A psychiatrist once noted that the growth industry in bereavement counseling is a bit ironic in light of the fact that the Jews had it figured out 4,000 years ago.
Many religions have rites and rituals for the time following a death, but the ancient Jewish practices are an especially good illustration of how religious and cultural customs can meet our needs in a time of grief.
Shiva, the Hebrew word for seven, is the best-known phase of Jewish mourning. Often called "sitting shiva" because of the low stools customarily used, it refers to the intense seven-day period of mourning that immediately follows a burial.
Shiva is observed for a father, mother, wife, husband, son, daughter, sister or brother. Generally, the family gathers in the home of the deceased, although shiva can also be observed elsewhere. During shiva, friends keep the bereaved family company, preparing food and generally keeping the household running.
Shiva does not technically begin until after the burial. Before that, family members are to be allowed their privacy, so they can give the fullest expression to their grief. After the burial (which, whenever possible, occurs within 24 hours of the death), friends and members of the community come to offer condolences.
The first meal after the burial, known as the "meal of comfort," is prepared by neighbors and friends. The meal, which is not intended for visitors, should be eaten quietly by the family.
Shiva is followed by shloshim, the Hebrew word for 30. This is a less intense period of mourning that extends through the 30th day after the burial. Shloshim is a time during which activities are restricted, but not so much as they are during shiva. For instance, during shloshim, attending parties or getting married is forbidden but otherwise mourners resume much of their regular routine.
Shloshim concludes the formal period of mourning for all relations except for a mother or father. For a parent, the mourning period extends for 12 Hebrew months after the death. This period is known as "avelut," or simply "mourning."
Orthodox Jewish law calls for sons to say "kaddish" daily throughout the year of avelut. The prayer is often said by daughters as well, and it can also be recited for relatives other than parents.
Kaddish is an ancient prayer praising God recited at the end of various parts of the Jewish worship service. It has become customary for the final kaddish to be recited by all mourners present at the service.
Since this requirement must be done at a daily service, where other mourners are also gathering to remember their dead, its effect is much like that of a contemporary support group bringing mourners into frequent contact with other people who are also coming to terms with a loss.
According to Jewish law, once the formal mourning periods are completed, all outward signs of grieving should cease. To extend the rituals of mourning beyond this point would be to offend God, who wants survivors to get on with their lives.
But the end of the formal mourning periods does not mean that the dead are forgotten. "Yahrzeit," the anniversary of the death, is an annual time for reciting the kaddish and remembering the deceased, for lighting a candle in the person's memory or for performing some act of kindness or charity.
For Jews, coming to terms with a loss is an obligation to God, else why keep living? But that process is not the same as forgetting the dead, who always retain a special place in the memories of the living.