I’m so glad this week is drawing to a close. A week and a day ago, my dear mother-in-law, Lillian died of complications from stomach cancer. We, her family — my husband, Ed, father-in-law Dan, brother-in-law David, older cousin Mona & my daughter Jennifer — scrambled through our grief to clean and prepare the house for Shiva, meet with rabbis, a grief counselor, cousins, aunt & uncle, write eulogies and deliver them, attend the funeral and spill earth on the grave of someone to whom we didn’t want to say good bye.
Lillian left such a large hole in our family because her presence was magnificent. Strong, yet soft. Being a Jew By Choice, I had little experience hosting Shiva. Lillian had always gently guided me through whatever rituals and traditions I took on. Friends and family helped us clear tasks, sort through things. Jennifer cut the grass early and culled the refrigerator. Out-of-town friends, Mark and Bob rolled up their shirt-sleeves and washed utensils, so I could re-organize my out-of control drawers. Other people would be taking over my kitchen. And I was supposed to relax about that.
My uncle’s new wife Marianne stepped in and covered or “schmeared” the mirrors with Jen. Cousin Bev shopped for paper plates, utensils and soft drinks. The funeral home brought the mourning chairs and books. We gathered pictures of Mom, taped some up on glass bookcase doors and Jen made a computer slide show of recent ones.
What I learned is that it’s not my responsibility to actually do anything other than co-ordinate meals that friends and family sponsored and greet guests who came to visit and talk with them. Bringing food, sponsoring meals, visiting the house in mourning, participating in the nightly prayers, these are all opportunities for others to do “mitzvahs,” or good deeds. The doors are left unlocked, doorbells are not rung, and I wasn’t supposed to thank people for coming, so as not to diminish the good deed they were performing. That was difficult. Eventually I got in the habit of saying, “It was good of you to come,” or “Your company meant a lot.”
In theory, I’ve always liked the Jewish response to death both for it’s respect for the dead and the mourning. In practice, it’s been intense. Exhausting. And uplifting.
I’m going to miss my mother-in-law. We had a bumpy start, coming from such different cultures, but we forged a good long-term relationship with a lot of love. Like Naomi to Ruth, she taught me so much about traditions I didn’t grow up with, but decided to adopt.
What about you? What’s your experience been with Shiva or the death of an in-law?