Friday, January 10, 2014

Modern Sheloshim

This coming Tuesday, we mark the end of the sheloshim period, thirty days since Sam died.

Who says I'm not counting?!

Jewish mourning customs are carefully structured in levels of intensity…from the depth of the restrictions placed during shiva, the first seven days, to the somewhat lightened rules during sheloshim, the first thirty days. Traditionally, there are strict rules for mourners, which can actually be very helpful. If "the rules" tell you that you aren't allowed to shower or shave, you feel less like a crazy person when you really don't feel like it. If "the rules" tell you that you're not allowed to study Torah, you don't have to justify why you can't focus on a page of words and make sense out of it. And if "the rules" tell you that you are supposed to sit on the floor, you feel like your desire to curl up in a ball on the floor and cry is totally normal.

And of course, there are reinterpretations and modern interpretations, and times change and ideas change. That all fits in with how I look at my Jewish observance and how I look at the world.

The sheloshim (30 days, counted from the day of the funeral) period has less strict restrictions on mourners. While many normal activities can be resumed, "the rules" tell you that not shaving or changing your clothes is okay, and listening to music or attending social events is mostly restricted. Writing these words in the period of sheloshim, I can tell you how wise they are. Some days I'm totally good with getting up and putting on clothes and going out and doing things. And other days I just want to stay in my pajamas.

These "rules" (and my quotes are not intended for sarcasm, not in the least. But they are to indicate that I see these as traditional guidelines that help to focus and inform my behavior…not strictly dictate) are awesome in their detail, in their attention to how people actually feel, in their understanding of the human need to mourn and to also be told to try to begin to move through. So often rules give us structure and even permission to believe that our feelings are valid and real and "normal."

But there are so many really MODERN things that are missing from "the rules."

What do I do about Facebook (and other social media), which is so much a part of my "real" life? How do I engage online in ways that are comfortable for ME and for others too? I've been so lucky -- my social media is full of Sammy. Some days I want to post cute pictures or recipes or funny jokes or snarky ideas…and some days I don't. And how do I make a distinction for myself…knowing that it's really only about me -- I think that many people wouldn't even notice or judge or care. It was an evolution, not a set of rules for myself, but I've spent these thirty days seriously considering the posts I write, the pictures I post, and the way that I say things.

Every Friday, it is my custom to wish my Facebook (and Twitter) world a Shabbat Shalom. Usually it's written with sweetness and joy, with a hope for a day of rest filled with love and blessing. Usually the responses are in that same vein. I haven't quite had the heart to wish a whole world a "shabbat shalom." Sammy's death on Shabbat has forever colored how I feel about Friday nights. I've somewhat avoided it…using other words to "sign out" on Friday nights. Will I feel differently when sheloshim ends?

Every Saturday night, I write "Shavua tov! How was your Shabbat?" (Shavua tov = a good week)
I know that I write it every Saturday because if I don't, I get gently heckled by a few friends who write it to me! I haven't posted that since Sammy died. It's even more different than "shabbat shalom" -- it actually has the word "good" (tov) in it. Oh, friends, I definitely want you to have a good week. But similar to wishing me a happy birthday…I'm not quite sure I'm ready to throw that sentiment out in the world yet. So I've avoided it. Posting pictures of our Havdalah candle, ending our Shabbat with light and warmth and blessing…this has been my avoidance tactic. I'm not even sure anyone has noticed (the kind hecklers are mostly in on my musings) but it's had an impact on me. It's different, it's where I am right now…

And then it's over. Thirty days, and the rules are done.
That's it!?
As much as I love and value the rules…I'm not done. How can I be?
So now what? (I think that's a whole other post…)

When sheloshim ends, we return to "normal," to our regular activities. Aside from the "real life stuff," let's keep going with the online world: Do I post funny pictures, silly quotes, recipes, ideas, ordinary stuff? Do I share my usual life -- movies, books, articles? Do I express my frustration with some of Solly's antics, tempered by the idea that I value his presence all the moreso in the depths of missing Sam? I offered up a thought this week, when I posted an article about grieving parents, that I don't want to become a "one trick pony," only posting about grief, only posting about kids with cancer, only posting about the swirling uncertainty around us. That's not who I am, it's not who I want to be. Many friends reassured me that I'm not…and I don't know where I'm going or what I'm doing or how I'm feeling…and I've decided that it's okay. I'm okay with posting what I feel at that moment. Feeling like posting funny pics? Okay. Feeling like posting something sad? I'm hopeful that my online community will continue to be okay with that too.

