I had a shiva minyan in my apartment last week. An incredible experience; I can scarcely find words. Being a participant and leader has been overwhelming, and having lived through many losses myself, I thought I had some appreciation of what it was like on the other side, but now I see that that I had no clue. There were a lot of people--30, 40? and my rabbis and the cantor--spilling out into the hallway, sitting on the floor, friends, people I knew by sight from services, people I barely knew whose minyanim I had led and wanted to show their support. I have never experienced such an outpouring of love from so many at once. I got the chance to speak about my brother, and in sharing that story--about a person my parents told me was bad, and so a story that seemed shameful for a long time--I understood in a new way how important he was in my life, and how much I'd miss him. I felt like he would live on just a little more now that others also carried some of his memory. And I felt, finally, worthy of mourning, which sounds ridiculous, but realized I was carrying around some strange set of equations in my head about time spent with a person while growing up = relative appropriateness of experiencing sadness.
I also gained a whole new perspective on the psychological brilliance of Jewish responses to death. I could almost feel my soul start to knit back together as each friend walked in (the door is left open, and it's OK to just appear and not be greeted, so the mourner doesn't have to go to that trouble), got me food (I wasn't supposed to lift a finger), listened as I spoke. I stood by myself, shaking, to say the Mourner's Kaddish, but this prayer can only be recited in a group of ten or more; the moment of grief is mine alone, and very lonely, but I am always accompanied. For those who lose children or parents and are navigating a land far stranger and more frightening than mine, I now understand much more clearly how these rituals sustain and keep them breathing when they might not want to. I wish I had been connected to a community when my parents died. In each case I sat shiva for a day at the home of relatives, took some mindless and wasted time off of work, and then resumed real life and pretended I was stoic. But afterward, and for quite some time, I had no idea what I was doing.
Yesterday I uncovered the mirrors and finished the last of the bagels and egg salad, and for the first time in a week was able to think about something beyond the immediate present. Death is a kind of perverse gift in that regard. It reminds us that we are still animals and that in order to survive grief, we need to put aside much of what makes us human--planning, aspiring, forgetting that life happens one breath at a time--and focus on living second by second, even when it seems that the pain of doing so is unbearable, even when time is like a dream.