The shivah call

Last month I flew cross-country to pay a shivah call to an old friend who had lost her 24-year-olddaughter in a hit-and-run car accident. When I arrived the place was packed, but I knew Elisheva noticed my arrival because as soon as I entered the room she immediately began to tell the people around her how much she had always loved my mother. Not only had she felt like a daughter to her, she related, but she had always secretly wished that she and I could have been switched at birth so my mother could have been hers! I then sat down next to her—almost in front of her, actually— along with all her many friends and relatives and cried with them as we listened to her agitatedly recounting how her daughter had died. Elisheva and I had been friends in high school and for years afterward. She hung out at my house all the time, schmoozing with my mother even when I wasn’t around. When I got married the friendship waned, especially since we now lived on opposite sides of the country. Still, we were there for each other if the need arose. Seven years ago, she and her husband had lent us a large sum of money when our six-year-old son needed major surgery that wasn’t covered by insurance. The hospital that specialized in treating his disorder was located in her city, so for nine months we basically lived out of her home.

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Afterwards, we both got caught up in our lives and drifted apart again. Yet I owed her a lot, so when I heard that she was sitting shivah I made it my business to gather the money for the airfare, make arrangements for my mother to babysit while I was gone and go be menachem her. What happened when I got there, though, was the antithesis of what nichum aveilim is supposed to be. Much to my surprise, I soon realized that I had brought along a very unwelcome companion on my trip: my ego. Aside from her initial comment about my mother, Elisheva essentially ignored me while emotionally greeting everyone else who walked in. I could have handled that—really I could have. I mean, I wouldn’t have minded a teeny-weeny nod to acknowledge my presence, but for goodness’ sake—her daughter had just been killed! I had made this trip for her, not for myself. And yet, the comment she made after wondering aloud how she would be able to continue living without her beloved Soraleh almost knocked me off my chair. “Oh!” she said wistfully, looking right at me. “How I wish Aunty Laya (that’s what she called my mom) was here! Why couldn’t you have stayed home with your kids and she come instead?” That’s when my internal dialogue began. She’s suffered a terrible loss! I argued with myself. You’re here for her, not for yourself. I know that, I answered back. But she just embarrassed me in front of everybody! She can’t think clearly now! I admonished myself. Neither would you if, G-d forbid, it was you sitting on that low stool.

Anyway, she’s probably desperate for a mother figure now; it’s not that she doesn’t want you here at all. And besides, I added, you should feel honored that she wants your mother. But I didn’t feel honored. I was terribly humiliated, and it didn’t help when she threw in another remark about how she really used to go to my house to talk to my mother but made an excuse that she wanted to do homework with me. I had really wanted to be selfless, to do a mitzvah without any thought of personal gain. That’s why I had made this expensive trip in the first place. Yet clearly a part of me was thinking of myself. Otherwise, why would her tepid acknowledgment of my presence in the form of a subtle snub hurt so much? I couldn’t believe that all I had triggered was annoyance that I had shown up instead of my mother. Of course, I didn’t outwardly show my distress. Yes, my smile was somewhat strained but I tried to “be there” for her, even though there was admittedly little I could do. I was certainly commiserating with her sorrow. But to be honest, bewilderment and hurt had also taken up residence in my heart. My emotions didn’t fully surface until later that day, when I found myself uselessly trying to gulp back big fat tears at the airport ticket counter as I attempted to explain to an airline clerk why I was supposed to be on the next flight even though my name didn’t appear on the passenger list. It was then that it hit me that my presence hadn’t been a comfort at all to Elisheva. If I had stayed home instead of flying across the country it would have all been the same to her. I realized that her snub stung—and I was intensely ashamed by my selfish reaction.

How awful to be thinking of my miniscule hurt in the midst of someone else’s tragedy!Except for briefly mentioning to my husband when I got home that I didn’t think my shivah call was all that necessary, I haven’t talked about it until now. The shame was too deep. If there is any time we need to put our egos aside, our “Ich,” it’s at a shivah house—and I hadn’t been able to do it. I did try to make up for it. I called her the day after she got up from shivah and we spoke briefly. She sounded like she was bravely trying to move on. She had her daughter’s two-year-old child to think of, she said, and knew she couldn’t mourn forever. Then she talked about my mother and how great it was that Aunty Laya had called and what a comfort it had been to her. She didn’t mention my trip but that was okay; she was in pain. A great tragedy had just occurred and allowances must be made. So why couldn’t my heart feel that and shut up already? When we hung up I was glad I had made the call because it was the right thing to do, even if it didn’t make me feel better. In fact, I reminded myself, that was precisely what I was trying to fix—the insertion of my ego into the equation. I was doing penance and calling her for her, not for me. I called the following week and the week after that. Each time we spoke briefly. After the third week, another truth hit me over the head. Elisheva was not deriving chizzuk from our conversations. I was not the shaliach to assuage her sorrow, and my trip to be menachem aveil had not lessened her pain in any way.

Now that I was experiencing this clarity of vision, I also realized that perhaps our friendship wasn’t what I thought it was either. Maybe it was just a warm mother figure she had been pining for all those years. Hmmm. That definitely hurt. It seemed that I wasn’t all that important to her, and there was nothing I could do to help her in her time of need despite my best intentions. It was a tough thought to digest, that even my continued attempts to reach out to her were once again about me—trying to get her to like me, to appreciate what I was doing for her instead of doing what she needed me to do. At that point I realized that the wisest step for me to take was to go on with my life and leave her to hers. I needed to let go and let the people she felt close to (like my mother) and other family members and friends offer her comfort. Hmmm.

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