The arduous process of returning to the real world after the one-year anniversary of Dad’s death revealed something poignant to me about grieving: that self-care is just as important as preserving memory. The rest of the world does not care that you’re grieving. Bills still need to be paid, work still needs to get done. I’ve learned that burying grief under mundane tasks only intensifies it when the memories do come back, and they will: for me they hit hardest when Billy Joel comes on the radio, and that one time I saw a man carrying a little girl on his shoulders into Starbucks – a little girl with similar blonde curls I once had. It could have been a scene out of my own childhood.
That hurt. It hurt a lot. There is something to be said about setting aside designated time just to be sad and let yourself despair for a bit. It’s what Judaism calls “sitting shiva,” in which friends and relatives take care of all the household stuff – cooking, cleaning – while you, the bereaved, sit in that carved-out space and let yourself feel whatever you need to feel. On the one-year mark, the yahrzeit, you light a candle of remembrance that burns for twenty-four hours.
And then you return to the real world.
My experience with death in Christian circles has been somewhat different, to say the least. While sad for those left behind, the bigger picture is that death is a big Welcome Home party; it’s nothing to be afraid of, because in the end we’ll be with Jesus. In that context, death is really something to celebrate, not mourn. Sitting shiva is one piece of Judaism I think Christianity could really benefit from. For those who are deeply hurting, we need to remember that death can be a ugly, brutal thing.
It feels like a very tall order to believe wholeheartedly in an eternal dwelling place that is equally accessible as the deceased – you can’t see it, touch it, or experience it in any tangible way. If there’s a strong emphasis on the dead being “better off” some place else, rather than here with us, it does sort of make grief seem…pointless?
I haven’t been to many funerals, but it bothers me when the service is turned into a celebration of the dead person going to their “real home.” Funerals aren’t really for the dead, but for the living, and this doesn’t do much for the people who still need to find a way to function without their loved one in their lives anymore.
Well, maybe heaven is comforting for some people, but I’d rather just have my dad back in this life.