shiva

What Sitting Shiva for My Father-In-Law Taught Me

candles

My father in law passed away last week at the age of 84.

Watching my husband Gideon’s facial expressions as he wrote the eulogy for his father—the smiles as he remembered the funny times and the tears welling as he recognized those days are in the past—I was reminded of the depth and power of loving relationships. His grief and love are intertwined.

Singer and artist Patti Smith shares her view of death in an online video I recently watched. She reveals that though she has lost many loved ones, she still hears them talking to her. At 70 years, old, for instance, she can still her the voice of her mom scolding her if she is making a bad choice. This is comforting: I know Gideon will continue to hear his father’s voice throughout his life, guiding him as he navigates the rocky seas of adulthood into old age. Loving relationships can be eternal if we are open to maintaining them, even after the person’s death. This can feel painful and make us vulnerable, but honoring your relationship with a loved one after death is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself.

And how different, after all, is that from maintaining loving and positive relationships during life, even everyday? That also involves making ourselves vulnerable and put ourselves out there so our relationships thrive.

Christopher Peterson was a renowned positive psychologist who was known for saying “other people matter.” The Harvard Study of Adult Development, a study that has tracked the lives of 724 men for 78 years, has supported this idea. Relationships–both quantity and quality—matter to our quality of life. And as we witnessed first hand after my father–in-law’s death, relationships can soften the blow of difficult times–and difficult times are inevitable.

Yet we cannot benefit from our relationships during the bad times unless we cultivate them every day, even when our busy lives ask us to prioritize other things.

The shiva, following the funeral, reminded me how important this is. My husband has collected friends throughout his life. Wherever he goes he creates fun and unity, and he always goes beyond the call of duty with his friends. And in the spirit of karma (yes I just used “Shiva” and “karma” in the same paragraph), what you give out comes back to you. Gideon’s friends showed up either in person or called on the phone to show support. I could see my husband’s face light up, his burden lighten, with each person entering the house. In some ways, he felt disbelief that so many people went out of their way to show him support. Yet his gratitude and appreciation of the community he has built helped assuage the sadness he was feeling over losing his dad.

Christopher Peterson was so right; other people really do matter and the ritual of shiva manifests that quite beautifully.

The business of daily life is overwhelming and we often become reactive rather than proactive. Maintaining relationships can often be pushed to the side in today’s world. But the experience of watching my husband mourn has reminded me that we should try to reach out as much as possible.

Whether we invite friends to join our carpools or errand runs, find new friends through interests like sports and book clubs, or simply focus and prioritize our deepest connections and let other obligations fall to the side, we can integrate making other people matter into our lives. And most importantly, we should remember: friendships are give and take, so be sure to accept the help of your friends when you are struggling. My tendency is to hide out when things get tough rather than reach out, and I need to fighting against this instinct.

Christopher Peterson said it so perfectly: “Other people do matter.” So my resolution, and advice going forward is: Don’t take your relationships for granted. They help your physical and mental health. Be creative and proactive to make sure you nurture and build upon your existing relationships and keep room for new ones, too.

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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