Navigating the waters of mourning is difficult each and every day. I am grateful for the structures of tradition and for the practices of reforming that allow me to interpret and re-imagine, to figure out how these ancient pathways can lead me into my modern existence.

And we just keep on swimming...

Sammy, finding something really fascinating online (in 2008)...


  1. Do whatever you feel like doing, Phyllis, and we will be here, loving you, supporting you, learning from you and holding on to each and every kernel you share with us. I hope that you find Shalom peace this Shabbat. Shabbat Shalom

  2. You're forging your own new normal. That's hard when adding a new baby to a family, going to college, moving out on your own; whatever huge life change comes. This time, you're doing that while grieving. I'm know it's infinitely harder. Thinking of you often. And as an aside, those rules for grieving seem so comforting and lovely, even though I know grief is neither.

  3. Do whatever it takes to make life even the slightest bit easier for you. Always praying for you and your family.

  4. Each day you will make decisions and the only important thing is that you do what you think is right for YOU(and your family) at any given moment. There is no right or wrong. IT JUST IS. Grief is an "individual" thing.
    May you find peacefull moments along your journey.

  5. Write what you need to. Share what you need to. Be silly, be sad, be wherever you are. We're here to listen to all of it. Now and always. Shiva and sheloshim and the first year and the lifetime to follow.

  6. As someone who follows you online, I hope you will not over-think what you decide to post. Your honesty, your journey, your grief, your uncertainty, your hope, your love for all four of your children, all of it is wholly you. And what is amazing is that your ability with words communicates what other mourners may feel but cannot communicate. I know you only speak for yourself, but just like when as teachers we say that someone asking a question is speaking up for others in the room who don't have the courage or words to ask it, your posts mean so much to those of us who "hear" them. You've answered questions I didn't know I had, you're helping me to learn to be a better comfort-provider to people I am with on a regular basis, you are continuing the blessing of Sam's life, you are touching so many more hearts than you can imagine. May this Shabbat bring a little bit of shalom.

  7. Wishing you and your family a
    Shabbat Shalom

  8. I love what veredlh said above. And don't forget that you're still an "ima on the bima" and your view (like this one) of how to live a modern Jewish life is still unique and interesting. Now that view includes how to do so with this enormous loss for all of you. Just like offline life, your writing and posting will reflect these different aspects of what your confront day to day or week to week--whatever you decide to jot down at that time by the screen.

  9. you are navigating this right now with grace and mindfulness - you inspire me. You do what you need to go to support yourself and your family. Be whatever you need to be in the given moment :)

  10. The shiva and shloshim provide frameworks, and now you are faced with the additional burden of creating or finding a new framework. There is the one-year "rule" of avoiding simchot, right? Not that you should, but that framework provides another, let's call it "a layer of protection" for how you need to deal with such things. And while you don't need to have that framework in place, if it helps you in whatever small way you need, then it;s there. My heart is with you.

  11. I am a relatively new reader here; I joined you just before the end of Sam's journey. However, I have spent the last month or so re-reading the previous blog posts and virtually getting to know your family and Sam. I want to thank you for keeping this blog going through all your ups and downs, tears and joys, relief and fretting. Although I am heartbroken that Sam's story ended as it did, as a first-year medical student I found it an invaluable window into the world of pediatric cancer and the day-to-day tribulations of cancer patients. During a period of my life where I am learning to care for the sick while having little contact with them (we don't start going to the hospital full-time for 1.5 years yet), your story and pictures helped me be sensitive to the toll that extended hospital stays have on patients, friends and family. It also inspired me to always remember that when I am on the hospital floor, to go that extra step and to do something nice for a patient even if providing it is not part of my job description (like the nurses who once made a scavenger hunt for Sam to get him moving). I will endeavor to keep these lessons in mind, so that your and Sam's journey will not have been in vain.
    Best wishes for continued healing of your broken hearts. God Bless You.

