“It will exhaust you.”
The three of us sat together in the quiet of the emptier house. One grieving, and we two friends sitting with him in his grief. The exhausting “it” was the visitation, scheduled for the following day. And my friend’s warning struck me as the saddest thing I’d actually heard in the hours we’d spent together.
To be perfectly honest, the modern Western visitation has always felt daunting to me. And, yes, exhausting. But maybe that’s just because it’s so different from what I’ve always known. And I suppose it’s probably how people feel about the way my people grieve.
So Joseph went up to bury his father. He was accompanied by all of Pharaoh's officials . . . Joseph also took his entire household and his brothers and their households . . . a great number of chariots and charioteers accompanied Joseph. When they arrived…near the Jordan River, they held a very great and solemn memorial service, with a seven-day period of mourning for Joseph’s father. (Genesis 50:7–10 NLT)
Maybe you’ve heard of “sitting shiva,” the Jewish mourning custom. Its roots are found in Genesis, where we find Jacob’s family mourning for a full seven (shiva) days. But they didn’t mourn alone. Pharaoh’s officials and military accompanied them, caring for and protecting the family while they grieved near the Jordan. Which is really the core of this Jewish ritual: coming alongside people as they mourn. Tending to their needs. Providing space to breathe, and to weep. Unhurried. Speaking or not. For an entire week. The “ministry of presence,” to use a modern, Western phrase.
My whole body exhales when I think about it, when I remember it. Sitting on a step or a stool, balancing a little plate of lox and cucumbers and cookies on my knees while I listen to the grown-ups telling stories. Or weeping or laughing. Or just sitting there quietly like me. My job was to simply show up. To meet an aunt’s tearful eye and receive an appreciative nod. To be hugged and fawned over, whether I was eight or thirty-eight. To say “I love you,” and maybe share a sweet story. To grieve softly or loudly, alongside others as they grieved in their own ways too.
In contrast, when I think about a visitation—even now as I write—my chest tightens. I think about the anxiety that’s consumed me as I’ve waited in line to share my thirty seconds of sympathy. Waiting with other friends and strangers, our eyes brimming with sadness, some tinged with worry. Will I say the right thing? The wrong thing? So much pressure on those giving and receiving consolation. I’m reminded that Job’s friends didn’t say a single word during the seven days they sat on the ground and wept with him. Of course, they had lots of words after that, but that’s another story.
To be honest, the reality is that in traditional Jewish burial practice, there isn’t even time to hold a visitation. Funerals are rushed affairs that come together within only a day or two at most. Just enough time to lovingly bathe, bless, dress, and place our treasured one in a pine box prepared with a linen cloth. The swiftness due to Judaism’s prohibition on embalming. After all, nothing should delay or impede the body’s journey back to dust.
But if the Jewish funeral process is frenzied, the mourning process is anything but. Returning home from the graveside, the family finds food—lots of food—waiting for them. A spread prepared by friends who are still there, waiting to mourn alongside the mourner as shiva begins.
Throughout the week, people come and go. Some stay for hours, some stay for days. Some bring a meal, some bring a long hug during their lunch hour. And all the while, the family simply sits as others care for and cry with them. In fact, the first three days of sitting shiva are supposed to be a time of “unrelieved grief.” A protected space for letting it all out. Nothing to distract from the reality of loss. Allowing us to grieve freely, and to grieve only.
In ancient times, during each of these first three days, someone was actually tasked with checking the tomb. Their job? To make sure the person wasn’t mistakenly still alive. It’s only after those first three heart-wrenching days that mourners—both then and now—may rise occasionally from their seat, now able to join in the prayer services that have been taking place in their home, or to go visit the gravesite.
Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. . . . And many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house. (John 11:17,19–20 ESV)
Jesus chose the day that no doubts could remain about Lazarus’ death. When Martha could rise from her stool and go meet him. And while mourners were still gathered around, sitting with the sisters around the clock. A crowd of witnesses for the moment Jesus interrupted the rhythm of grief and of death itself. A prelude to the moment he would upend death forever.
But as we live here in the “not yet” of modern America, grieving even with hope, maybe the ancient rhythm of sitting shiva can still teach us about grieving well. About helping others grieve well. After all, even psychologists say that sitting shiva helps people mourn in healthy ways. From those very first days of “unrelieved grief,” all the way to the seventh day, when friends flank the family for a walk around the block. Mourners literally taking their first steps outside the house with friends at their side as they begin to reenter life in the world.
Just like the seven days of creation, these seven days of sitting begin the process of creating a new person, their new world, their new reality. And just like during creation, it’s clear that we aren’t meant—or equipped—to walk this transformation alone. For while we live in a culture that prizes efficiency, grief isn’t efficient. And so I want to recapture some of that sitting on the ground with others. To foster safe, unhurried spaces. To fill them with silence or stories or song. To discover the solace of sitting alongside, as God begins making things new.
Cover image by Etienne Girardet.
 Job 2:11-13