Shiva for a Six-Year-Old: Community and Shared Pain

25 Sivan 5774

An Internet acquaintance of mine very recently lost his god-daughter Rebecca to something that should not happen to children. She made it to her sixth birthday, but she had an inoperable brain tumor. She died on her birthday.

Naturally, her parents were hit hard by her death, and so was he. Apparently this little girl was a light to the world, funny, silly, snarky, and she deserved a much longer time here than she got. Saying “It was G-d’s will” or any of the other Standard Platitudes would be a shonda.

He’s been very open about what’s been going on as she went through her dying process, and recently he wrote about the week of shiva for her, and what it was like for him. I can’t do better than to link to it, so I’m doing that here: Shiva Is. Would that there were something more I could do for him beyond saying “Baruch dayan emet” and offering my condolences, but I live nowhere near him, and I’m just an acquaintance.

I never got to sit shiva for my father, because at the time I wasn’t Jewish. I will never have had that experience. Of course I will remember him on his yarzheit and say the Mourner’s Kaddish for him from now on. But too much of my memory of the time of his death was his disbelieving friends coming to his funeral and demanding to know what had happened to him, at a time when I was least equipped to deal with questions (especially questions that, to my ears, sounded accusatory). How different might it have been if the community I was part of at the time had had that process of shiva in place for us?

Oh, I had a community – don’t get me wrong. I had a blogging community that rallied around me while he was dying and afterwards, when I poured out my grief into my LiveJournal. But that is not the same as being able to sit with the pain and process the grief while trusting that others are taking care of food, and running interference between you and the questioners.

So it hit me hard, reading about him sitting shiva for her (and how he ended up being a comforter, rather than being allowed to really mourn). It hit me how much we really do depend on community to get through this kind of pain. Ursula LeGuin had a character say once that “brotherhood begins in shared pain,” and perhaps that’s part of what shiva is for. Another writer, Spider Robinson, had a motto for the bar he wrote about in many of his books: “Shared pain is lessened, shared joy is increased: thus do we refute entropy.”

When we visit the grieving or are grieving ourselves, isn’t that about sharing pain? Isn’t it about refuting entropy? And even sharing happy stories about the person who’s died is increasing shared joy, isn’t it?

G-d forbid you should have to sit shiva for a loved one now or anytime soon, but we all have pain, sometimes daily. What pain are you having today? What pain does your neighbor have? How can you help and be helped? What joy can you share?

How can we, as a people, make each others’ lives a little less painful?

Perhaps that’s what shiva is for. It’s a way of formalizing the ancient Greek axiom (variously attributed to Plato and to Aristotle): Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a difficult battle.

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