On 13 September, 2015, James O’Donoghue heard the news that nobody can ever prepare for. It was the start of Rosh Hashanah, and around the world Jews of all levels of observance were gathering together with family to celebrate. At the north London home James grew up in, there seemed little prospect of the next year being full of sweetness and blessings – as is traditional to wish upon others at that time. A dollop of honey would be of little comfort – not when they’ve just heard of the suicide of James’ younger brother, Frank.
Frank O’Donoghue was only sixteen when he died. He was a minor who took his own life, so there were rules and procedures that had to be followed. The Jewish rituals of mourning were put on hold, as the traditional custom of holding a funeral as soon as possible gave way to the law of the land.
Those procedures took a week, says James, now 24. “It felt like this endless stretch of time before a funeral could happen, and we could start the traditional mourning process. We essentially had a non-official start to the shiva: there was no burial, no prayers, no low chairs to sit on.”
Today James lives and works in Bristol, an aspiring actor and comedian (which, in his own words, translates into minimum-wage shift-working in catering). We’re speaking just days before Rosh Hashanah, which also marks the third anniversary of Frank’s tragic passing. With a mother who grew up in the Reform movement and a “lapsed” Irish Catholic father, James’ relationship with Judaism had always been one of identity, rather than belief or religious observance. Yet, as he thinks back to a time that was one of the hardest, most painful he has experienced, there’s no doubt in his mind that sitting shiva helped him through. It forced him to confront the reality of his only sibling’s passing, but in an environment where there was a community of people to support him, and a series of markers and milestones to act as a guide.
“What was interesting for me during the shiva was that the Jewish community and family there knew my brother from years ago – Frank aged ten and under, really,” James says. “And then his friends were there, too, people he was closer to as he got older. Talking to them, I discovered a bit more about who my brother was, and what he meant to people who weren’t family, or who didn’t see him like we did. It gave us all a chance to know him better.”
James makes clear how grateful he was to have such a structured period of mourning, even if at times he was desperate to escape. “It was awful when everyone was there, but also so lovely. I feel quite uneasy about my faith in general at the moment, but sitting shiva and the Jewish way of grief? I’ve never felt uneasy about it.”
James, like many other young Jews, hasn’t always felt at home within standard Jewish structures and organisations. Whether it’s down to politics, sexuality, relationships, a lack of faith – or simply a matter of not being able to afford to live near synagogues and community hubs – traditional forms of observance can often feel unwelcoming or out of reach. Yet somehow, the power of the shiva endures.
“I feel like the ritual is incredibly important,” James reflects. “You could tell me that sitting shiva and the Jewish way of death was voodoo for all I would care. It just makes so much sense. It is done so beautifully. The way Judaism deals with death reminds me of what religion’s purpose might have been and how it fulfills that.”
I’ve long been fascinated with the Jewish rituals of death and mourning. As a fourteen-year-old boy, I was first confronted with the death of a loved one – my grandma, who played a pivotal role in my childhood. She was taken from us too young, and far too soon.
Grappling with grief is never easy, but for children it presents a whole set of emotions that are complex to understand, unpick and explain. For months it had been clear that her passing was coming: it wasn’t a matter of if, but when. When it finally happened, I found comfort in the shiva process, even though at the time I couldn’t really articulate why. Back then, when non-Jewish friends spoke of losing a relative, they talked of empty houses, loneliness, their parents spinning slowly out of control as they traversed the grief in isolation. All I knew was that my world was paused when my grandma passed. My understanding of her life grew, as her friends and family streamed through our open door and spoke of her. The impression I was left with after that week formed the way I’ll always think of her.
Jewish rituals of death have a simple chronology, a series of activities to be undertaken over a period of days, weeks, months and years. Considering how long ago such practices were developed, many have commented on how well these customs relate to a modern understanding of the process of grief. From the funeral, through to the shiva, the shloshim (30 day mourning period), the tombstone setting almost a year later and then the annual yahrzeit candle, customs which may at other times feel restrictive instead allow a mourner to go through this process of loss. There’s beauty and structure to the Jewish mourning process, with little room for denial.
Many Jewish rituals, laws and customs can today feel dated. According to a 2011 report from the Institute of Jewish Policy Research, secularisation is becoming the norm. “An increasing number of British Jews think about their Jewish identity in cultural or ethnic terms, and they do not necessarily regard membership to a synagogue as a prerequisite for belonging,” researchers found. But the shiva still resonates for young British Jews.
