This is not a story about me. It’s about a woman I ride the bus with, and her co-worker, and a crime victim, and celebrity businessperson. All I got to do was see it happen.
I don’t really know this woman all that well.
We get on the El (elevated train) at the same stop on our way to work, here in Chicago. When we catch the same train, we chitchat about nothing much all the way downtown.
Today, she was at the stop, but she did not seem her usual chipper self. So I asked her what was wrong.
“You know about Kevin O’Malley?” she asked.
“That poor kid who was mugged and killed in Lakeview last week?”
“Yeah. He was my co-worker’s brother.”
The train arrived, and when we got settled, she just unloaded. About Kevin, about her co-worker, about the wake and the packed church at the funeral. Evidently, the O’Malleys are a large family, multi-generationally Chicagoan, and abundant in friends. Kevin, who was 25, had a long-term girlfriend everyone assumed he would eventually marry.
Then my fellow rider said something I did not expect.
“Can you tell me what ‘sheloshim’ is?”
I immediately knew what she was referring to. Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook COO who lost her husband a month ago, had written a much-shared post about this Jewish mourning practice, in the wake of her husband’s early death.
“My co-worker said that she’d read the post and that it really helped her. But she was unclear about the whole Jewish mourning part.” My train acquaintance knows I’m Jewish and where I work.
So I explained the process of Jewish mourning. About how a Jewish burial is hurried, but then in the week (shiva), a month (sheloshim), and year (yahrzeit) after, there are certain things mourners do—and avoid doing—in the Jewish tradition. I even mentioned Yizkor and explained about stone-settings.
By then we had reached her stop. Although I have known this woman for a couple of years, this was the first time we hugged. She smiled and thanked me before she left the train.
In thinking over the incident, my first thought was that it’s a shame that it takes something like death to get people discussing their faiths and traditions.
But then I realized why this is—grief forms its own community. The Sandbergs and the O’Malleys have nothing in common demographically, geographically, or socio-economically. They don’t know each other and will likely never meet.
But, as differently as they may express themselves in it, they share the common language of grief. It translates across all boundaries of time and place and religion; a tear means the same thing in English and Hebrew. When people grieve and share their grief, they find others sharing back. And so a community is formed.
Those in mourning are often told that there is no “right way” to grieve. Some tear their clothes, some light candles, some start foundations. Some even throw a party.
Even so, I would say that there is one best way to grieve: together.