Shiva Minyan

Dusk from window on board an Airbus A330.

 

I spent the early evening with a grieving family. They had come together to mourn the loss of a man in his fifties, dead of cancer. He was a gifted musician and human being, and everyone who knew him misses him terribly.

 

These days, many Reform families opt out of shiva or shorten it to one or two days. They give many reasons. I suspect that for many of them, the idea of a whole week of official mourning is a frightening prospect at a time when they are already disoriented and upset, and I can understand that. It’s a shame, though, because shiva can be wonderfully healing.

 

This family has chosen to embrace the process of mourning. They’ve opted for a real week of shiva: for seven days his widow is staying home, surrounded by family and friends. I am  temporarily serving at their synagogue, and I will lead the evening prayers for this shiva most nights.

 

The first night after the funeral the entire group was in shock. They were in that deep place of mourning where there is no consolation, only grief. I steered them through the service, hearing voices in the group check in and out as they were able. The tentative voices and soft crying made clear that they had just suffered an unthinkable loss. When we reached the point in the service where I offer the option of sharing stories or sitting in silence, they opted for silence. We sat quietly for a good five minutes. Afterwards, someone mentioned that it was good to be quiet together; they were all exhausted.

 

Four days later the mood had shifted. They were beginning to absorb the loss. Their voices were quiet but more relaxed. The dog greeted me, snuffling, and a few people chuckled at his obvious pleasure at the “messages” from my dogs. I sat in my usual place, they in their usual places. What had been strange the first night was already a routine.

 

I began the service with “Hinei ma tov,” a song about how good it is to be together. We used some of the alternate prayers in Mishkan Tefilah for a House of Mourning. Over the days since the first night they’d been looking through the book a bit and several had requests for readings that they liked. There were song requests, too, and we sang “Oseh Shalom” twice because someone remembered a favorite melody. I let the service take the shape they needed, then we finished traditionally, with Psalm 23El Male Rachamim, and Kaddish.

 

I said my goodbyes and slipped out. As I left, family and friends gathered in the kitchen, getting plates of food. Life is returning to this house, slowly but surely.

 

Saying Goodbye before Saying Hello

By Rabbi Emily Ilana Losben-Ostrov

June 19th was supposed to be my due date.  My first child was supposed to be born on June 19th. As a congregational rabbi, I thought this would be perfect. I would take my maternity leave during the summer- the quiet time of the year and be back to work before the High Holy Days. However, as they say in Yiddish, Mann traoch, Gott Lauch- Man Plans and God Laughs. Except with us, God wasn’t laughing…in fact it even took me quite a while before I was able to laugh again.

My pregnancy was going relatively smoothly and then, like a Mack truck, I was sent to a specialist at the end of my 24th week. I was told by the doctor that I needed to rest as much as possible and drink a ridiculous amout of water (my words, not his). He also said that realistically speaking, I might be fighting to remain pregnant for weeks and not the remaining months until my due date. He didn’t seem overly concerned. He calmly said I might have to be on bed-rest or even hospitalized and that my baby might need to be in the NICU, but he didn’t seem to think anything worse would happen.

So, I followed “doctor’s orders” and took off from work, rested and drank a ridiculous amount of water.   I must say, that my congregation was incredibly supportive and the parents from the Religious School immediately sent over food, activity books, magazines and even flowers for me and my husband and a dog treat for our puppy. I rested and drank water, rested and drank water and rested some more and drank a little more water. I went back to the specialist the following week, thinking (and praying) that my situation had improved.

However, as you know from the title of this blog…there would be no improvement. In fact we found out that our baby’s heart had stopped before he would ever get the chance to take a breath outside my womb. As soon as I heard the news I began to cry and even wail. My husband and I cried together and then left the doctor’s office to begin making the plans for me to go to the hospital and go through labor. Without going into all the details, suffice it to say that in a period of 4 days we went from picking out names and thinking about cribs to picking out a burial place for our son.

I have been sitting in my grief and trying to find purpose. Why did I have to go through all of this? What was the purpose of all the suffering?

I do believe that we can find purpose and meaning even in difficult and tragic situations. It doesn’t make it “alright,” and it doesn’t make it “fair,” or even explain why something happens. As Rabbi Harold Kushner details in his famous book, I don’t know why “bad things happen to good people,” but I know that they do. If we can at least search for meaning in bad things it may help us to move forward- to go on with our life.

In fact, that is what my husband said to me as soon as we found out the horrible news- that we will go on. It was his way of saying, “we have each other and we’ll get through this together.” He, along with my parents, siblings, friends, congregants and even strangers have truly been there for me. I have been blessed with a truly caring community and for that I will always be grateful.

I’m still searching for the meaning in all of this loss and in some ways I may search for that meaning for my entire life. I do know, though, that one place I’ve found purpose is by sharing my story. This has allowed me to let others, like me, know that they are not alone and that they too, will get through this. And God-willing, they too will find purpose even in a tragedy.

Rabbi Emily Ilana Losben-Ostrov

Rabbi Losben-Ostrov is the Rabbi and Educator at Sinai Reform Temple (www.sinaireformtemple.org) in Bay Shore, NY.