Cyneatha Millsaps is pastor of Community Mennonite Church in Markham, Illinois.
Until this year, I had never been in mourning, at least not from the death of someone whose life and death changed my life.
Sure, I have lost a lot of people in my life, but I realize sorrow and grief for loved ones vary depending on one’s connections. As a pastor, I have sat and counseled many people through their loss of a loved one, and for the most part I thought I was handling it correctly.
Maybe I was, but maybe I was missing something key to the mourning process. The value in mourning.
In the movie, This Is Where I Leave You, Jane Fonda’s husband dies, and when their adult children arrive home for the funeral, they realize they are being asked to participate in a Jewish custom (ritual) called Shivah. The children are confused because the family is not Jewish and really not religious, so why would their father request something of this nature.
Well, the family consents to the father’s dying wish, and for seven days, they engage in Shivah. Over the course of the week, they come to various revelations about themselves and their family as a unit. Emotional hurts, anger, resentments and profound love all come to the surface, and this family is forced to deal with their issues personally and collectively. The family mourns whether they want to or not.
Genesis 50:1-14 tells the story of Joseph’s mourning for his father, Jacob, and the need to set aside other responsibilities and show respect for a loved one. Verse 10 reads: “When they came to the threshing floor of Atad, which is beyond the Jordan, they held there a very great and sorrowful lamentation; and he observed a time of mourning for his father seven days.”
Americans seem to have skipped the act of mourning during the loss of a loved one. We have assigned specific bereavement days such as three days for relatives and seven days for a close family member like a child or parent. We visit the bereaved after the funeral for a day, and we check in or call the bereaved over the next couple of weeks to see how they are doing.
These are important steps after someone dies, but within short order life goes back to normal at least for the rest of the world. Truth be told, the bereaved can’t seem to find their footing, and we suffer in silence.
African-American women are probably the worst at mourning. We are so used to taking care of everything, we do not know how to stop and simply let life happen around us. I have been thinking about many African-American women, as well as myself, who have lost someone in recent years, and I am sure we have skipped mourning.
It’s not that we don’t mourn, but we mourn in silence and don’t give ourselves permission to stop and grieve. Our community says, “She is so strong,” and we carry that weight of being strong like a millstone around our necks.
God never meant for us to grieve and mourn this way. When Mary wept, Jesus came alongside and simply wept with her. When Job lost everything, his friends came and sat with him.
We have to learn and encourage true mourning. We have to remind one another that strength is not required for a time.
I realize I could have used a Shivah. I wish it were a part of our culture. Shivah allows communities to be community and the bereaved the space needed to pause. Shivah forces the uncomfortable and vulnerable realities we try to escape during loss, like trying to look as if you have everything together or not letting people see you cry.
Maybe the church should adopt Shivah. The act of humbling ourselves in such a way allows others to care for us. It helps us pause long enough to process the life and death of our loved one. It helps us tell stories and recount the good and bad times in our loved one’s life. It helps us talk through the pain and suffering of an extended illness and the choices we made along the way. It helps us consider life without this person and what it is going to take to move forward. It helps us offer communal prayers daily during the mourning period. All these important and difficult things must be dealt with at some point. Shivah gives us a platform in which our community can help us through the mourning process.