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.