In the Jewish tradition, after a close relative dies and is buried, you are meant to sit seven days of ‘shiva’ (from the Hebrew verb leyshev, to sit) - i.e. to mourn them formally for seven days.
Even in the most optimal circumstances, sitting shiva for a close relative is usually a very draining experience. But when you have to factor in unexpected deaths, frantic last minute plane rides to a different country, difficulties finding somewhere to sleep, and problems finding nourishing kosher food to eat into the equation - plus the vague unease of leaving your young teenage kids alone at home, in a completely different country - that all adds up to an enormously stressful equation.
And then there’s the other stressful parts of dealing with a close relative’s death, including sorting out their estate, dealing with other ‘difficult characters’ in the family who could snap at any moment and cut a huge swathe of dramatic discord through the whole proceedings, and (if you’re sitting shiva in the UK…) having to make four thousand cups of tea a day for all the people coming to ‘comfort’ you.
So all in all, sitting shiva for most people is actually a very difficult, traumatic experience, even in the most optimal circumstances where friends and family are caring for you, you can eat the food, you can sleep, and all your immediate family is in the same country.
After four days of sitting what I think of as ‘shiva on speed’ for my late mother-in-law in the UK, I got back to Israel late Thursday night with my husband, and felt like I was completely blank. The next day was Yom Kippur, the most important day of the year where Jews fast for 25 hours and pray that God will grant us a good, healthy, blessed year.
This year, I was so exhausted I spent most of the day knocked out in bed, and when I did pray, it was to ask God to please excuse my lack of praying - or anything Yom Kippur related - and to please give me a good year, anyway.
I was hoping to feel a bit perkier by the end of Yom Kippur, but if anything, I actually felt even more out of it and kind of empty-feeling. I could have just sat for hours on the couch without a thought in my head, completely oblivious to the world.
This is not ‘normal’ behavior for me at all, so I started to get a bit worried about it all. Until my husband reminded me that after all the stress I’d just gone through, I’d probably fried out my adrenals and needed at least a week just to process it all, before I could move on.
“There’s been so much going on, you need to just sit for a while and absorb it all,” he told me. “Once you’ve done that, you’ll get your energy and pep back, don’t worry.”
THE IMPORTANCE OF DOWN TIME
I felt very comforted by what he said, because I know he’s right. My job right now is to have some down time - even a lot of down time - to recuperate mentally and physically from the ‘shiva on speed’.
In the old days, people just weren’t able to grab last minute flights to the end of the earth to spend these fraught moments with their loved ones. On the one hand, they probably didn’t get the same closure, but they also didn’t come back from their experiences feeling more than half dead themselves.
As so often in the modern world, the ‘up’ we get from being able to do all these things comes packaged together with a mighty big ‘down’.
But I’m quite lucky, as at least I don’t have to get back to my day job, or report back into work this week. Honestly, I’m going to be out of action for at least another week - and it wasn’t even my close relative!
When people feel obliged to rush back to work so quickly after these stupendous events occur in their lives, I can’t help but think it’s storing up a huge amount of trouble for them further on down the line.
We need time to think, to process, to decompress, to grieve. That’s what the shiva itself is actually for, but in our modern world, even that process can be warped around in to some sort of ‘bereavement party’ where you just find yourself entertaining hundreds of people and making small talk, instead of sitting and crying out your heart’s secret pain.
YOU CAN'T RUSH THE GRIEVING PROCESS
So the moral of the story is, when these big things happen in your life, don’t buy into the modern world’s warped value system that tells you two weeks - MAXIMUM!!! - is enough to get over the death of a close relative, or the other massive shocks to the system that we periodically experience.
Rushing these processes only causes untold damage in the long term, because grief is not a linear emotion, and properly saying goodbye in all the myriad small ways we have to, really can and does take months.
If you feel exhausted after a very stressful experience in your life, understand that’s your body’s way of telling you to stay in the slow lane for a while, and to not rush back to ‘normal’. It’s hard sometimes to take that hint, but I know for myself that if I force matters and try to return to ‘business as usual’ too soon, it’s only going to lead to me getting wiped out for weeks, instead of a few days.
So if you’ve just had a massive shock, take a deep breath, keep your out of office on for a few more days, and give yourself, your body and your psyche the time they all really need to recover, regroup, and move on.
Just in time for Pesach...
It's funny: I often state that I've had about 9 nervous breakdowns the last week, and I usually mean it. But I still didn't realize that 'nervous exhaustion' actually means that your nervous system kind of broke down, and ran out of steam.
But that's exactly what happens: with all the stress we're subjected to, and all the worry, and all the fear that 'something bad' is going to happen any minute, God forbid, and all the stupid news reports we listen to addictively, we're all living on our nerves most of the time - and it's really taking a toll.
Small wonder that stress, anxiety and depression are all at record levels.
So what can we about this? How can we start to fix our nervous system, once it's been shot to pieces? So pleased you asked! I have a few suggestions that have worked wonders for me, so read on.
Every single health issue we have has three aspects to it: the spiritual aspect, the emotional aspect, and the physical aspect.
Let's take nervous breakdowns, and run them through our three part diagnostic system, to see how we can start to strengthen our nervous system.
Spiritual health actions:
When we don't believe in God, or don’t see His hand in the world, or don't believe that He's looking out for us, cares for us, and has our best interests at heart, this puts ENORMOUS amounts of stress on our system. Just think about all the horrible things that could happen to you today (God forbid): you could catch Ebola; you could get fired; your house could burn down - all terrible, horrible things.
But when we work on believing in God a bit more, and trusting Him to take care of us, our spiritual stress starts to reduce, and we feel fundamentally more relaxed.
Emotional health actions:
You can sum it up like this: turn off the news, and stay away from negative, pessimistic people who are always trying to persuade you the end is nigh. Life is actually pretty good! Take a few minutes every day to count the blessings in your life, and say thank you.
Physical health actions:
Bladder is the energy meridian that governs the nervous system, and anything you do to strengthen the bladder meridian will pay big dividends. Things that have worked for me include:
Experiment, and see what works for you, and in the meantime, let me reassure you that nervous breakdowns, or nervous exhaustion, or neurasthenia doesn't have to take you out of action for years: if you follow the three pronged approach outlined above, you can bounce back from your nervous breakdown in a matter of hours, not months.