“I’m traditional, although not religious,” says 26-year-old Jessica Tamman, who in 2017 lost her maternal grandmother, her first adult experience of grief. “I found shiva incredibly therapeutic. My grandmother was like a second mother – it was a hard loss.” Jessica, like all the young Jews I spoke to, found comfort in the ancient rites and rituals. “The Jewish community was always quite distant for me, I wasn’t involved in my shul, I didn’t go on Israel tour. But last year’s shiva experience brought me closer to understanding what it means to be a Jew within a community.”
Jessica says she finds many Jewish rituals uninspiring or hard to relate to. But “shiva is such a simple process,” she says. “It’s one thing which doesn’t need modernisation, because it’s timeless.
Danny Rich, senior rabbi of Liberal Judaism, a progressive Jewish movement in the UK, sees room for adaptation. Echoing the sentiments of those I speak to, Rich considers the shiva to be a process for the individual and their community. “But,” he says, “the days and days of schlepping in strangers you don’t know? That depends on the family. Many of our families don’t do more than one day. And who cares? It’s not the detail to me, it’s the principle – a community gathering and supporting someone when a loved one dies. It’s very valuable, the details are less relevant.”
Having a community to surround a mourner is a prerequisite for the shiva process – and in the Liberal movement, rabbis are trained to explore “how that might be applicable to people who don’t live intensely within a Jewish community,” says Rich.
For those of us who see Judaism as malleable, rather than a rigid framework, not being able to muster a minyan needn’t make sitting shiva a problem. It’s simply a matter of adapting our understanding of who and what our communities are. Someone needn’t be observant, or even Jewish, to play their part.
This is something James noticed when he was sitting for his brother. “At times the living room was full of community members saying prayers. Meanwhile Frank’s friends were at the back of the house; others were in the kitchen chatting away. Judaism was just the backdrop, who was what [religion] wasn’t of concern.”
With the shiva process, it’s the coming together of the most important parts of your life that hold value and power. “It was just great having everyone there,” says James. “I would swing from feeling grateful, into extreme bouts of wanting to yell ‘Piss off, leave me alone, stop looking at me with sad eyes and stop making fucking soup.’” Emotions like this are universal; it doesn’t take a Bar Mitzvah to understand.
By the time my paternal grandpa died over a year ago – a decade after his wife passed – my relationship with Judaism had changed. As a young teenager, life revolved around my northwest London Jewish community: from synagogue to youth camps, religion ran through the fabric of my life. But at twenty-four, it often felt that modern orthodox Judaism was no longer my spiritual home. As a young adult, I’d grown detached from the community. When I got the call from my dad, suggesting I head to the hospital to join him in what looked likely to be his father’s final hours, I’d almost forgotten about the intricacies of the Jewish ways of death.
Going through it all again, everything began to make sense with even more clarity. Once we’d said our goodbyes and my grandpa passed, I had 36 hours to be at home with the family. We took stock, we supported dad. We knew this was our time in the bunker, and we used it wisely. A eulogy was written, a few bottles drunk. And then, suited and booted, we made our way to the cemetery.
The shiva process provided indescribable comfort. To this day I’m still processing exactly what it meant. We waded through trunks brimming with old photos of my grandparents through the decades, the friends they grew up with and the family they grew old with each sharing stories and anecdotes. It was as if my grandparents were united once again; no longer did present and past tense divide them. Knowing that the house would be alive with visitors each day was a welcome distraction, and occasional support group, as I came to terms with having seen my grandpa take his last breaths. I was so grateful to have a place where there was space to hide if needed, but also to be within a hive of activity, with guests to talk to, kettles to boil, furniture to move to make room for the evening rush at prayer time each night.
To my mind the shiva process creates a buffer zone. It allows you to drop everything when you need to, and gives you some time alone, before the community comes into your home to share your pain and support you. And then the mourning process helps you start readjusting. It limits the time you can spend falling, and ensures there are people around to pick you up. It creates space not only for grief, but for a period of reflection. It marks the next chapter in a family’s history. The Jewish approach to death ultimately offers a roadmap to grief, a tried and tested method that connects you with your ancestry – which at times of mourning often feels valuable. Whatever my relationship with Judaism in the future, I’ve no doubt I’ll forever return to the low chairs of the shiva house when, God forbid, the time comes. And that in itself feels strangely comforting.