Five months before dying, my great-aunt, the much beloved matriarch of the family, was able to participate in my son’s bris. When she passed away, it didn’t even occur to us not to bring my son to the funeral. But, once we were there, I felt torn about having brought him. He was the great spot of joy in our lives and one of the wonderful celebrations that the family had recently experienced. It felt a little selfish and it felt like we were diverting the focus of the day. My husband sat outside of the service with our son and that, too, was more challenging. I would have liked him to be there with me and have the opportunity to do his own mourning. But he was able to sit in the “family room” and hear the service over the loud speakers so he felt he was participating a little.
When we went to the cemetery, I took my son to the graves of my grandparents, my great-aunts and great-uncles and introduced him. For me, it was one of the better parts of the day, to more officially add my son to the family, beyond the living. When the Jewish tradition of throwing dirt on the grave began, burying our own, we all stood solemnly, many in tears, as we watched. Suddenly, out of nowhere, my son, who had been quiet, started to spontaneously laugh, something he had never done before. I quickly moved him away from the group and felt terrible for having disturbed such a serious moment. My great-aunt’s daughter immediately made her way from the front of the mourners over to me.
“Don’t worry about it,” she said. “This is exactly how my mother would have wanted to go, with a baby’s laugh.”
In fact, it is my belief that my son got his joyful laugh that day from my great-aunt.
What is Shiva?
Elana’s father, son, and cousin at a shiva.
We all returned to her house for the post-funeral gathering, marking the start of shiva, the first seven days of mourning.
At my great-aunt’s shiva, my son was passed around so much that my husband and I stopped keeping track of where he was. Those who had spent time in the preparation and planning for the funeral were often holding him and seemed grateful for his presence in their arms. Their delight in making faces at my son seemed to distract them from their grief although it took me a while to feel comfortable with this sort of joy as part of the mourning process.
Eight months later, my family held their breath for a week, knowing my uncle, who had been battling multiple kinds of cancer, would pass away in a matter of days. When he finally did, my husband and I were able to quickly implement a childcare plan for the day of the memorial. Free of my son, my husband and I were able to focus all of our energies on taking care of my parents and extended family. My cousin–who also has young children–and I decided that we wanted to bring our children to shiva but wondered how that would work.
How Children Fit In
As it turns out, it worked fine. Our sons played together and apart and brought smiles to the faces of the mourners most affected. This time, while it still felt a little odd, it didn’t make me as uneasy or self-conscious. I knew that my parents wanted to see my son. My father had, in fact, asked to see him. These children were life-affirming, something I hadn’t completely understood before becoming a parent myself.
“Children have a place in every ritual, even rituals associated with death.” explained Rabbi Daniel Bronstein, another local parent and the Congregational Scholar at Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope Brooklyn. He had assisted the rabbi who conducted the memorial service for my uncle. “But it’s dependent on the community and the person visiting. You should always ask [the bereaved] and kids shouldn’t be required to be there the whole time, even older kids. You have to gauge it, according to the kid and the circumstances.”
The final funeral, two months later, was that of an older cousin. Despite her declining health, she passed away rather suddenly while on vacation with her husband. This funeral was peppered with many younger cousins, all grandchildren or children of friends. Several of the grandchildren even provided their own eulogies. Because that branch of the family was so filled with children of varying ages and because the cousin who had passed had made such an incredible effort to come to my son’s bris, despite the fact that she had returned home from a long stay in the hospital and rehab just that week, I had no qualms about bringing my son to the funeral. This time we knew how to handle it.
Two months later, having spent a year mourning at funerals, four cousins of one generation, with their spouses, and eight children of the next, gathered, for an afternoon of relaxed and informal fun. Our intention was to make sure that our family closeness continued in an explicitly child-friendly way and to celebrate the next generation: our children, our mutual life affirmation.