It certainly wasn’t the plan for my site makeover to take so long. That said, there are a few rather poetic aspects of the timing of my relaunch. Aside from syncing up nicely with World IBD Day 2021, and the world finally opening up after all this time in pandemic lockdown, I have just come out of my official year of mourning for my lovely dad. As dad was always one of my most avid supporters, championing every creative venture, dream and ambition I set for myself, it feels fitting that the new-look blog has been unveiled as I emerge from my year.
What a perfect opportunity it brings for reflection.
Before dad died, I had never given much thought to the whole process of mourning in Judaism. I was blessed not to have been an official mourner until 22nd May 2020, so I suppose there had never been a reason to consider much beyond the widely known ritual of Shiva.
In fact, Shiva is only the first step. Meaning seven in Hebrew, it begins the moment the earth hits the coffin at the funeral, and marks the intense first week of mourning for the immediate family – spouse, children, siblings, parents – and is supposed to bring comfort to the mourners when they need it most.
In a non-COVID world, it is a time when the mourners gather in one house, a house which remains open for the whole week. Mirrors are covered, as are televisions and any other reflective surfaces, nothing is done for vanity or pleasure so, all week, mourners wear the garment which was ritually cut at the time of the burial. Mourners will sit on low chairs to be closer to the earth and a memorial flame burns throughout the week. All household chores are to be done by other people and there will be a constant stream of family, friends and community members bringing food and sharing memories and prayers for the deceased.
Phase two is Shloshim, meaning thirty and referring to the thirty days from the day of death, during which some of the restrictions from Shiva continue – not shaving, no haircuts, not dressing in new clothes and not attending parties. The final stage of mourning only applies to the children of the deceased and is counted as twelve months from the day of death. The customs which apply to these twelve months vary from not having hair cut or wearing new garments, to not listening to music or attending live concerts or theatre. As with all religious beliefs, it is a mourner’s own private decision which customs they choose to engage with, but I’ll come back to that later…
The pandemic has made our whole process all the more surreal in so many ways, beginning with a funeral and Shiva services which people could attend over Zoom. With the world being shut down and families kept apart the way they have, and as dad went into a nursing home just before the first lockdown, it has been easy, at times, to fool ourselves into believing that when all this is over, he will be waiting for us. All that being said, the finality of the consecration of his headstone , just last month was certainly a harsh hit of reality for us all.
While we had never envisaged the restrictions still being in place to stop friends and relatives joining us, we found it a comfort to be together with immediate family and to be able to reflect peacefully.
Looking back over the past twelve months, there is a lot we can reflect on. We have all made sacrifices due to the pandemic. For some, these have been greater than for others, but everyone has felt the strain of restriction.
For me, as for so many others who have lost loved ones, grieving added an extra dimension to the whole experience. In the time immediately following Shiva week, when we returned home, I began my own ritual of long morning walks alone. In line with the custom, I chose not to listen to music at all, so I needed an alternative for my walks. I became hooked on podcasts and audiobooks. The book I was reading at the time, The Choice by Edith Eger had an audiobook add-on which I downloaded to my phone.
For those who don’t know the book, it is an absolute must-read. Now 93, this inspirational woman tells the tale of how she survived the Holocaust then reclaimed control of her life and gained a PhD in Clinical Psychology at the age of 51.
The chapter I reached just days after I started listening, around a week and a half after dad died, was all about exploring the process of grief through the experience of one of her patients. Eger explains that:
‘Mourning rites and rituals can be an extremely important component of grief work. I think that’s why religious and cultural practices include clear mourning rituals – there’s a protected space and structure within which to begin to experience the feelings of loss. But the mourning period also has a clear end. From that point on, the loss isn’t a separate dimension of life – the loss is integrated into life…if we stay stuck in mourning, it is as though our lives are over too.’
That was the first time I had thought about what it actually meant for me to be in mourning. It made sense immediately, giving me the comfort of a framework to help me through whatever struggles lined the road ahead. Having just come out at the other end of my year, both on the Hebrew and the Gregorian calendars, I now have an even fuller appreciation of what her words mean. She goes on to explain why:
‘living a full life is the best way to honour’
those we love and lose. Indeed, it was my sheer determination to live as full a life as is humanly possible of which my dad was so in awe, and my openness in sharing the journey which he fiercely encouraged.
Restrictions, Restrictions, Restrictions
That brings me back to the restrictions of being in my mourning year. Above and beyond the restrictions we have all faced, what did this mean for me? Being one of the lucky ones to have been branded by the government as Clinically Extremely Vulnerable, we have had little or no respite from shielding. I can’t help but think that people living with chronic illness actually experience confinement of sorts on a daily basis. Pandemic or no pandemic; mourning year or no mourning year.
I had never really made these connections before I sat down to write this post. Now, on reflection, it seems glaringly obvious.
Over the past twelve months, I have grown my hair to ridiculous mermaid length, not booking in, as most people did, for a post-lockdown cut when the world briefly opened up last Summer. Until a fortnight ago, I had not listened to any music, something which is usually present in our house so much of the time. The first songs we listened to, and cried along with, were a special recording of our first dance from our wedding, courtesy of the wonderful Twenty Somethings and some classic Neil Diamond in honour of dad. For as long as I can remember, Neil was a firm favourite for him. The choice not to attend theatre was taken out of our hands by the pandemic, but I would have respected that custom too.
The strange thing is that, while I have missed music, while I am longing to move away from my unruly mane and split ends, the sacrifice of these things seems so small in comparison to the feeling of loss my dad has left. It makes me think, again, of perspective.
What’s My Takeaway?
The past eighteen months have, undeniably, been tough for everyone. The whole world has been hit by a pandemic, the likes of which none of us has seen before. On the face of it, we have all struggled through the separation and isolation COVID has brought about. Individually, however, we all have our own stories to tell; our own lived experiences; our own losses and gains. For some people, life is always restrictive. Some people’s worlds are painfully small. There are some people for whom freedom is nothing more than an elusive term.
If Edith Eger can live through the horrors she was forced to face, and come out the other side still talking about the power she has to choose her path in life, then we can surely emerge from this COVID world with a positive outlook.
Like most people, I will look back on the pandemic as a period of great loss. Nothing will ever fill the void left by my magical dad. However, to honour his memory and continue to make him proud, I choose to live life as fully and creatively as I can, with the positivity he always admired.