I HAVE found myself in a season of loss. Every few weeks for the last six months, friends in the prime of life have suffered the death of a close family member. These deaths included a mother, a father, a sister, a brother, a spouse and, in one particularly painful case, a teenage child who died on Christmas morning.
The convergence of these passings brought home an awkward truth: I had little idea how to respond. Particularly when the surviving friend was young, the funeral was far away and the grieving party did not belong to a religious institution, those of us around that friend had no clear blueprint for how to handle the days following the burial.
In several of these cases, a group of us organized a small gathering. E-mails were sent around, a few pizzas and a fruit salad were rounded up, someone baked a cake. And suddenly we found ourselves in what felt like the birth pangs of a new tradition.
“It’s a secular shiva,” the hostess announced.
So what exactly were we creating? Grieving has been largely guided by religious communities, from celebratory Catholic wakes, to the 49 days of mourning for Buddhists, to the wearing of black (or white) in many Protestant traditions, to the weeklong in-house condolence gatherings that make up the Jewish tradition of shiva. Today, with religiosity in decline, families dispersed and the pace of life feeling quickened, these elaborate, carefully staged mourning rituals are less and less common. Old customs no longer apply, yet new ones have yet to materialize.
“We’re just too busy in this world to deal with losing people,” said Maggie Callanan, a hospice nurse for the last 30 years and the author of “Final Gifts,” an influential book about death and dying. “And yet we have to.”
Ms. Callanan and others in the field point to the halting emergence of guidelines to accommodate our high-speed world, in which many people are disconnected from their friends physically, yet connected to them electronically around the clock.
One puzzle I encountered is the proper way to respond to a mass e-mailing announcing a death.
“We still feel it’s nice to pick up the phone or send a card,” said Danna Black, an owner of Shiva Sisters, an event-planning company in Los Angeles that specializes in Jewish funeral receptions. “But if the griever feels comfortable sending out an e-mail, you can feel comfortable sending one back. Just don’t hit Reply All.”
Facebook presents its own challenges. The site’s public platform is an ideal way to notify a large number of people, and many grievers I know have taken comfort in supportive messages from friends. Like CaringBridge, CarePages and similar sites, social networks can become like virtual shiva locations for faraway loved ones.
But Megory Anderson, the founder of the Sacred Dying Institute in San Francisco (it seeks to bring spirituality to the act of dying), said problems arise when grievers begin encroaching on the personal space of others.
“The safest thing is to share your own story,” she said. Since everyone grieves differently, she cautions against sharing private details of other family members, loved ones or the deceased themselves. She also recommends sending a private message to grievers instead of writing on their wall.
Especially in a world in which so much communication happens online, the balming effect of a face-to-face gathering can feel even more magnified. The Jewish tradition of sitting shiva offers an appealing template. Named after the Hebrew word for “seven,” shiva is a weeklong mourning period, dating back to biblical times, in which immediate family members welcome visitors to their home to help fortify the soul of the deceased and comfort the survivors. Though many contemporary Jews shorten the prescribed length, the custom is still widely practiced.
The “secular shivas” we organized had a number of notable differences that proved crucial to their success. First, we organized them for Jews and non-Jews alike. Second, no prayers or other religious rituals were offered. Third, we held them away from the home of the griever, to reduce the burden. And finally, we offered the grieving party the option of speaking about the deceased, something not customary under Jewish tradition.
I recently reached out to the guests of honor, and, along with a few professionals, tried to identify a few useful starting points.
Don’t wait for the griever to plan. As Ms. Callanan observed: “One thing you can assume with a grieving person is that they’re overwhelmed with life. Suddenly keeping up with the bills, remembering to disconnect the hoses or shoveling the sidewalk no longer seem necessary.” With a traditional shiva, the burden falls on the family to open their home to sometimes hundreds of people. If you are considering a “secular shiva,” insist on doing the planning yourself, from finding a location, to notifying guests, to ordering food.
By invitation only. Traditional shivas are open houses; they’re communitywide events in which friends, neighbors and colleagues can stop by uninvited. Our events were more restricted, with the guest of honor suggesting fewer than a dozen invitees. “An old-fashioned shiva would have felt foreign to me,” said my friend Karen, who lost her mother last summer. “I’m more private. If it was twice the size, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable.”
“Would you like to share a few stories?” At the event we held for Karen, she opted to speak about her mom. For 45 emotional minutes, she talked about her mother’s sunny disposition, her courtship, her parenting style. It was like watching a vintage movie.
“I liked speaking about my mom,” she told me. “One, I hadn’t had time to fully grieve because I was so focused on my dad. And two, there was something each of you could come away with about who my mom was in the world.”
At a later event, a Catholic friend who had lost her brother chose not to speak about him. She felt too fragile, she later explained. Instead she handed out CDs with a photo montage of her brother’s life. “I think if I hadn’t had the pictures, I would have felt the need to talk about him.”
The comfort of crowds. While I came away from these events convinced we had hit on a new tool for our circle of friends, I was quickly warned not to assume our model was universal.
“Introverts need to grieve, too,” Ms. Andrews said. “For some, a gathering of this kind might be a particular kind of torture.”
My friend who lost her brother had that reaction initially. “On the way over, I had some misgivings,” she said. “I was still crying every time I mentioned his name.” But the event surprised her, she said. “Seeing all my friends gathered, I couldn’t help but be happy. There was a reaffirming glimmer.”
Six months after my string of losses began, it hardly feels over. What I’ve taken away from the experience is a reminder of what I’ve seen often in looking at contemporary religion. Rather than chuck aside time-tested customs in favor of whiz-bang digital solutions, a freshening of those rituals is often more effective. Our “secular shivas” took some advantages of the Internet (e-mail organizing, ordering food online); coupled them with some oft-forgotten benefits of slowing down and reuniting; and created a nondenominational, one-size-doesn’t-fit-all tradition that can be tinkered to fit countless situations.
Like all such traditions, they may not soften the blow of a loss, but they had the unmistakable boon of reaffirming the community itself.