My husband Ray died on June 15, 2015, exactly three years, seven months and six days after he was diagnosed with lung cancer. From the beginning, we were a team and it became “our” cancer. We discussed everything, from chemo and hair loss to how to share difficult news with family and friends. We expanded our vocabulary of love while learning the terminology of clinical trials, side effects and treatment options.
Early on, we learned an essential lesson: that no matter how “out of control” we felt, we could remain empowered by making intentional choices. One such choice was our commitment to live with cancer and not let it define or determine who we were. A favorite card said it best: “Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass. It is about learning how to dance in the rain.”
There were times when it felt like we were living in a minefield, tiptoeing cautiously through life for fear of what might explode next. Yet it was in that very space of not knowing, in the precious precariousness of life, that we became our best and truest selves.
It may sound odd, but ours was a luxurious death experience because we had so much time to talk, share, cry, have beautiful Shabbat dinners, connect with family and spend time with friends. I saw this period as an incredible challenge and an enormous opportunity. For as difficult as it was, I knew that our remaining time together could be every bit as beautiful and meaningful as the rest of our 32 year marriage had been. And it was.
Ray and I spent hours talking about how he wanted his final days to unfold. We formalized documents with our lawyer, made changes at the bank and organized the “details” of death. I made notes on a legal pad so I would be certain to remember what he said. These particulars may sound morbid but in reality, knowing exactly what Ray wanted made it easier for me and my family as we walked numbly through those first days and weeks of mourning. We found solace in knowing that we were honoring Ray’s wishes.
Ray felt strongly about observing the Jewish rituals of death and mourning, from the simplicity of his casket to sitting shiva for seven days. Sitting shiva is defined as the seven day period when Jewish mourners limit their activities and remain primarily at home to honor the deceased and begin the healing process. Tradition establishes a seven day period but many contemporary Jews limit the time from one to three days. In some houses, a candle remains lit, mirrors are covered and mourners sit on low stools to express their grief. Friends often arrange meals for the family and provide food for the guests.
Although I never expressed it, my initial reaction to Ray’s shiva request was a combination of anxiety and dread. I couldn’t imagine how I would manage seven days of socializing at a time when I anticipated that I would want to be private in my grief and alone my with family.
What I didn’t know before Ray died, but believe he intuitively understood, is how important, meaningful and helpful the shiva experience would be for our family. At a time when I felt totally untethered, the process of sitting shiva provided a sense of stability, structure and order, giving me a compass by which to navigate.
Sitting shiva was so much more than having our home filled with people and food. We held three community shivas and three smaller ones, to give us a chance to connect more intimately with family and close friends. Each shiva was led by a rabbi or cantor who offered wisdom, guidance, comfort and hope. During a time that felt painfully surreal, I was brought back to reality when we recited the Mourner’s Kaddish. Amidst a sea of voices and flanked by my family, we chanted the ancient Aramaic prayer, affirming our appreciation for life in the face of the greatest loss of all, death. And despite the effort it took to get up each day, I began to look forward to the evening when we would sit together, in community, and honor Ray.
On the seventh day, we held a morning shiva, which concluded when we removed our black mourning ribbons, extinguished the memorial candle and walked silently out of the house into the hot June sunlight. My children and I “re-entered” the world by walking around the block, then returned to our home to begin our lives anew, without Ray.
It was on the last day of shiva that I understood what Ray had known before he died. We needed to sit shiva to help us live. For while he had given me a responsibility, he had also given me a map by which to find my way and a path that would help me re-enter life with a sense of meaning and purpose.
Amy Hirshberg Lederman is an author, Jewish educator, public speaker and attorney who lives in Tucson. Her columns in the AJP have won awards from the American Jewish Press Association, the Arizona Newspapers Association and the Arizona Press Club for excellence in commentary. Visit her website at amyhirshberglederman.com.