Knocking on Death’s Door… with Cookies

We moved into our new neighborhood a little over six months ago, and while we’ve had longer conversations with a few of our neighbors, there were a few we haven’t seen much of yet (apart from a quick Trick-or-Treat hello on October 31st). “Invite the neighbors over for dinner” is on our year-long bucket list, and we’ve only made partial headway.

When a hospice van pulled into the driveway of one of our less-known neighbors a few weeks ago, I was filled with all sorts of confused feelings. When hospice comes calling, it means a family is facing loss: it’s a time when you can be sure emotions are running high and you need your community to hold you like never before. But what if you’re the next door neighbor? And you don’t know their names? I felt so close to their grief, and yet so far away. Surely of all the times to make a new friend, this would be the most inappropriate?

I poured out my sadness for them on Facebook: lamenting that we hadn’t connected with these neighbors sooner and now feeling so helpless. Within minutes, friends chimed in with their own stories of grief and comfort as they had cared for and lost loved ones, and how a neighbor showed up and offered a hug… Or a meal… Or a card… Or a plate of cookies. “What a difference it made”, they said. “Now is not the time to hide because you don’t know them well,” they said. “Show you care, even if it feels awkward. It matters,” they said. I cried reading every one of their comments. I am sometimes just overwhelmed at the goodness and kindness and generous wisdom of my online and real life friends.

I am usually a “take a meal” kind of person, but knew this family were Jewish and was anxious about trying to prepare a meal that may not be kosher. So I opted for cookies. My daughter and I defied a school-night-bedtime, and we wrote a note offering to take trash out or walk their dog, and just generally to say we had noticed the van and we were sorry and we care and we were praying. I wrote what my Facebook friends said to write. Our neighbors weren’t in when we stopped by. We left the note with their relatives. It didn’t feel like enough. But I trusted my friends’ advice.

My neighbor texted me her heartfelt thanks a few days later, and then walked over the following week to say that her mom had passed away, and that they would be sitting shiva for a couple days, if I’d like to come visit with them. Since the little I knew about shiva came from the high drama of Jonathan Tropper’s book (turned movie) This is where I left you, I did a little more research to find out about the traditions of shiva and Jewish mourning. In short: Judaism provides a structured period of mourning of up to a year, allowing mourners to go through the various stages of grief. Families will often sit shiva for up to seven days after the funeral: a dedicated time of staying together (often sitting on the floor or low to the ground), and many will open their home to the community to come and mourn with them. Shiva.com is an excellent resource on understanding shiva, how to plan for it, what to bring, and much more.

I baked bread, and my friend who’d followed the story since my first Facebook post added a jar of homemade berry-orange jam; and on the day after the funeral I made my way over to the neighbors for our first real conversation. I spent an hour with them: hearing about the incredibly sophisticated and talented women their mother had been, admiring her art, enjoying a snack, and sharing stories and even laughs. I met their children and looked at photos and it was, quite honestly, the most genuine and lovely hour of meeting neighbors I can remember. I had showed up that first day with cookies wanting to be a blessing, but in truth I walked away so much richer than when I’d arrived.

I’ve thought about that afternoon often, and marveled at the gift of a community tradition like sitting shiva. My white, western, christian culture doesn’t have anything like it in comparison. We see and experience grief and death, but so often my experience of grief is that the mourners are so lonely and overwhelmed, and the friends around them just aren’t sure what to say or do… and so keep their distance.

This is exactly what we shouldn’t be doing, though, as Sheryl Sandberg has repeatedly urged after losing her husband and walking this devastating road last year. “Just show up,” she counsels in her advice on how to speak to people who are going through a hard time.

One of the beauties of the shiva tradition is that it walks the whole community through the process. The bereaved know there are grieving rituals and time periods that honor the months-and-years-long stages of grief. The community around them know that there are appropriate and welcome ways for them to show up and show support, and the family knows they can count on that. I think it’s a beautiful and profound and deeply humane thing. I wish we had something like shiva traditions: death and mourning are something we are pretty bad at, I think.

So I share this story not because I’m holding myself up as an example of someone who knows how to do this well. I share this story as someone who is actively wanting to learn from others how to do this better. I took the advice of my friends who had walked this road and I showed up. At death’s door. With cookies. And then I took Sheryl Sandberg’s advice. And I’m learning from the deep, relational wisdom of the Jewish community whose curated shiva practices are comforting and profound in a way that I ache for.

I know I’ve needed that kind of comfort myself, before. I remember with crystal clarity opening up an email twenty years ago, in the week after terrible crisis, and reading these verses a friend had sent me from Job 2:

“And when Job’s three friends heard of all this evil that had come upon him, they came each from his own place… They made an appointment together to come to show him sympathy and comfort him….. and they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.” (Job 2:11-13)

I remember sobbing in the computer lab as I read those words: tears of grief that needed compassionate space. My friend’s willingness to be near and offer that space spoke volumes.

Perhaps there is nothing quite as comforting as having people willing to just sit with us in times of great loss. It strikes me as remarkable that even though he knew he was going to raise him from the dead moments later, when confronted with his dear friend Lazarus’ death and the throng of grieving friends, Jesus’ first response was to weep (John 6:35). To share in their grief before rushing to make it go away.

Just show up, says Sheryl, you don’t have to say or do anything.

Let’s show up.