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JCF Blog

Circles of Support

Posted by: Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Hartford on 5/14/2018

One of my favorite Jewish traditions is shiva. I know, that may sound morbid, but I don’t like it because of a fascination with death; I like shiva because of its basis in community. Sitting shiva is acknowledgement that, after the passing of a loved one, things are very difficult – and no one should have to experience that alone. 

It’s not enough to drop off a casserole (although that is a mitzvah in its own right). Friends and family are expected to visit, to join those mourning throughout the roller coaster of the first week of grief.  The community role is about far more than prayer. It allows for the individual to express their sorrow, discuss the life of a loved one and what s/he meant to the family, friends, workers, community, etc., and slowly re-enter society. Having their community as a part of this healing process is what enables the mourner to more easily come to terms with all of this.  

It’s very hard to face some things alone, and many elements of Jewish ritual ensure that you won’t have to. 

Sometimes, I wish there were more structures in place like shiva for community to support one another. Take the act of asking for help, for example. Asking for help can be intimidating, vulnerable and awkward – and often, when faced with the prospect of doing so on our own, we avoid the asking altogether. Even if the task at hand isn’t particularly hard, taking action of any kind can feel like an enormous hill to climb. But imagine if we had a circle of friends cheering us on – whether the ask were for help to tackle a tough project, pursue an audacious goal, seek mental health support, even just clean out the garage. Somehow, with others, the future seems more manageable.

Asking for help can require courage we may not be able to muster on our own. Seeking mental health services requires the willingness to be vulnerable and brave. A circle of support can make it easier. But that circle of support is not always readily available; or perhaps it does exist but those around us don’t see the need for help, or don’t understand mental health and the nature of mental health treatment. A recent series of cartoons by the artist Robot Hugs provided a good reminder of these challenges. Each panel depicts what physical illness would look like, if we treated it the way we do mental illness. In one, a person’s hand is cut off, and his friend says, “You just need to change your frame of mind, then you’ll feel better.”  This is a common refrain for those managing mental illness – and yet when we apply it to a physical health context, the insensitivity of this well-meaning advice is highlighted. 

Across Greater Hartford we are fortunate to have the caring support of Jewish Family Services (JFS). They exist to help both those seeking help as well as to educate those who serve in support roles for those battling mental illness. May is Mental Health Month; part of the goal of Mental Health Month is for organizations such as JFS to help spread the word that mental health is a topic we should all care about and become educated on. Their upcoming event, Embracing Possibility in Mental Health Awareness, will include nationally renowned experts who will educate our community, raise awareness and provide us all with tools to help change lives. I hope that this event and others will provide a circle of support for those managing mental illness in our community and their loved ones.

My wish is that we can help to create a world in which asking for help is celebrated for the brave, important act that it is, and that no one has to suffer in silence. 

Kathryn Gonnerman is Interim President & CEO and Director, Center for Innovative Philanthropy at the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Hartford 

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Ann Pava
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Thank you for this incredibly beautiful blog (it's really a D'var Torah!) on the meaning of Shiva - this is really a commentary on the beauty of Jewish customs designed to nurture an entire community. And as you spelled out, our customs are truly a blueprint on how to live our lives with meaning even when there isn't a direct action we're obligated to do - like nurturing and "embracing possibility in mental health awareness". We are a very lucky people.
Joe Fox
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Thanks for your sensitive insights about how important community and our special institutions are -particularly in times of need.
Sid Ulreich
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Your insights as to the relevance of the Shiva were very meaningful to our family who just finished the Shiva for my mother-in-law.The support of family and friends is extremely therapeutic to the process of grieving .Another aspect of the Shiva significance is the respect demonstrated for the departed .Having an opportunity for displaying public respect for the departed family member is very important
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