Sheryl Sandberg’s Shiva

Last week, Sheryl Sandberg experienced an unbearable loss. And then she went back to work after ten days.

A lot of outside people questioned or applauded this decision, and Ms. Sandberg herself released a statement, explaining that her early return to work was in consultation with child psychologists and was in the best interest of her young children.

In between the unexpected death of her husband and this early return to work, she did what scores of Jewish women do each year. She sat shiva.

In October, my brother fell while running backwards and incurred a traumatic brain injury. After an unbearable weekend in the hospital, surrounded by family and friends, my brother was declared dead on a Tuesday. I was back at work two weeks later.

In between, my family drove home, and the reality of shiva began to wash over us. I wonder is Ms. Sandberg experienced the same feelings of shock. The unbelieving feeling of sitting on low chairs of the floor, covered mirrors, and ripped clothing. Traumatic loss lends itself quite well to traumatic shiva.

Unlike other shiva houses, where the family members may have been preparing for this week for weeks, months, or even years, my family barely had a day to accept this reality. Sheryl Sandberg didn’t have much time either.

And yet, as Jewish cycle rituals kicked in, I felt myself become a part of a machine of grief, mourning, and loss that was dictated by laws and traditions that were foreign but at the same time familiar. How many times had I been on the other end of a shiva call?

Faces streamed in, from all my past walks of life. Friends and family from every city, school, and experience came by or called. The bizarreness of Jewish death is that it mirrors Jewish life in a lot of ways. When else are you re-connecting with all of these people? When else are you in touch with vendors, who put together different aspects of the funeral and burial? When else do you have other people in your home, putting together meals for you?

In many ways, the funeral, burial, and shiva are still blurs in my life. In much sharper contrast, I remember silently crying as I prepared to go to work, feeling the pain of loss, of both my brother and who I was before he died. I was not the same person when I returned to my desk that Tuesday. I doubt Sheryl Sandberg was either.

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Why Am I (Still) Saying Kaddish?

To those people who were not yet brave enough to ask, I am here to answer your lingering question: It’s been way more than 30 days since Ilan died. Why are you still saying Kaddish?

Ilan, my amazing, vibrant, red-headed brother, passed away very suddenly several months ago. In Jewish day school, I was taught that there are two categories of familial death: parent and non-parent.

When your mother or father passes away, Judaism requires you to mourn them for 12 months. Mourning here is defined by certain behaviors, for example; not shaving or getting a haircut (for some), not buying new clothes (underwear excluded), and saying kaddish.

When your spouse, child, sister, or brother dies, you only are obligated to observe mourning for 30 days.

As shiva began to wind down for my brother, we asked my Rabbi: “So, we continue saying kaddish until the end of the shloshim (30 days), right?”

Actually, he told us, for situations like ours, where the person who passed away left no children behind, it is preferable to continue saying kaddish for the whole year. Huh?

In my grief-stricken state of trying to make sense out of a series of rituals that were both painful and vague, I searched for clarification. I asked another rabbinic source for some more information. She explained that the mourner’s kaddish is the prayer we recite (ideally) three times a day. We say it to help elevate the neshama (soul) of the deceased person further up into the heavens. There are other ways of elevating a soul of a deceased person-like giving tzedakah (charity), learning Torah, and performing acts of chesed (loving kindness) in the memory of the person who is now gone.

Disclaimer: I am not a person who has ever been so into mysticism, kabbalah, chasidut, or anything remotely touchy-feely, especially when it comes to my Jewish learning and practice. So this whole soul elevation concept was (is) a hard thing to get my mind wrapped around.

She continued to explain that the practice of saying kaddish for a year only for parents emerged largely as a sociological measure. In the times of the Talmud, people died a lot more. Siblings, children, and spouses died all the time, and this frequency  could cause a lot of people (men) to be in a constant state of mourning. However, you only can have two biological parents. Hence, the Rabbis limited your year-long commitments to a set of relatives that is finite. You could only spend two years of your life in mourning.

Getting back to Ilan-he was 20 years old but had no children to keep his neshama getting higher and higher. So it was up to us. To be clear, this is not an obligation from a Jewish perspective. This is an expression of my love for Ilan. When I open my mouth  to begin those formulaic words, I am sharing my love for my brother. I am calling out to him and God, as a way of telling him how much I him, how much I miss him, and how I hope that this little prayer helps him in ways I don’t understand.