Sometimes I wish every week was Shiva with its unending support and ongoing hours, and days, of continual storytelling. For when loved ones die, the narratives we share help keep them alive. Shiva is the week before we must dance with reality, when the debate over how long it is supposed to take to reach acceptance in the stages of grief is not a spectrum, but a staunchly understood cavernous, amorphous abyss.
But all too often after Shiva, we forget. People are still mourning, but we forget. After the rugelach, fruit platters and babka have been laid on the kitchen counter and carried to the dining room table, then eaten, we forget. After the family members deepest in mourning — their loved one so recently a breath away — have cried, wailed and sat stunned in shock, we forget.
My brother, Joshua, died in October 2002, nearly 11 years ago. He was struck by a car while walking down a sidewalk in the Chicago suburbs; a senior from his high school pulled an illegal U-Turn and an elderly man struck Joshua, then 15, in an attempt to avoid collision with the teenager. The car flung Josh’s body into the side of a store building. Immediately left unconscious, he died the next morning in the Intensive Care Unit.
I’m at that age when friends are becoming grandparents, and I hear a frequent refrain from them: Besides adoring their grandchildren, they express joyful wonderment at seeing their children become parents.
I’m not ready for grandchildren yet. But I’m going through a similar experience at the other end of life, watching one of my daughters manage the death of her beloved dog.
By the time you read this, he will be gone. His death — the euphemistic “putting down” — was on Friday, scheduled with care and deliberation. It’s been clear for months that the tumor on his heart was inoperable and the accumulation of fluid in his belly, making him appear as if he were pregnant with quadruplets, was the only part of him that was growing. His torso and limbs were skinny with deterioration, his gait awkward and his anxiety managed by an ever-increasing dose of drugs.
But my daughter said he never lost his sweetness and goofy enthusiasm. He had always been her dog. Our family had other pets — dogs, cats, fish, a pair of smelly, constantly procreating guinea pigs — but after going through a rough patch in high school, my daughter wanted her own dog and she deserved it.
Earlier this summer, after we finished sitting shiva for my grandmother, I sifted through her top drawer. This was the drawer she herself had frequently rummaged through when I would visit her apartment, either to attempt to press cab fare into my hand, or to show me a pin or scarf that would be mine someday, or in the last year or so, to give one of these things to me or my mother, to unburden herself. So that afternoon in the almost-empty apartment, I thought I knew what I would find: her phi beta kappa pin, her necklace with the head of medusa on it (my grandmother loved mythology), her pearls and wedding ring, an old locket my family had given her after her sister died, and other sentimental trinkets that might make me laugh, nod and cry.
But when I opened one box, I found something I hadn’t expected: two black mourning ribbons, torn and faded but identical to the ribbons we were wearing that weekend for her, the ones the rabbi had instructed us to cut and put next to our hearts in the tearful moments before her funeral began. I assume my grandmother’s old ribbons marked the deaths of her sister and her husband, though we’ll never know for sure. It was a sad but fitting moment of connection, affirming that she had gone through the same ritualized period of lament that we were in the midst of — and that the experience had meant so much to her that she’d put the sad scraps of fabric in the same place she kept her precious treasures and totems.
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