who counted down the last minutes of his life, commenting, with some appreciation, that despite the ALS, my father’s body was very strong. (I can’t recall her face or name.) When he died he was wearing a silky button down shirt. We’d cut off his t-shirt a few days prior since his arms were too weak to lift overhead. It was a strange clothing choice, but my father, beyond the act of getting dressed, never wasted a moment considering fashion.

My father’s long term partner, Helen, and my cousin, Maggie, sat up with his body through the night, and into the next morning, until someone from the funeral home came to remove my father’s body.

In Judaism, losing a parent has a specific set of mourning rituals. According to Judaism, my brother sister and I are “primary” mourners. I like that Judaism establishes categories for mourners, as if the equation were that simple: The closer you are in blood with the deceased, the more time you’re allotted to mourn.

If we were traditional Jews, in the weeks, months, and year following my father’s death, we would’ve closely followed rituals and customs. But we were raised by a lapsed Catholic mother, and a father who identified as a Krishna devotee. Our stepfather is an Episcopal priest, one aunt is a Buddhist meditation teacher, another a Quaker. Our open-ended religious background did not dictate how to mourn. All three of us primary mourners are muddling our way through loss and grief without a larger scaffolding.

We mourn without guidance.

My father died on April 14th, 2017, so if I were an observant Jew, my community would acknowledge mourning until the one year anniversary, a period of time known as avelut, observed only for a parent.

I’ve taken to crying on public transport because it’s anonymous, and because nobody notices a few tears. The truth of loss is that after a certain period of time elapses, people stop asking how you are. My community doesn’t prevent me from attending parties or celebrations, and my brother does not say Kaddish for my father every day.

In my father’s absence, I find myself inexorably pulled towards Judaism. Why? Because there are answers in ritual, in a set of rules and practices that one must follow when the entire world is transformed with a startling swiftness into an unrecognizable landscape. I find comfort in Judaism’s emphasis on sanctified places and spaces for grief. During my father’s sickness I wished for prayer, for something ancient to pull me back to earth. My father and I did our best, listening to the blues and watching hummingbirds outside the window.

But I wanted more.

If we’d sat shiva, what would about my mourning would’ve been different? The day after my father died, my sister and I went to Home Depot. I selected a fiddle fig, Sophia a prayer plant. We wheeled our carts around, focusing only on the plants. So what if we’d watched our father die just 24 hours before? So what if he was dead? We were shopping. A few months later, when my sister and I drove from California where my father died, back east, the fiddle fig was delicately placed into the tiny crack of space remaining in the car to make the 3,000 mile trip back home with us. Nowadays “Figgy” stands tall in my Brooklyn apartment. I fuss over each new leaf with a stubborn love that borders on maternal.

If we’d sat shiva, we wouldn’t have left the house and we certainly wouldn’t have been plant shopping. The mirrors would’ve been covered, family and friends would have come to us. We would’ve sat on low chairs, maybe telling stories about who my father was, the people we grew up to be because of him. We wouldn’t have cooked. My brother would’ve let his beard go untrimmed. Of course, family and friends did come and we were, by no stretch of the imagination, alone.

But we moved about in the world, sorting through the practical side of my father’s death just a few days after his death. I graded papers. I went running. Religion, or lack thereof, did not prevent me from participating in the outside world even if my heart was broken.

Traditionally, the meal eaten after returning from the cemetery is called seudat havra’ah or “the meal of consolation.” There is a custom of serving hard boiled eggs, representing the cycle of life and death in the roundness of the egg. A few months before my father’s death, I cracked open an egg to find another egg inside. My father’s illness moved quickly and took away his ability to speak. But he never stopped communicating. The interior egg was a dark red color, a deep rusty red, the red of the earth. I kept the eggs on the counter for a few days, marveling at the perfect spherical shape inside the plain exterior.

I brought the egg into my father’s room. He nodded his approval.

“Well, what’s the message, Dad?” I asked.

He shrugged, a gesture he perfected in sickness. But as his daughter, I knew what he was saying. He was saying go ahead and live. I’m always with you.

As the one year anniversary draws closer, I find myself no nearer to a conclusion or an understanding of my father’s death.

Yet I pray for grace. I pray that I’ll know how to keep on living a joyful and fulfilling life without him.

Often, mourners take a walk around the block after the week of shiva has concluded. The walk represents a passage, an entry into the next phase of mourning. I think that walk, that transition, could be what mourning is about. A constant passage, a movement, a slow but steady acceptance.

Kelsey Liebenson-Morse is a writer and teacher living in New York.

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