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Sitting Shiva

 

In seventh grade, when I was still new to Orthodox Judaism, the general studies principal at my school lost his mother, and the students were bused, grade by grade, to visit him at his home, where he was sitting Shiva. After the funeral, in Jewish tradition, comes Shiva. Shiva means seven, and the idea is that, for seven days, the mourners remain at home and visitors come to them. Maybe seven days was the limit people could consider taking off from work. Maybe seven days was the limit before people became restless and overwhelmed. If you are very observant, there are countless rules to abide by during Shiva – no shaving, always wear a torn piece of clothing, cover mirrors, sit on lowered seats (boxes are specially made for this purpose), etc. Visitors come at pre-set times, to help make a minyan (ten people) for communal prayer.

It was frightening to imagine that we were supposed to offer comfort to the principal of the school, someone so much more grown up than we would ever be. It was scary just to think of him as someone who might need comfort. And yet, my memory of that day isn’t full of fear and darkness. Somehow, the ritual of the visit, the way we each wished him well as he sat on his low chair and he let us see him be sad, and crying, and smiling too, made the day feel full of light, though it could just be that we happened to be there at the right time of day, so that sunlight was shining in through the windows.

I’ve had to go to a number of funerals and Shiva visits in the past few years, as I’ve become more active in my synagogue and gotten to know the older members. When you make friends with 90-year-olds, funerals become more common occurrences.

A friend of mine lost her father over Passover. His death had been a long process, and in large part she had done her grieving and letting go over the last few years of his life, as she lost pieces of him to illness. The last thing to go was his conviction that he had to stay in order to take care of his wife; that commitment outlasted hunger, even the ability to swallow, by months.

Shiva had to be delayed until after Passover, and then only lasted one day because an unofficial mourning period had already been going on, with friends calling from all over the country for a week. There were so many people at her house that I didn’t know, and I felt out of place and uncool. But then, before the Mourner’s Kaddish, my friend read the eulogy she’d written for the funeral, and as she read it I felt like she was conjuring her father into the room. I could almost see him in the corner, with a bemused expression on his face, wearing his white doctor’s coat and his college tie, and complaining about the driver who cut in front of him on the expressway.

I think that the value of a ritual like Shiva is that it forces you to ask for the things you really need, but maybe don’t think you deserve. When I’m depressed, I lose most of my social skills. But for those seven days, the idea is, your rabbi and friends and family and neighbors are given a schedule for when they can interrupt your isolation. They have a clear mandate to visit you, and bring you food, and pray with you. This is one of the benefits of belonging to a synagogue; there are set practices and communication paths to go by, for everything related to a death in the family, if someone calls and asks what you need, you can tell them. I wish there were more of this for other life events.

There’s a rule that you can’t sit Shiva on Shabbat. If you are three days into Shiva and Friday night comes along, you change out of your mourning clothes and wash and dress and go to the synagogue to say the Mourner’s Kaddish with your community. Maybe the message is that happiness and community will be there waiting for you when you are ready for them, or maybe it’s to remind you that the grief will not last forever, because all around you are people who were in mourning at one time, and now they are singing the prayers and smiling at friends, and one day that will be you too. But I’m not sure if I could bear it, seeing other people’s lives going on all around me, seeing happiness.

Ideally I’d have a sleep over starting from the moment of loss. I’d have people in sleeping bags in every corner of the apartment to help me through every moment. But then I think, if my mom actually died, I wouldn’t be able to host people at all. I’d be curled up in a ball, with Cricket, under the couch. Butterfly would have to take care of both of us.

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Cricket hides under the couch, a lot.

 

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Butterfly is very good at offering comfort.

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But paperwork might be too much for her.

Just like there is no sanctioned way to do a Jewish funeral for a dog, or to say the Mourner’s Kaddish for a dog, there is certainly no Shiva for dogs. Right after my last dog, Dina, died, my mother had a long-scheduled trip and had to leave town for two weeks, so I was home alone with the death, in silence. I cleaned obsessively, and having that mindless physical task to do was helpful, but I think I would have liked it if my friends with dogs could have come over and filled the house with their voices, and their dogs’ voices. Maybe I could have offered up the last of Dina’s dog food as a ceremony, or given away the leftover pee pads. But, in the event, I didn’t know how to ask for company, or accept help when it was offered. Maybe if there’d been a set ritual to follow, I could have forced myself to follow it. It would have been such a relief, to tell my Dina stories, and share my grief, and have people all around me who cared that I had lost someone so important to me.

 

dina smiles

My Dina

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Grandma’s pretty good at offering comfort too.

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About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

99 responses »

  1. I enjoyed this. I never thought about the dog though I have always buried my pets. Thank you for a thoughful post!

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  2. Dina was so pretty. This ritual sounds similar to the one that is followed by Hindus, the difference being, people mourn for 13 days. I feel so bad that you were alone when your dog passed away.

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  3. I think there ought to be funerals for dogs. they are as much part of our family as anybody. they just aren’t people.

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  4. I wish there were something for our dogs, too. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing?

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  5. Sending you a belated hug for the loss of Dina.

