"Better to go to a house of mourning than to a house of feasting," (Ecclesiastes 7:2), said the wisest of men.
Until my father's recent passing, I had only experienced a house of mourning from the viewpoint of one offering comfort, not that of a mourner. Even then, I was struck by the wisdom of the ancient forms. According to Jewish law, one waits for the mourner to initiate conversation. It is not the job of the one who has come to offer solace to fill up the silence, but rather to follow the lead of the mourner.
Comforters who feel the pressure to say something, whether profound or witty, are almost guaranteed to say something stupid. Jewish law relieves them of that pressure.
The shiva houses I remember from my suburban upbringing were usually filled with food. The mourners acted as if they were responsible for entertaining their guests, and the guests seemed to think their role consisted chiefly of distracting the mourners from their pain by making light talk.
Very different is the traditional house of mourning, where the mourners sit on the floor or low chairs, little, if any, food is served, and ideally the conversation focuses almost entirely on the deceased.
No ideal is ever fully realized. Inevitably there will be those who insist on hearing about the last week or the last five minutes of a long life, in the hopes of finding a distinguishing detail to reassure them that the same fate does not await them. But, in general, the shiva for my father centered on the joy of his life, not his death.
The pain of our loss was directly proportional to the preciousness of our relationship with Dad.
I had no wish to be distracted from talking about my father. True, that talk often triggered new crying, but the tears were not only ones of sadness. The pain of our loss was directly proportional to the preciousness of our relationship with Dad.
Each of the stages of the mourning process -- shiva (the first seven days from burial), shloshim (30 days), the eleven months of reciting Kaddish -- has its own rules and restrictions. Together they impose a structure and discipline on one's life, at least in my case heretofore unknown. I have entered a new world of being among the first ten to arrive at every minyan so I can lead the prayers, and organizing my day around three regular minyanim. Since shiva ended, I have not slept past 5:30 a.m. Mourning reminds us that life is finite, and the discipline it imposes teaches us how to get the most out of our time before we shuffle off this mortal coil.
Leading the daily davening has thrust me into my terror zone. I would far sooner have faced Roger Clemens in his prime. While improvement in this unfamiliar role has been steady, I still tremble each time I go to the front. But that fear also reminds me that I'm there only because of my love for my father, and brings me closer to him.
Throughout the year of mourning, we do many things for the benefit of the soul of the departed: learn mishnayos, recite Kaddish, lead the davening, give tzedakah. But for me, the most important is to be a true legacy to my father by attempting to embody at least some of his positive traits. All the talking about Dad throughout shiva allowed me to define what made him so special and to clarify the task ahead of me.
I returned from shiva at my parents' home filled with a desire to hug and kiss my children even more than before, and with the hope that when my time comes, they will remember me with as much love and respect as I will always remember Dad.