The defin­i­tive guide to the rit­u­als of shi­va is a book called The Jew­ish Way in Death and Mourn­ing by Rab­bi Mau­rice Lamm. Sev­er­al copies await­ed my fam­i­ly upon our return from the ceme­tery, dropped off by our shul. The books were part of a big­ger tableau that includ­ed spe­cial mourn­er chairs that were low to the ground, a fold­ing table cov­ered in twen­ty-four-hour yahrzeit can­dles, a portable aron kodesh (an ark) con­tain­ing a small torah scroll for dai­ly morn­ing prayers, and a stack of well-worn sid­durim, or prayer books. 

In most shi­va hous­es, mourn­ers sit togeth­er in one spa­cious area, usu­al­ly the liv­ing room. But we were too many peo­ple, of too many ages, with too many friends. So, aside from that first day of shi­va when we band­ed togeth­er to try to mourn as a team, my sib­lings and I scat­tered around the house and sat in our own lit­tle clusters.

After word­less­ly pick­ing at a meal that includ­ed the req­ui­site hard­boiled eggs — a sym­bol of the cir­cle of life — we took our places sit­ting in the semi­cir­cle of short-legged mourn­ing chairs. A hand­ful of close friends who’d escort­ed us from the bur­ial sat fac­ing us in seats of a nor­mal height and were the first to offi­cial­ly offer their con­do­lences. They were per­form­ing the mitz­vah of being men­achem avel, the term used for a con­do­lence call which means com­fort­ing the mourn­ers” and over the course of the week, it would be stand­ing room only for most of our wak­ing hours. Being men­achem avel ranks pret­ty high­ly as mitzvot go and it’s not unusu­al for com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers with even the loos­est ties to the deceased to vis­it a shi­va house. 

Com­fort­ing a mourn­er is not easy. Sit­ting with some­one else’s pain can be deeply uncom­fort­able. While the week of shi­va is an oppor­tu­ni­ty to remem­ber the deceased, it’s real­ly about com­fort­ing the mourn­ers in their time of grief while they for­go crea­ture com­forts like fresh­ly laun­dered clothes and lis­ten­ing to music. It’s hard­er to offer com­fort to some­one when what they are allowed to receive is so lim­it­ed (although there was no lim­it to how much food we could have). See­ing the for­lorn faces of my mother’s friends, hear­ing them rem­i­nisce about how she was the life of the par­ty and loved to laugh didn’t bring me com­fort so much as it ampli­fied the tragedy of her death. You should know no more tsuris” — may no more hard­ship befall you — was the typ­i­cal refrain by vis­i­tors who tried to wish us well in the face of such dev­as­ta­tion. I found this pro­to­col less com­fort­ing, more overwhelming. 

For me, com­fort meant sit­ting with my friends, tucked away down­stairs in my room. It meant being a twen­ty-year-old with oth­er twen­ty-year-olds who under­stood what I need­ed most: to alle­vi­ate the heav­i­ness of the atmos­phere with laugh­ter. Besides, my moth­er had been so sick for so long, my grief over her death was bal­anced by relief that her suf­fer­ing was final­ly over. 

I dragged my shi­va chair down­stairs and held court there. My sib­lings and I retreat­ed to our cor­ners to grieve pri­vate­ly because watch­ing each oth­er do it was too unbear­able, mir­ror­ing back on our­selves what we looked like. Gita, with her blue eyes, flam­ing red curls, and pil­lowy cheeks brought all of us the most com­fort. She flit­ted from room to room, some­times sit­ting on my father’s lap, some­times tear­ing through my room and squeal­ing with laugh­ter while my friends chased her, bring­ing joy to mourn­ers and vis­i­tors alike with her bliss­ful igno­rance. Her pres­ence, of course, high­light­ed the sheer mag­ni­tude of our loss.

Ear­ly the next morn­ing, sev­er­al men arrived to form a minyan, the group of ten men required for Shachar­it, thus kick­ing off the first full day of shi­va. Miryam, Rivky, and I would have been wel­come to join the ser­vices from the adja­cent din­ing room or kitchen but did not count toward a minyan and, frankly, we were just as hap­py to sleep a bit lat­er before the waves of vis­i­tors began to arrive. 

