Fairhaven Blog

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Grief, Faith and Culture III

Charity Gallardo - Friday, February 10, 2012

Heidi Telpner has blogged for us before on the topic of grief. As a hospice nurse and author, Heidi has a lot of information to impart on this subject. However, today she's coming at the topic from a different angle as she shares information on grief and Judaism.

Disclaimer: The religious information contained in these guest blog posts are the beliefs of the guest blogger and in no way reflect Fairhaven's endorsement of any particular religion.

If you’re looking for certainty, you’ve come to the wrong religion. At least when it comes to death – Judaism offers you no guarantee. In Judaism, comfort is to be found in ancient ritual and community, not faith and salvation. We don’t spend much time discussing heaven. As my father says, he can be a Jew and an atheist at the same time. I think what he means is this – Judaism is focused on life, not death. It’s less a religion than a way of life.

I’d like to say we don’t worry about what we can’t know – heaven - and what we can’t control – death - but that would be a lie. Of course we worry. We’ve wondered about the meaning of life and death since ancient times. In the book of Job, one of the oldest books of the Hebrew Bible, when Job bewails all the many evils that have befallen him, he raises the question – how can a God who is good and just allow evil? Of course God never answers Job’s question, instead he poses his own questions (King James Version) – “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? … Have the gates of death been revealed unto thee? … Or hast thou seen the gates of the shadow of death?” In other words, things of God are beyond our human understanding.

So how do we deal with death? We surround ourselves with ritual, family and friends. For instance, a Jew must be buried before the next sunset. This is why as a Jew, Jesus’ body had to be removed from the cross and hurriedly placed in a makeshift tomb.

Generally, Jewish people are not embalmed and most Jews are buried in a simple pine box, for from dust we were formed and unto dust we return. We sit ‘shiva’ or seven. For seven days, the family of the deceased does not work or go about a normal routine. Instead, the family receives visitors and guests who come to express condolences, provide comfort and honor the deceased. Many families cover all the mirrors in their house during this period. The modern reason given is that family members should avoid vanity and keep their thoughts focused on God. The more ancient reason is that it was once thought mirrors could confuse the soul on his way to heaven, so they were kept covered.

Ehow.com has an easy guide to the ritual of sitting shiva. (Click HERE to read it.)

Jews follow other ancient customs, such as the tearing of a garment, and Jewish funeral homes usually provide the mourners with a ribbon or piece of cloth that can be torn instead of clothing. A parent is mourned for thirty days, a child for an entire Hebrew year, and a memorial prayer is recited for the deceased every year on the anniversary of his or her death.

We have a specific prayer for the dead, the Kaddish, which is recited not only by the family, but by any member of the Jewish community who wishes to participate. This helps the family feel less isolated and alone in their grief. Interestingly enough, this prayer isn’t for the soul of the deceased; rather it’s for the glorification of God, the giver of life and death.

If you ever visit a Jewish cemetery, you’ll find small, inconspicuous headstones over the graves. And chances are you’ll find tiny piles of pebbles left on the headstones. This is a custom leftover from Roman times. We leave the pebbles as a mark of respect for the deceased, and to let them know they are not forgotten. Life is very important to us; we cherish the memories of our ancestors.

If you have a Jewish friend or co-worker who passes away, visiting with the family in those first seven days will mean the world to them.

Heidi Telpner is author of One Foot in Heaven, available at Barnes and Noble and Amazon.com. Heidi accidentally stumbled into nursing twenty-seven years ago and she never stumbled out. She's been a hospice nurse for the last nine of those twenty-seven years. Her initial training was as a midwife. She now midwifes her patients out the other end of life. Ms. Telpner and her husband live on the West Coast. They have three children, a dog, three cats, two birds and one lucky koi.

About One Foot in Heaven:

People die everyday. While most people in America die in a hospital, many families choose hospice for end of life care. Death, as experienced by hospice nurses, can be beautiful, peaceful, humorous, touching, tragic, disturbing, and even otherworldly. Hospice nurses act as midwives to dying people every day. Death transforms not just the patient and family, but the hospice nurse as well. The stories in this book are presented with the hope that their transformation extends to you, too.


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