  12. I know what you mean. Follow what you need in the moment, and people will be there to meet you "where you're at." Especially since you have this blog, this special place for Sam reflections - let facebook and wherever else follow you as you ebb and flow (since I stupidly didn't make a separate blog I end up extra hesitant to clutter my fb with anything not about C or B - but my okay/funny/snarky self can come out in comments on others' posts at least...).

    As you move past sheloshim, things will continue to move around, moment to moment, day to day - milestones that might not have occurred to you yet or moments unpredictable may take you to places high and low. Things will be better/worse, things will be worse/better. It's a strange journey. I wouldn't wish it on anyone. But if we've got to be on it, I appreciate your thoughts and wisdom keeping me company in this strange new world we're in.


  13. Do what you need to do. Don't worry about how it looks, just be. That is enough for now. "The rules" in the first thirty days offer a trajectory - no one expects you to be "back to normal" and anyone with a heart or a brain knows that you are walking a long crooked road. Even those of us who don't know you well want whatever will work for you. I hope that the new week will bring you some little blessings along the way.

  14. "my online community"--there's the thousands of years of tradition continuing to make sacred our holy relationships. I cannot express in words how blessed I am to be included, to share whatever you share, go wherever you go, from now on.

  15. You will find your way and those who love and care about you will continue to be standing by your side giving you the continued support and love you need from near and far. Time is also such a strange and powerful force that will continue to help you along your journey. As always you and your family are in our hearts and prayers. Hugs to all.

  16. Everything's normal.
    But there are things you should force yourself to resume. The Parshat Shavua, the Shabbat Shalom and Shavua Tov. You have three very live children and they must have you as a parent and the ordinary routines, even when it hurts.
    And you can and should say that it hurts, but life must continue, B"H.

  17. Our Fox Point, WI (Milwaukee suburb) had a large Jewish population and I learned a great deal about the value of grieving when Jewish friends died. Those of us who have followed your family's journey (and Sam's) admire your honesty and courage.

  18. Of course you are not "done" with grieving. Of course you cannot return to "normal".... at least not the old "normal". The first year after losing a child is a roller coaster ride...but eventually you can return to a "new" normal. I do not know you personally but I am a mother who has lost a son (13 years ago) and I have spoken to many other parents whose children have unfortunately I do have some hard earned "wisdom" (if you can call it that) abour surviving the loss of a child. There will be dark days ahead, hard days. The only real "advice" I can give you is that it does get better....eventually. You are fortunate to have a loving family, including other children, as well as your faith and friends, to help you through it. Your writing is heart-felt and touching and sincere and I hope you continue to share whatever you feel like writing about with the online community. I don't know you...but I know through your writing that you are definitely not a one-trick pony. I am not Jewish...but have a good week.

  19. Between the ages of six and twenty-four I lost one person an average of every year and a half. If there is one thing I learned from that experience, it is that there is no right and wrong in grief - each grief is unique. As long as you continue to give yourself permission to hold on to life even as you mourn loss, you will get through this in a healthy way, your capacity to love and help others will expand not shrink, and you will honor Sammy and all he means to you. Snarky, joyful, or sad - it's all good and it's all whatever it needs to be.

  20. Hi. Thank you for this beautiful post. I lost my husband on January 13th unexpectedly after a complication from chemo following 11 years with leukemia. My children age 5 and 3 and I are struggling day by day and I am trying to find support through the customs of our Jewish faith. I am not finding as much as I need. Your wisdom and your words have given me great comfort. I am so sorry for your loss. The pain is so deep. Michelle