Last night in my men’s group, we were talking about grief. About it is to lose someone, and to allow oneself to fully inhabit the experience of that loss. Francis Weller talks about how grief is more than an experience; it’s a practice. It’s something that we do again and again. At different levels, for different reasons.
In his book The Wild Edge of Sorrow, Weller outlines five ‘gates’ of grief. It’s really a brilliant perspective on what can be an elusive practice — elusive, at least, in our culture. A culture that tries to brush grief and anything like it under the rug.
During the conversation, one of the men asked me about what is different about Jewish funerals. It was kind of an interesting question, one I don’t really feel qualified to answer, as I’m not exactly the most devout Jew you’ve ever met. But I found myself reflecting on some of the practices that are considered to be more traditional in the Jewish faith.
One of those practices is to take a year off of life. I’m not sure of the full extent of this (e.g. do you still work?), but what I understand about the tradition is you stop shopping for pleasure, you don’t go to movies, plays, or concerts. You don’t really entertain yourself. You don’t do much of anything that brings pleasure (I’m quite uncertain about the role of sex in this grieving practice). Many folks will wear all black, or at least a black armband (or maybe the torn black cloth donned at the funeral). There’s more to this, I’m sure, but this is what I understand.
Another practice is ‘Sitting Shiva’. This is one most folks are familiar with. In this practice, the family invites their community into their home. The Shiva’s that I’ve been present at have felt kind of like parties. There’s food, there’s drink. People hang out and talk. Sure, there is memory, and crying, but the overall vibe is one of a house party (well, not a college house party).
But there is more to this practice traditionally as well. The more devout would cover all of the mirrors and hide all photos. People sit on the floor. The family is to not be approached, but can approach others. They are brought food, and left to eat it. And it’s not just an afternoon, it’s a week (I think).
As I was reflecting on these practices (which I believe are just the tip of the iceberg for this three thousand year old tradition), I realized that what they share in common is really embracing the fullness of grief–giving people the opportunity to dive all the way in, without distraction. You are given the freedom to fully experience the loss that is before you.
How many of us do that? How many of us are given the space to do that? In fact, how many of us are really capable of doing that? I’m not entirely sure that I am. But I’m feeling grateful to connect back to traditions that come out of the culture that brought me into the world (well, one of the cultures, any way).
What does it mean to connect into grief? What does it mean to be in practices that support us in that grief? What helps us dive in fully?