Neigh­bors got to work triag­ing the parade of food that flowed in. Pans of lasagna, a large plat­ter of deli meat, cook­ies, choco­late bab­ka cakes, meat­balls and spaghet­ti … All this was before the days of those handy meal-plan­ner web­sites. My fam­i­ly held by the rule that food brought into a shi­va house did not leave. So, it was either con­sumed by us, a bunch of sad peo­ple whose move­ment was lim­it­ed and were there­fore not build­ing up much of an appetite, or it was dis­posed of. Some of it was frozen to be eat­en some­time lat­er that week/​month/​year/​decade. Tamar, by far the most orga­nized of my friends, made her­self busy rear­rang­ing pans and con­tain­ers of food in both the kitchen freez­er and the spare one in the base­ment like some culi­nary game of Tetris, until there was sim­ply no more space. One time, Babi Becky caught her doing this and went bal­lis­tic that she was wast­ing food even though the stuff Tamar got rid of was ined­i­ble. Thir­ty years lat­er, when I asked Tamar what she remem­bered most about my mother’s shi­va, it was this encounter with Babi Becky. 

Com­fort­ing a mourn­er is not easy. Sit­ting with some­one else’s pain can be deeply uncomfortable.

The Jew­ish Way in Death and Mourn­ing is full of guide­lines on how to mourn, but that didn’t stop some peo­ple from adding their own made-up rules. Some­times (often) my friends com­fort­ed me a lit­tle too well and our cack­ling car­ried up to the liv­ing room over­head where the mood was con­sid­er­ably more somber. Once, when our deci­bel lev­el reached unrea­son­able heights, our neigh­bor Mag­da cracked open my bed­room door, poked her head in, and hissed in her thick Hun­gar­i­an accent, Excuse me ladies, please, this is very inap­pro­pri­ate,” before turn­ing to me with Gila, you’re sit­ting shi­va, come on!” as if I’d for one sec­ond thought there might be anoth­er expla­na­tion as to why I was sit­ting on my child­hood bed­room floor in a ripped shirt with greasy hair, sur­round­ed by my friends who’d dri­ven in from Brook­lyn, Engle­wood, and Sil­ver Spring, Mary­land, among oth­er places, in the mid­dle of a Mon­day morn­ing in June. 

Sor­ry,” I mum­bled, meet­ing her judg­men­tal gaze while keep­ing my head tilt­ed down. But I wasn’t sor­ry. This was my shi­va, my moth­er who had died, my place to say how I’d mourn — and laugh­ter, last time I’d checked, wasn’t on the don’t” list of the book. But I was too tired to tell her any of this and I let it go. Until she left the room, that is. We count­ed to ten and explod­ed into more laughter.

Among my vis­i­tors was Max who’d just grad­u­at­ed from Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty with a degree in finance and had recent­ly joined the list of guys I’d been set up with. What dis­tin­guished Max from my pre­vi­ous, ill-fat­ed blind dates was his wry sense of humor and our mutu­al love of read­ing. He had an advan­tage in that a friend rather than the match­mak­er had intro­duced us. We’d met two months ear­li­er and, by the time my moth­er died, had been out to din­ner, the movies, and walks in Cen­tral Park close to a dozen times. Was I attract­ed to Max? Not espe­cial­ly. But he was com­pas­sion­ate and thought­ful and answered my insom­ni­ac phone calls in the mid­dle of the night dur­ing my time of grief. I appre­ci­at­ed his atten­tion. My moth­er nev­er met him but had been hope­ful about our prospects; after all, he was a nice YU boy from a fan­cy neigh­bor­hood. When I broke up with Max a few weeks after shi­va, he asked me to con­sid­er him a friend and to call if I ever need­ed anything. 

On day three of shi­va, Max brought a huge deli plat­ter (such a men­sch) for lunch. A man I didn’t rec­og­nize inter­cept­ed my family’s attempts to dig in. No meat allowed,” he insist­ed, snap­ping the clear, cir­cu­lar lid back onto the enor­mous plas­tic base.

Are you sure?” I chal­lenged. I don’t think that’s right.”

Eat­ing meat is a sign of cel­e­bra­tion; of course you can’t have meat,” he said con­fi­dent­ly, but after con­sult­ing some oth­er adults present and not­ing that we’d been eat­ing roast chick­en and meat­balls for din­ner all week, we dou­ble checked The Book. He was wrong. Sit­ting shi­va was hard enough, we didn’t need any extra made-up rules to fur­ther our suffering. 

Some of the legit­i­mate rules were over­bear­ing, and I took to find­ing loop­holes around them. For instance, mourn­ers are not allowed to wear laun­dered clothes and that includes under­wear. Remem­ber, we weren’t show­er­ing either, so you do the math. I rea­soned that if some­one else wore my under­wear for a cou­ple of hours, they’d no longer be con­sid­ered laun­dered” so Suri and Chani took sev­er­al pairs of my cot­ton briefs and wore them over their own, thank you very much, and that is all you need to know about my cre­ative prob­lem-solv­ing skills. 

The week went on this way until it almost felt normal. 