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  6. Very thoughtful piece, Rachel! You speak with your heart; you keep us glued to the story until its very end. Thanks so much!

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  7. I always learn so much from your posts. And I think the idea of sitting shiva for a dog is a good one….

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  8. I love the idea behind Shiva. That there’s a specified time. That’s pretty neat.

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  9. Our family is in the process of letting go. It is never easy. Your comments provided insight into the transition.

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  10. I love our traditions and especially the expedience in which burial and Shiva allows the greiving to grieve while being supported by the community. When I loose a pet (of which I have lost 24) the loss deserves the support just the same. Let your pet community know what you need before you need it.

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  11. Expressway? You really need help for those who drive the L.I.E.

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  12. Very informative and touching. Sad, but it does give us insight on Shiva. Yes, I to agree that some sort of funeral should be given to most pets – we still have Michael’s 17 year old dog and I worry every time of being alone as well if he passes (Michael travels for work), so I feel your sadness and send you mental hugs!

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  13. This post was beautiful 🙂

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  14. Lovely post, thank you.

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  15. I enjoy all of your posts, but I particularly enjoy the posts that teach me something. Between this and the previous post – the Shul Rat – I am learning things. I thought that parts of the Book of Deuteronomy (chapter 6 ) was part of the Hebrew Funeral. Is this correct? We have two ladies in the church that are both in their 90s and both fit and healthy.

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  16. Shabbas interrupting Shiva and transforming our loss to a day of happiness reminds us that life must go on, doesn’t it? When someone is dying, a child is being born. When we lost Uncle Johnny we couldn’t eat properly, and sat thinking and talking about him; all those who knew him brought their condolences. Thank you for a lovely post. Pip

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  17. I still feel the loss of Barney, Maggie’s predecessor, and found comfort in ‘Rainbow Bridge’ where our furry friends wait for us to join them.
    I have similar beliefs for our human loved ones, that we will meet again, when they pass from this life to the next. I have learnt something again from your post today. Thank you.

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  18. A beautiful post Rachel and I love the idea of sitting Shiva for a dog. Big hugs and lots of love to you xxx

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  19. when my mom died, I pretty much did curl up and hide under the couch. But she had rules for funerals and for grief, and I didn’t want her to haunt me – and she’s quite capable of that! – so I had to do what had to be done.
    I love your description of sitting Shiva, I never really understood what that meant. (Lazy bones could have probably googled it, but …..lazy.)
    And I love the idea of sitting Shiva for dogs – I like most dogs better than I like most people. Max agrees. 🙂

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  20. Grief rituals are so important for us. We lack good ones in this country. A great read: The Wild Edge Of Sorrow, Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief, by Frances Weller. Make your own grief ritual for dogs and the next time someone you know who loses a dog, hold this ritual for them. They will be ever grateful to you! ❤

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    • There’s a Jewish site for new rituals as well, called Ritual Well, I think, and they come up with all kinds of things to fit how we are now, and what we need. Rituals are a wonderful thing, especially when we can share them.

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  21. God entrusted us the care and love of our dogs (any pet really) and there is nothing wrong with sitting Shiva (that is a comforting and lovely tradition) with your dog – they are so much a part of our lives. Everything God created is good and He loved His animals so much He created us to care for them…makes you think doesn’t it just how special they are.

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  22. Beautiful post. I lit candles for my dogs when they passed. They are God’s creature’s too and definitely were part of my family.

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  23. Rituals are so important in our lives. Thanks for sharing about Shiva. Not being Jewish, I knew nothing about this lovely and comforting ritual.
    I too lost a wonderful dog, Bandit, some time ago. My approach was to write about him, drawing out many warm memories and eliciting responses from friends and relatives. This proved helpful for me. Should something happen to your precious pooches, you might wish to consider this approach.
    Thanks again Rachel.

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  24. Your observation: “it forces you to ask for the things you really need, but maybe don’t think you deserve.” resounded with me. Another good post.

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  25. I feel like I always says this but your posts are incredible. I always feel as I’m right in the moment with you. Thanks, Rachel. ~Samantha

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    • Hi, May I comment too, yes, I agree, Rachels posts are incredible, I am not of the Jewish faith, and I like to read about your traditions and rituals, a friend of mine was Jewish and I was intrigued and enjoyed her stories too.
      I like the sound of “your” routine of Shiva, I have recently been confirmed into the Christian faith at the age of 59, and always light a candle every Sunday for my dearly departed, may I say a prayer for your recent sad loss?
      Take care
      Paul
      United Kingdom

      Reply
  26. I like the way you draw a parallel to dog perspective in your posts and I love this picture of your grandma hugging Dina, so full of love and warmth!

    I’m sorry you had no one to share your grief with when you lost Dina. I felt the same way when my dog died, many years ago, when I was barely 12. He was not just a dog to me, but more like a brother I never had – I literally learned to
    walk by his side, he was such joy to grow up with.

    Love and big hugs from me to all of you~ 🙂

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  27. Dear Dina – & dear Rachel – so sorry for your loss. Dina looked a lot like our beloved little queen of dogs. Thanks very much for sharing all of your insights. You taught me so much with this post, including a bit of how I’ll deal with losing Lola some day.

