Earlier this week, Piece of Mind author Michelle Adelman wrote a case for a Jewish belief in ghosts. With the novel’s debut, Michelle is guest blogging as a Visiting Scribe all week here on The ProsenPeople.
When a character dies suddenly in Piece of Mind, the family is forced to quickly make arrangements in order to move forward. In the process, the concept of sitting shiva largely gets lost. Although they don’t dwell on it in the novel, it would be easy to argue that these characters don’t give themselves enough time to mourn, and thus struggle to move forward in a healthy way.
I never thought much about shiva until my father passed suddenly a few years ago. I had paid shiva calls out of respect for others through the years, but I didn’t truly understand the importance of the custom until it was time to mourn in a personal way. Of course my father was the most observant Jew in our family, and he would’ve been the one to guide us through the process if he weren’t the one who had passed. On a surface level, it was gratifying to acknowledge that we could pull the whole thing together without him. We wanted to honor him, and fulfilling his wishes was a part of that. But once we were actually engaged in the ritual, I realized the point of shiva extended far beyond obligation. The forced period of mourning was necessary to process the loss.
Through the whole funeral, I suspect much of the family, like me, was in a daze from the shock of my father’s death. He hadn’t been ill; neither his health nor his behavior had given us any warning signs. I cried when I heard the news, devastated that I’d never get the chance to say goodbye, but I didn’t cry through the funeral, or in the first couple of days at all. There was too much going on to weep.
Then the process of shiva kicked in. We weren’t allowed to go back to work. We weren’t supposed to worry about making food or making other people feel comfortable in our home. We didn’t have to think about what to wear or how to entertain ourselves. We couldn’t focus on anything except the loss. As a result, we focused our mental energy on our father. And eventually, I began to listen, to finally hear the stories — all of the nice things people had to say about him — and I began to understand how important and cathartic it was.
My characters didn’t know what they were missing by not properly honoring the tradition. They decided they didn’t have a choice due to other obligations they deemed more pressing. But in the event that anything tragic happens again (and I hope it doesn’t for a very long time), I’ll know the importance of maintaining the custom — not only to honor the person who has passed, but to begin to help cope with the loss.
Michelle Adelman received her MFA in writing from Columbia University and her MS and BS in journalism from Northwestern University. Her journalism has appeared in Time Out New York and elsewhere. She lives in the Bay Area.
- Visiting Scribe Essays on Death, Mourning, and Loss
- Ronna Wineberg: The Little Shul
- Nat Bernstein: The Reason Jews Shouldn’t Celebrate Halloween Is Exactly Why We Should