This passage is written by Dr Cornelius Groop, Director of the Center for Psychiatric Counsel, Shaare Zedek Hospital, Jerusalem
In Jewish tradition every single moment concerning death and funeral rites is detailed and ritualized, beginning with the vidui the confessional prayer, continuing with the laws concerning the body and concluding in the burial procedure and mourning practices. As viewed from the point of the dying person and his or her family, this ritualization provides everyone involved a firm structure concerning the timetable and the particulars of the things to be done. In times of death most people have difficulties thinking in a focused way and proceed in a disorderly fashion. The traditional ritual leaves little to chance or private initiative. In a paradoxical way, these rigid details leave those involved in the process free to focus fully on their personal mourning; the ritual itself is done in an almost automatic fashion, and demands much less energy than would have been necessary if it had to be improvised. Moreover, the ritual, having often been practiced in the past, is usually well known and provides the mourner with a feeling of security: the process of dying itself is bound to elicit very basic fears and feelings of uncertainty, loss of confidence and doubt. The rigid structure of the ritual is a response to these feelings and fears, and reassures the mourners who have merely to follow the procedures.
In the process from dying to funeral and mourning, Jewish tradition places a strong emphasis on social support. The responsibility to deal with the body in a dignified manner is carried out by the community and the funeral, the shiva, and additional rituals are meant to involve family and friends of the deceased. Tradition turns the natural reliance at these moments into a religious obligation. The mourner’s basic needs (like food and drink), psychological needs (visiting the mourner) and spiritual needs (praying) are provided for by the community.
A mourner has to deal with several psychic phenomena, which are almost universal during such times: 1) sadness 2) rumination (i.e. an intense preoccupation with the deceased), and 3) a feeling of derealization, or alienation from the usual surroundings, which seem futile and lacking significance. The Jewish custom of shiva confronts each of these feelings. The community is called upon to comfort the mourner and participate in his mourning. The expressions of empathic involvement are an effective psychotherapeutic intervention in case of sad and/or depressed mood. The main theme in a shiva home is the deceased, which takes care of the mourner’s preoccupation with the deceased’s life and death. The alienation of the mourner is institutionalized in the shiva: everything is different, the clothing, the food even the sleeping habits. This almost universal difficulty associated with the sleeping patterns of the mourner is recognized by Jewish tradition and legitimized by the habit to sleep on mattresses spread on the floor.
All this serves to give the mourner a feeling that the intense experience of strange psychic changes is nothing unusual and even to be expected, thus reassuring the mourner that the emotional upheaval he or she experiences is neither bizarre nor a sign of sickness, but the common age old way to work through grief.