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  28. I don’t know how you survived by yourself after you lost Dina…the grief is overwhelming, and there are two of us.
    Bless your heart, as we say in the South.

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  29. Oh, sorry about your Dina…losing our sweet doggies is always such a heartbreaker. I agree that having a set ritual helps at difficult times like that…I tend to look for those as well, especially after a trauma. But I haven’t had to face the loss of my parents yet, and honestly have no idea how I would be able to handle it. Beautifully written piece!

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  30. I was afraid to read this post at first because I was afraid you had lost someone close to you. You have given me a lot to consider when a friend loses a canine family member, though. I hope that I will remember what I have learned and be a better friend and companion.

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  31. It’s so very hard to lose our furkids. Society should catch up soon to the fact that losing a much loved pet is losing a member of the family. I saw a few days ago that pet bereavement leave from work may soon become possible.

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  32. Thank you so much for this. With death looming in our family, I appreciate the gift of your experience and your understanding of the need and purpose of ritual surrounding the event. I wish we had something like that in our lives. When my father died, everyone rushed home to their jobs and lives, put on hold for two weeks. We celebrated his life two months later, and I have always been grateful for that, but I could have used the comfort of ritual and people coming to the house to sit with us, as you witnessed: “For those seven days, the idea is, your rabbi and friends and family and neighbors are given a schedule for when they can interrupt your isolation.”

    How we need that! And suspending the shiva to attend the synagogue on Shabbat. That makes perfect sense, as you say, to remind one that one day she will laugh and be “normal” again. Thank from the bottom of my heart for this healing post, like a meditation.

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  33. Sorry for your loss Rachel; it seems like that’s been a theme in my life recently too. A friend of mine lost one of her new twin baby boys a few days ago (and even sadder, the healthier of the two; the surviving twin has a cleft palate and other problems, the one who died suddenly had no apparent issues), and another friend of mine lost her father in a horrific car accident last week. Hope you are healing well and come say hi soon 🙂

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  34. Pingback: Sitting Shiva | LakeArrowheadLadyWriter

  35. What a fascinating and brilliant tradition…

    It makes me think about how people tend to isolate themselves when feeling depressed. Being alone feels good at the moment, but is the worst thing for you at a time like that.

    I love the idea that people can and will come over at a time like this. It seems so therapeutic, so beneficial.

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  36. Loosing them always breaks the heart. My deepest condolences.

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  37. What an interesting post. Dina looked beautiful. It’s so sad when our dear pets pass.

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  38. I am not Jewish, but love the idea of Shiva. People often feel very uncomfortable around someone who has lost a loved one, not knowing what to do or say. This seems to solve that problem. I also love the Kaddish and pray that prayer on the anniversary of my husband’s death every year. Something similar for the loss of a pet would be nice. Sorry about your loss of Dina.

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    • The clergy make a point of saying, at shiva, that we’re just there to be there, to show our faces and be a presence in the room, we don’t need to figure out the perfect thing to say. Unfortunately, I still feel like I need to figure out the perfect thing to say, and can never think of what it might be.

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  39. Thank you for explaining Shiva. I am always curious about other’s customs. Sounds wonderful to me. Mostly, when someone dies in our family we don’t do enough socializing. And for dogs, shiva would be great. My daughter lost one of her nine dogs last week and it broke her heart.

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  40. Haha my cat use to always hide when it was time to go out at night and her tail would be sticking out undernearth a sofa or bed lol she was funny

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  41. Another beautiful, touching piece. Thank you, Rachel!

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  42. When there is a death in the family, be it human or dog (or cat), the mourning can be deep and painful. A ritual to fall back on would be so comforting in both cases.

    Thank you for this piece.

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  43. Hi, Rachel.
    I saw you *liked* an article I just posted. I am so curious how you found it so quickly…and I wanted to learn more about you.

    I looked at your list of recent posts and thought one on shiva would be relevant to me, having now been through it for both my parents. I’m not orthodox, but I observed both times, the full week, sitting on a cardboard box. I loved both my parents dearly and felt it was the least I could do. As for our many dogs, Mother had them cremated so I could always have their remains and their dog tags.

    As you may have found from reading my blog, my recent book *Pearl’s Party…and you’re invited* is about the whirlwind life of my larger-than-life mother. I wrote it after her passing as a tribute to her and found it very cathartic. I hope others will glean from it how they can overcome obstacles and party on!

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  44. Again, such a good read. Thank you, I needed this.

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  45. Wonderful post, and pets are family. We have ceremony’s when we lose ours. And for clarification purposes. In the story of Genesis Joseph mourns the death of his father Jacob for seven (shiva) days. Which is why that particular amount of days was chosen.

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  46. What a lovely post, thx u! Sitting shiva is a wonderful ritual, I wish that I had grown up with something similar.

    I think we do need to create rituals for helping us cope with the death of our four legged family members. I have had to “put down” two dogs in three years and just leaving them at the Vet’s after they have died in my arms was horrible. I wish I could have buried them.

    Btw, your dog Dina was so sweet looking.🐾😍

    Reply

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