The start of each day was sig­naled by the tin­kling of my father’s spoon against a glass mug as he stirred his Taster’s Choice instant cof­fee, fol­lowed by men’s foot­steps com­ing up the stairs, and then Shachar­it — morn­ing prayers end­ing with the Mourner’s Kad­dish recit­ed by my father, broth­er, uncle, and grand­fa­ther. Miryam, Rivky, and I would emerge from our bed­rooms ready to receive the day’s end­less stream of vis­i­tors. The waft­ing smell of tuna sal­ad, toast­ed chal­lah, blintzes, or pas­ta meant that some­one would soon be ask­ing if any of us want­ed to take a short break to eat lunch in the kitchen. We didn’t always want to. It was awk­ward to excuse our­selves when expec­tant vis­i­tors were stand­ing right in front of us.

Anoth­er influx of men in the evening told us that it was time for Min­cha and Maariv, the evening and night-time prayers fol­lowed by more recita­tions of Kad­dish. At night, the num­ber of vis­i­tors bal­looned with peo­ple com­ing after work. It was a gru­el­ing sched­ule, but com­fort­ing in its pre­dictabil­i­ty and effec­tive in keep­ing us con­stant­ly engaged until night­time when exhaus­tion would yank us into sleep before we had time to wal­low in our pain. Each vis­it con­clud­ed with some­one stand­ing over us while read­ing the hand­writ­ten Hebrew words from a sign taped to the liv­ing room wall. The Eng­lish trans­la­tion was: May the Lord com­fort you among the mourn­ers of Zion and Jerusalem.” 

Sev­en days after bury­ing my moth­er, it was time to get up from shi­va. After the Shachar­it prayer, the men dis­si­pat­ed, our rab­bi stay­ing behind to ush­er us into our next phase of mourning. 

In a few moments, we’ll step out­side and take a walk up the block,” he instruct­ed. It sym­bol­izes your first steps back into the nor­mal rhythm of life and offi­cial­ly marks the begin­ning of your shloshim period.” 

On my way out, I paused in front of a famil­iar pho­to in the hall­way. It’s a sepia-toned, old-timey saloon shot tak­en dur­ing the only fam­i­ly vaca­tion we ever took to Dis­ney World. Per the photographer’s direc­tions, no one is smil­ing so we all have an acute case of rest­ing bitch face. My mom used to stand before the por­trait and com­ment on how jow­ly she looked in the pho­to — I look like a chip­munk, Gi!”— touch­ing her fin­ger­tips to her face and gen­tly pulling it up and back. She couldn’t have been more than thir­ty-sev­en at the time. I’d always thought she looked ele­gant and pret­ty in that pho­to. I still did, and now I won­dered if, in sev­en­teen years, I’d think I looked like a chip­munk, too. 

Los­ing our moth­er at the begin­ning of the sum­mer allowed for a soft land­ing in terms of fig­ur­ing out our new nor­mal. My sis­ters had fin­ished the school year, and I was liv­ing at home until the start of the new semes­ter. My mother’s close friends con­tin­ued to drop in with trays of hot food, to check on us, and to per­haps con­jure their friend’s mem­o­ry by stand­ing in her house. 

You’ll drop out of col­lege now and run the house­hold, right?” was an assump­tion more than one of them made. Out loud. To my face. 

With as much civil­i­ty as I could muster, I assured them that Miryam and my father would man­age while I worked and fin­ished school and that I’d be home to help on the week­ends. I resent­ed them for being so cav­a­lier about my future, for plac­ing such lit­tle val­ue on my career and edu­ca­tion, both of which I saw as a path to the sta­bil­i­ty my moth­er lacked. My future also depend­ed on me avoid­ing breast can­cer and I turned my atten­tion to learn­ing how to pro­tect myself. I dug through a stack of her med­ical records and found her oncologist’s phone num­ber. I told the recep­tion­ist who I was and why I was call­ing, and she choked up. 

Your mom was some­thing spe­cial, you know, hon? We real­ly miss her around here,” she snif­fled before giv­ing me the name and con­tact details for a breast spe­cial­ist. You take good care of your­self, OK?” I assured her that was exact­ly what I planned to do.

Excerpt from Near­ly Depart­ed: Adven­tures in Loss, Can­cer, and Oth­er Incon­ve­niences © Gila Pfef­fer, 2024. Reprint­ed by per­mis­sion of the pub­lish­er, The Exper­i­ment. Avail­able every­where books are sold. the​ex​per​i​ment​pub​lish​ing​.com 

Gila Pfef­fer is a Jew­ish Amer­i­can humor writer and per­son­al essay­ist whose work has appeared in McSweeney’s, The New York Times, The New York­er, Today​.com, and oth­ers. Gila’s month­ly Feel It on the First” cam­paign reminds women to pri­or­i­tize their breast health. She splits her time between New York City and London.