Framing Our Communal Grief

Screen capture: Gutterman’s.

By Rabba Melissa Scholten-Gutierrez, MSW

Hamakom yenakhem etekhem betokh shaar avelay tziyon viyrushalayim.
May God comfort you among all of the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

These words which are commonly said to mourners at funerals and on shiva visits – and even on Facebook posts these days – remind mourners that they are not alone. That even in our deepest moments of individual grief we are surrounded by our community.

Jewish tradition provides a rich mourning process which allows individuals the opportunity to grieve while being supported by their community, slowly transitioning into a new normal over the course of thirty days to a year, and marking the loss annually on both individual (yahrzeit) and communal (yizkor) occasions.

I believe this process has power not only for individuals but also for the community if we allow ourselves to expand our understanding of grief and mourning, and to embrace that its not always linear.

Anenut: In the time between death and burial, immediate mourners are released from their ritual obligations in order to focus their attention on immediate needs. This is where our communal organizations are seemingly stuck out of necessity. They have paused normal activity in order to serve acute needs. Federations have been launching emergency campaigns instead of closing out their annual campaigns, food banks have shifted collection models, and JCCs are finding ways to build virtual communities.

Shiva: For seven days after the burial, mourners sit in their home. They are visited by their community who share words of comfort, while the mourners themselves share stories about those who have died. Communally, we are here as individuals. We are each in homes and absorbed by the memories of those who and what we are missing, be it due to isolation, cancellations, illness, or death. And for those who are actively sitting shiva alone, in their deepest of grief without even their family present, may they find a shred of comfort in knowing so many others in our community are with them in their own homes as well sitting both literal and metaphorical shiva.

At the end of shiva, the mourners get up, step outside for the first time in a week, and take a walk around the block with their community. This moment of coming back into community is powerful as an individual recognizing moving forward into a new normal and will be so for our entire community when we are able to begin reintegrating. And yet, even here in the moments of reintegrating it will be messy. There won’t be one simple act of getting up and “rejoining” community. Maybe it will be many small steps, many short walks.

While we do not know how long our shiva moment will be, we must look towards that walk around the block together.

Shloshim (30 days): For thirty days, mourners slowly reintegrate. We restrict our behaviors to remind us of our status as mourners as we learn how to live in a world that looks different. We say kaddish in a minyan and build a new micro-community with others in this state. Mourners don’t attend weddings, have joyous gatherings, or go to concerts, movies, and the theatre in order to remember that while they are re-integrating, they are still separate.

Just as it is hard for a mourner to anticipate what their life will look like during shloshim and beyond, it is hard to predict what this time will look like communally. Perhaps for the community that will mean smaller groups for communal prayer when we can reopen our synagogues or retaining physical distancing when we can socialize in person again. Regardless of what the active measures will be, we will be building an entirely new community experience.

Yud Bet Chodesh (12 months): Jewish tradition recognizes that it takes a full year to reintegrate after the death of a parent, so too it will take a long time – longer than we realize – to consciously learn how to be together again. It will take even longer to fully move forward without all the members of community who have and will die during this pandemic.

While mourning is not a linear process, Jewish tradition gives us a framework to guide ourselves along a path – together. As we continue to work through our collective grief and trauma as individuals, I pray we can also come together to heal as a community.

Rabba Melissa Scholten-Gutierrez, MSW is passionate about helping Jewish communal organizations be more intentional – more intentionally Jewish, more intentionally diverse, more intentionally equitable. Melissa received her Masters in Social Work from the University of Illinois and rabbinic ordination from Yeshivat Maharat and currently serves the community as the Jewish Camp Initiative Manager at the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta.