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Never ‘enough time to grieve’: Has American culture changed shiva for the worse?

When Rabbi Michael Goldman sat shiva for his mother last April, friends and relatives brought over noshes like chickpea kale stew and Israeli sweets.

Goldman, who coordinates senior programs at Westchester Jewish Community Services, found himself crying and crying, he said, falling apart in front of guests — including some who he hadn’t known well beforehand. He feels closer to them today.

“Shiva was an amazing experience,” he said.

Goldman sat shiva for seven days, as is tradition; the name of the formal period of mourning comes from the Hebrew word for “seven.” Yet for the past several decades, many American Jews, particularly the secular and religiously liberal, have sat shiva for only three days — or even one.

As Goldman said, a shorter shiva — one that not only changes Jewish tradition, but, because of its brevity, can lack the sense of profound support that made his experience so meaningful — might be the “price of admission” to modern society.

On average, Americans receive between one and five days of bereavement. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, the most popular HR policy gives three days. An abbreviated shiva, Goldman said, “begins to resemble something that’s more like a birthday party rather than the whole village stops.”

“I don’t think American culture allows people enough time to grieve,” said Rabbi Joseph Ozarowski, rabbinic counselor and chaplain at JCFS Chicago. “This was certainly true before COVID — if anything, COVID has exacerbated it.”

As the number of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. approaches 1 million, experts have predicted an enduring wave of severe bereavement. Prolonged grief disorder was recently added to the upcoming revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the so-called bible of psychiatry. Those with the newly recognized condition feel stuck in mourning that can last for years, severely impairing daily life, relationships and job performance.

And experts worry that the prevalence of that condition may increase due to the fallout of the pandemic. “I think the pandemic has made losing someone particularly worse,” Dr. Vivian Pender, president of the American Psychiatric Association, which publishes the DSM, told The New York Times. “The usual loss and grieving process has been disrupted.”

Yet while clinical perspectives on the duration of grief continue to grow more expansive, few workplaces, Goldman said, assume mourners need time off to grieve even beyond a loved one’s funeral.

Placing the burden of demonstrating the need for that time on mourners runs counter to the spirit of shiva, he said. “There is something very fulfilling about spending a whole week in suspended animation,” he said, “where your job is to mourn and see that whatever you’d be doing otherwise is not so essential.”

During shiva, people asked questions and shared stories about Goldman’s mother, helping him and his family see her life in a new light. “You mean that annoying quality my mother had of staring at me and hugging me when I didn’t want to be hugged — people needed that?” he said.

“It’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, my mother was heroically emotionally present for people in a way that so few people are.’”

“It’s now very clear this is what made her remarkable, if not extraordinary. If you had asked me in March, I would’ve said, ‘She’s just this lady. I love her, but she drives me crazy, nothing special.’”

We look for — and create — meaning after the death of a loved one, according to Robert Neimeyer, a psychology professor at the University of Memphis. “A central task of grieving,” he and his colleagues wrote in 2014, “is the reconstruction of those narratives.”

Goldman connected this process to hakarat hatov, the Hebrew term for gratitude, which literally means “recognizing the good.” “A person begins to say, ‘You know, this thing that I thought was a bad quality actually had some good points,’” he said.

It can be hard to engage that process, Goldman said, without time for “communal storytelling,” and with the pressure looming to get back to work.

Yes, that pressure isn’t the only reason some mourners choose a shorter shiva. Some, for instance, don’t want to entertain or perform for guests. But having one’s home “invaded” for a long time has its perks, Goldman said. “By the end of it, you want space and loneliness and to welcome some of the grief, to hear the sound of a clock ticking for a while, and that’s part of the healing.”

Another reason some mourners choose a shorter shiva is that “no one really teaches in our culture how to deal with someone who’s grieving,” said Carol King, who runs spouse/partner bereavement groups at Rockland Jewish Family Services.

She appreciated how, when her father died when she was 21, neighbors took out the garbage for her family, mowed the lawn and made any repairs — for about a month. “There’s no timeline for grieving,” she said. “There’s no getting over it — there’s learning to live with it.”

Seven days of formal mourning are a place to start, even for those who aren’t particularly observant. “Shiva is like an instruction manual when you really don’t know what else to do,” King said. “If you don’t have it, in some ways, you’re just lost.”

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