Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Obituary - What Constitutes our Remembrances?

My family recently sent me a copy of the obituary they had written up about my father, to send to places he had worked and the like. It detailed his service in the army in World War ІІ, his years of teaching, and hiking. But while it detailed very much what he did, it barely touched what he WAS. And perhaps that is correct, considering who it is intended for. Former students from Western Illinois University are probably looking at the obituary and thinking, yes, OK, I remember him, and it ends at that.
But I loved my Dad for his honesty, for his tickling games when we were kids, for our shared view from the top of Longs Peak.
For this reason, when I called my sister-in-law last week, sitting shiva for her father, I didn’t ask medical details. I said: “Tell me something good about Abe.”
-“It was all good.”
-“Even so, tell me something.”

And that opening let her speak about all the things she loved about her Dad. Which, I believe is the benefit of the mourning period. A noting of the loss, acknowledgement of the pain, a marking of a life well-lived.

In my many years of shiva (comforting the mourners) visits, I have seen people do very much the opposite. It may sometimes be convenient for people to “catch-up” with each other, if they haven’t seen each other for a while. But sometimes I remember terrible visits to mourners where I wanted to scream at other “consolers” for their insensitivity. The worst case was when I saw 2 neighbors discussing school supplies in front of a woman who had suddenly lost her husband a few days before. A mourning visit is not a place to satisfy one’s curiosity. How the person died, details of the illness…these are much less important than what he was, and the talk should center on the later.


Anonymous said...

This is a pet peeve of mine.

I sometimes say nothing at a shiva visit, and just listen to the mourner, rather than get caught up in chitchat with other visitors.

When my husband sat shiva for his mother 20 years ago (she died at a young age), what helped him the most were people who told stories about his mother, some of which he had never heard.

Trip'n Mommy said...

You are completely right.

I think people probably behave so inappropriately because they are uncomfortable. Your solution is so simple and so easy. It applies for every situation.

If you knew the person you may learn something new, and if you didn't you will get a glimpse into the loss. All you have to do is request "Tell me something good about them."

A Living Nadneyda said...

Because of my work, I've had the unfortunate experience of being in way too many shiva houses, although this year I've tried to cut back to protect self- and family-time from getting usurped by work-time.

One more meaningful experience involved sitting down -- on the spot, as per their request -- at the family's laptop and writing a piece about my experiences working with their child.

Another involved meeting a group of my patient's friends, whom she had always told me about, and until that moment I'd only been able to imagine. It turned out that the reverse was true as well -- they had heard about me and were moved when we finally met. It became another way of staying close to the young woman who had died, and of joining our separate memories into a fuller picture, for ourselves and for her mother as well.