I’ve been to two different events in the past week, both presenting stories that reflect beliefs about the afterlife. One was at the synagogue — so the Jewish perspective. The other was at a local museum, which is having an exhibition supplemented by talks related to Russia, so – beliefs from an Orthodox Christian view. Not surprisingly, both Jewish and Orthodox perspectives have clear ideas about what happens to the soul once it leaves a body.
In the Jewish tradition, there are the hours and days following death and prior to the funeral when people sit with the body. I understood this to be a way to comfort and ease the soul which may not fully understand that it no longer inhabits the body in which it had been residing. Then there’s the practice of sitting shiva in the days after the funeral. At age 15, when faced with death for the first time, that of my grandfather, my father had to take me aside and convince me to stop raging about the awfulness of people having what seemed to me to be a party. My dad explained that everyone had gathered and brought food to comfort and keep my grandmother company in the first hours of her loss. I was mollified but not completely convinced. Now, I’ve learned from a more esoteric perspective that sitting shiva is also about continuing to provide ease for the soul that may still be lingering and holding onto familiar settings. (Of course, I didn’t get this explanation from my agnostic father.) So, I’m worried now that Philip died in the completely unfamiliar setting of an intensive care unit in a hospital in San Diego. And feeling his presence evaporate from his body and the room, did I in my ignorance desert him by walking out after only a short time of sitting with his body? Was he confused and unable to find anything or anyone familiar or comforting? It’s a terrible thought.
The process of mourning in the Jewish tradition includes recognizing the first 30 days following the burial as a period in which those living through grief slowly make their way back into everyday life. The whole first year is seen as the time through which grief and recovery are acknowledged. While none of my family or friends hurried or chided me in that first year to get over it, move on, or begin a new chapter, few wanted to talk about Philip after the first weeks. I imagined they didn’t want to upset me, that their silence came out of the kindest intentions. But when you lose the central figure in your life and when you ache with missing that person who has filled your days with laughter and tears and exasperation and inspiration – you want to talk about him. Want to tell his stories, ponder his impossible inconsistencies, laugh and cry aloud with someone who will hold you and your pain without any attempt to fix or heal or advise.
At the museum program, I learned that the Orthodox also observe set phases of mourning that include a third day, a ninth day, and a 40th day. The first stories appeared to be warning tales of what might happen if one did not honor the dead in the prescribed manner. (Being blown across the yard in a furious blizzard was one.) The final tale was a more peaceful depiction of a young girl following her deceased father’s footprints in the snow as he walked away from the house on the 40th day. She followed until his footsteps were no longer seen, and she was left with the tender knowing that he had been able to travel on.
I had nothing of these ritual roadmaps to help me through my mourning. I was scrabbling to construct a cosmology out of the bits and scraps I’d picked up along the way. But it was too little, too limited. Tonight, I’m thinking that not giving a child some kind of spiritual grounding is an (unwitting) disservice. I’m sure my parents believed that the best they could teach was what they believed: be kind, be fair, be honest, be loving. And, of course, those values have served me well. But when it came to losing the most important being, I was left high and dry.
In the first few months after Philip died, on two separate occasions, his voice called me out of deep sleep. It was only my name that he called, but it was urgent and distinctly and unquestionably his voice. The first time — startled as I was, I was happy to feel that he was still somehow connected and caring to reach back for me. The second, I was upset, frustrated, bereft. “What?” I answered back. “What can I do? What do you need? Where are you? How can I respond across this unfathomable divide?” And through my tears, again and again, “Why did you leave me?” The silence that followed was heart-aching.
This Friday, March 15 is the four-year anniversary of his death. It seems like yesterday and a lifetime ago. Have I honored the stages of his soul’s passing even without knowing how? Will an angry blizzard blow through the apartment because I have missed the crucial days and ritual practices meant to ease him on his way? And are those stages, the third, and ninth, and thirtieth or fortieth days also for those left behind? Are we meant to allow grief to deeply reorganize our souls … our lives? And am I still (and always) doing this?
Will the love for him that still shapes and tenderly guides me through my days walk gently across the floor, leave tracks in a gentle snow that magically fills the room, and ask my heart to continue to unfold in this life where an impossible person once took my hand, walked and breathed by my side?