Jewish Journal

Tough Shiva Questions

by Susan Esther Barnes

March 19, 2014 | 1:30 am

Photo by Susan Esther Barnes

I’m a volunteer who, on occasion, will lead a shiva minyan for my synagogue. I took a couple of classes on how to do it, and I attended a few shiva services as an observer. The service is similar to Shabbat services, but shorter, so anyone who’s a regular at services could do it. The service itself isn’t the hard part.

The hard part, in my experience, is what happens afterward. Sometimes, nothing noteworthy happens. You do the service, you chat with some people, they tell you how nice it was, and you go home.

But, by leading the service competently, you have established yourself as a knowledgeable Jewish person. You hope you have developed at least the beginning of a sense of safety and rapport with those in attendance. And so, even if you have made it clear you are not a member of the clergy, sometimes people come to ask you about things as if you were.

For instance, earlier this year a woman who was sitting shiva for her husband, may his memory be a blessing, said her son and grandchild were having a birthday in a couple of days, and she wanted me to tell her whether she should attend the celebration, like she usually does.

“If I go,” she asked, “will my husband be kicked out of heaven?” You see, she thought that doing anything other than sitting at home and mourning might be considered to be a sin, and that her sinning might have an adverse impact on her husband’s status with God.

I told her, “From what I’ve heard, your husband was a wonderful and loving man.” She nodded, so I continued, “He is in heaven based on his own merit. There is nothing you could possibly do that would get him kicked out.”

We then went on to have a discussion about how mourning isn’t linear. A person may be very sad at first, but they don’t go from being very sad to not sad in a straight line. Instead, a mourner’s feelings of sadness will usually go up and down, then back up again, then back down, and so on, over time.

I explained to her that if she goes to a celebration, or something makes her smile or laugh, that doesn’t mean she loves her husband any less. It doesn’t mean she has sinned. Instead, it means she is experiencing perfectly normal human emotions and reactions.

I said to her, “Your husband would like to see you laugh and smile, wouldn’t he?” She grinned, and I said, “So it’s okay when, from time to time, you smile or laugh. It isn’t a sin.”

It’s amazing to me the things that mourners worry about, and how much a person can open up to a stranger in situations like this. I’m fascinated by how much good a person can do by listening carefully to another person’s concerns, and reassuring them that what they’re going through is natural and perfectly acceptable.

It feels odd to feel treated like an expert or a source of wisdom in these situations. I feel honored to have been able to be present for others in their time of need.

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Susan Esther Barnes is a religious Reform Jew who can regularly be seen greeting people at her synagogue before services. She is a founding member of her synagogue’s chevra...

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