At a recent shiva call, my boys and I got an uncomfortable lesson in coping with the weightiness of raw grief.
I recently took our two sons to a shiva of an old friend of the family. It was the first time they'd gone to a shiva of someone who was a complete stranger to them, mourned by an apartment full of complete strangers. I didn't expect them to feel as safe as they did when surrounded by family after their great grandparents died. But after preparing them for what they would see and how they should act before we took the elevator up to the apartment, I didn't fully expect the exercise in introversion that followed.
In the hallway next to an overstuffed coat rack, the boys pressed their bodies next to me as I spoke to the wife of the man who died. They hid their faces in my dress when I introduced them. As I walked through the crowded apartment, they clung to me as if they were dangling from a precipice.
As the evening went on, they didn’t warm up, even after my parents and sister arrived. Seven-year-old Ezra, a happy and unburdened child in any situation – including when he is in trouble – had the forlorn face of a Dickens orphan. Maxon, usually polite and friendly and animated, took a seat in a chair by the windows, pulled his legs up to his chin and buried his face in his shirt. They both repeatedly asked to go home.
I knew they felt the weighty emotions in the apartment – this was a well-loved man who died unexpectedly and too soon. The rooms were congested with unfamiliar mourners and raw grief, and there was no escape from the unease – no television to watch, no iPod games to play, no friends to talk to, no book to read, no place to steal time alone.
But there was food.
I knew they were hungry. Ezra (sort of reluctantly) took a cookie. I urged Maxon to eat, but he wouldn’t have anything. Not even chocolate.
"I feel embarrased eating when other people are so sad," he said. "I shouldn’t enjoy anything."
"It's OK to eat," I said. "Everyone else here is eating, including me."
He shook his head. I was proud of his sensitivity and tried to give him a brief lesson about Jews and food. But he just wanted to go home.
I told them I felt disquieted, too. I was about to pour my third glass of wine, which helped with the more awkward conversations. I was reconnecting with several people from my past, but feeling happy to see old friends like I was at a reunion was incongruous to the shiva situation.
At the same time, I was acutely aware that any discomfort my kids or I was experiencing was miniscule compared to the family, who had lost a husband, brother, father and grandfather. There was no need to try and make this better for the boys. It wouldn't be the last time they felt ill at ease at a shiva.
"I know you guys don't like it here. I know you are uncomfortable," I told them. "And I can’t do anything about it. You just have to be with it."
They didn’t like that answer, or how long we stayed. They didn't want to go back the next day, either. During that second visit, Ezra pulled on my arm the entire time, trying to tow my body back to the elevator.
But I have to hope that some part of them became a little more comfortable with discomfort, the same way they ease into crisp ocean water. The longer they stay in, the more tolerable the temperature.