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thoughts & reflections

"We tell stories with hopes that we may be truly heard."
~Isabel Mares
  • Writer's pictureKate Newell

Sit Shiva With Me

Updated: Jan 11, 2019

After five years of messages from Spirit, I am finally listening and taking Kabbalah classes this spring. Judaism has weaved its way through my life many times, starting at age 13 when I began studying the faith and considering joining. While I have not converted to any organized religion, my soul loves to sing in Shul, break Challah bread with friends, and light the menorah during Hanukkah. What I love most about Judaism (and the reason I believe it has survived through so much) is their commitment to ritual. They take transitions seriously, therefore cementing a communal bond imprinted for generations.

As a witch, I love ritual. As a chaplain, I love death. I resonate with them both for the same reason: the transformation from one reality to another. Most of my studies have centered around the moment our paradigms, relationships, and systems transition. I’ve seen more dead bodies than any “normal” 30 year old woman, since much of my job as a hospital trauma chaplain was to support patients, family, and friends through the dying process. It is a sacred calling--facilitating ritual around death--and a deep honor to serve in a capacity most of our society actively avoids.

When it comes to death, Judaism celebrates it wholly by focusing on the two most powerful ingredients for transformation: space and time. Jews repeat the Kaddish prayer every week for eleven months as they grieve, and for an entire week after someone passes, loved ones closest to the deceased sit shiva. Shiva is translated as “seven,” which means for seven days folx sit on the floor and mourn. No preparing food (it is brought to them), no bathing or caring about appearances (mirrors are covered), no technology, and no distractions.

To participate in ritual is to summon life.

Not only the life lost, but ritual gives mourners space to remind themselves of the life they want to curate. We often go through transitions and hardly stop to breathe in the change of direction. As a society, we forget to mourn. Bruce Tuckman, a psychologist specializing in group relations, named the pattern of group development stages as: forming, storming, norming, performing, and adjourning/mourning. Most facilitators forget that last step, and to me, it’s paramount. A mourning phase encompasses memories encapsulated during that experience and the ability to recall information gleaned going forth.

Our culture is in the midst of a massive transformation… what if, instead of constantly crafting the “new,” we sat shiva in the liminal space between realities? After a career change? A break up? An identity shift? There’s a lot of beauty in death... if we allow ourselves to see it. The more we continue to avoid sitting and accepting the passing of something finite, we miss out on experiencing the infinite. For me, 2018 served as a year of sitting shiva. I tried to get out of mourning the pieces of my identity and dreams that died, but the more I pushed, the harder the Universe brought me back down to the floor. To sit. That foundation served as a unique vantage point to observe my life through. A fertile ground only a dark winter could foster.

We need every season to grow life.

If we skip the snow, we don’t get the sunshine. One tool of resiliency is a simple Dialectical Behavioral Skill from psychologist Marsha Linehan I use as a mantra: radical acceptance. If you’re in a season of winter-- love it for what it is! I’m just beginning to feel roots wake up and seeds sprout, but (at last!) my season is shifting. I sat in the snow and released the past. Not by wishing it were different, or working to change it, just accepting the snowflakes as they fell.

**This reflection arose after receiving a beautiful testimonial of my ministry of presence while sitting shiva for the first time with a colleague in seminary:

“I remember being shocked to my core with the third consecutive death in my family (two before this) and it was my late younger sister Natalie at 36 years old. I was sitting shiva and was pleasantly surprised by Kate with some oranges and some wonderfully compassionate company. As colleagues at Union, there was little emphasis on getting to genuinely know each other but she sat shiva with me. It was the most valuable three hours becoming acquainted and my being allowed to be vulnerable in a safe environment which has helped me to this day.” James Young, MSSW Candidate at Columbia School of Social Work

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