The term "sitting Shiva" refers to a seven day period of mourning after a close relative of a Jewish person has passed away. A person sits Shiva after the death of one of his parents, brothers/sisters, children, husband or wife. Sitting Shiva has two important purposes: honoring the dead, and helping the mourner deal with his or her loss.
I went to a Shiva last night for a family friend. I had not done this ritual in a long time - maybe since I was a kid. Often I attend the funeral or the burial but do not always make it back to the house to pay my respects, too.
Several things stood out to me.
1. We did not sit Shiva for my dad. While he was Jewish through and through, it was not something we felt he would have wanted and we were able to delay the funeral enough that most of the out-of-towners could get here for the funeral.
2. Sitting shiva is really comforting. You the mourner are not comfortable - there are all kinds of rituals to make sure that you are not comfortable actually - but the warmth and the compassion and the love you get from those that come to pay their respects in your home is really quite lovely. It's different than at a funeral home or cemetery.
3. We never got to sit Shiva for Allie. Well, we did not even have a funeral for her. That would have just been to much to handle for Gary and for me. We barely had come to terms with the fact that she had died and to have a service with all our loved ones would have just been so so hard. So we mourned with each other and in private. Technically, you can not sit shiva for an infant under 30 days old anyway. Jewish law does not permit it. I did some research, though, and it looks like that is changing a bit. Depends on what you believe and how you chose to interpret it. Truth be told, although we did not officially sit shiva for Allie, we certainly did have a mourning period for her (and it lasted way longer than 7 days which is the standard).
4. Hebrew prayers and chanting are some of the most wonderful sounds that exist to me. I grew up very involved in our synagogue and in fact last night, was met by 2 close friends that I have known since we were in United Synagogue Youth together. I had a prayer book in my hand but I did not need it as all the prayers came back to me with their melodies as well. It was sad. It was solemn. It was beautiful.
5. Death and dying sucks. No matter how old - no matter how sick - saying goodbye is really hard. I never like seeing my friends and family cry and when they do/are and there is nothing I can do about it...well, it just sucks.
I found this little tidbit via my friend, Google. "Attending a Shiva is a mitzvah (commandment). The mitzvah
is to go to a house of mourning, to comfort the bereaved, and to assure
that there will be a minyan of ten people to recite the Kaddish memorial prayer. Performing this mitzvah
is one of the highest honors a person can do for another in our
community. It is not necessary that you know the deceased or the mourner
for your presence to help in comforting the mourners as they grieve and
I felt comforted that my presence may have been comforting last night. Not a bad way to spend an evening, if you ask me.