Shiva, in Hebrew, means "seven." In our context it refers to the first seven days of mourning that are observed following the burial of one's father, mother, spouse, son, daughter, brother [including half-brother], and sister [including half-sister]. An adopted child may choose to sit Shiva, but is not obligated. One mourns a spouse only if their union was permissible according to Torah law.
The observance of Shiva is traced to the dawn of Jewish history. The Torah relates that Joseph mourned the death of Jacob his father for seven days. Moses later established the period of seven days for mourning as Jewish law. The Torah outlines specific ways in which a Jew must mourn his loss, and each period of mourning has its own rules and order.
Our sages allocate days one through three for crying, and days four through seven for eulogizing. After that, one does not mourn excessively, but follows a grieving process that gradually diminishes.
The Importance of Observing Shiva
Mourning a loved one properly is the ultimate gift that one can give to the one who has passed on. It is also a mitzva that benefits both the mourner and the one who is mourned. One should be willing and proud to follow the ways of his or her ancestors during this most sensitive and trying time.
We are taught that a person who is mourned in accordance with Jewish Law and tradition merits to enter Heaven easily, and the soul of the departed is strengthened and fortified by the process of mourning, and specifically, by the recitation of the Mourner's Kaddish and the study of Torah in its merit.
Mourning traditions are not to be treated lightly. We are taught that a Jew who does not mourn his kin as outlined in the Torah, or ignores the age-old traditions of mourning, brings disrespect and shame to the memory of the deceased. As harsh as this may sound, it indicates the seriousness of the matter and serves as a fitting call to proper observance.
As the mourning periods are time-bound, and in some way pass quickly, one should strive to observe them properly. It is important to expend effort into carrying out the traditional mourning observances and to set aside issues of personal discomfort and/or inconvenience for this short time period for the merit of the soul of the deceased.
Putting Your Best Effort
For some, the laws of Shiva, and of mourning in general, seem to deal more with what one cannot do, and less with what one can do and thus can appear as a tremendous burden. Some look for ways to avoid observing it at all and rationalize it away.
Family members who have just lost a loved one cannot simply go about their lives as if nothing happened. They need to stop what they are doing and absorb the messages of life and death, take the lessons of their loved one to heart, reaffirm their relationship with G‑d, and ensure that the memory of the departed is honored properly.
The solace that proper mourning provides is lost if one attempts to resume one's "normal" life before one has properly mourned. After a loss, things are not as they were. A loved one has passed away! The pain is there (or should be) regardless if the person passed away at a ripe old age, or very young, G‑d forbid. In either case, Judaism says: respect life. We demon- strate our respect for life by how we treat death.
Creating a "Space" for Yourself
Many of the laws of mourning may seem obvious (i.e. not attending parties or going to concerts). Some of the laws may not seem so obvious (taking off work for the Shiva, refraining from bathing, etc.). Yet instead of viewing these laws as restrictive, one should view them as they were intended.
The laws of mourning free the mourner from social norms and expectations, so that the mourner can focus on the memories of the deceased and begin to heal. By teaching how to mourn, the Torah balances the emotional and spiritual needs of the mourners with those of the soul of the deceased.
As one continues to observe the laws of mourning, he becomes sensitive to the cycle of life. At some point he learns to live with his loss. Eventually, he comes to accept the passing as the Will of G‑d. This process can take years, and consolation can only occur by going through these steps. As one so aptly put it: "The only real way out is through."