An artistic validation of the many textures of grief
Upon returning to her apartment after my Aunt Mollie’s funeral, I led the first worship service of the shiva. I was barely Bar Mitzvah. It was the prototypical shiva. At the shiva of my father’s business partner – the second of my memory – his widow refused to leave her study, seeing selected visitors one at a time.
“Each mourner grieves according to her own circumstance,” writes Rabbi Me’irah Iliinsky in Mapping the Journey: The Mourner and the Soul. “Each mourner has their own pace, their own spiritual and emotional challenges, their own style.”
Mapping the Journey is a bold effort to create a visual spiritual map for mourners, using art and sparse commentary to illustrate how survivors – and the souls of the deceased – move through the four classic phases of Jewish mourning. They are: aninut (between death and burial); shiva (the seven days of home-bound mourning after burial); shloshim (the first 30 days from the day of burial); and yarzheit (the culmination of a year of mourning).
The core of Mapping the Journey is visual art, a progression of spiritual shifts in two worlds: the emotions and tasks of mourners in reorienting themselves to a new world – the world without the deceased loved one – and the world of the soul on its aliyah, its ascent to other realms.
The book provides the map twice: once without commentary on four spreads that move in color from more subdued to vibrant, and again with the map divided into panels, including brief commentary about each.
“The book is really not a ‘book.’ It’s a description of a piece of artwork,” Rabbi Iliinsky says. The original art is gouache – a water-based opaque paint – on paper. “The purpose is to help mourners get a sense of orientation in their process.”
The map opens with a "compass rose," alive with color on the otherwise subdued first panel. It is a spiritual compass of heavenly and earthly directions, a sign of hope at the beginning of the mourning process.
Stepping stones guide the way from aninut into shiva. From the middle of shiva until the end of shloshim, the steps disappear. The intimation: for a time, one might move between a variety of emotional spaces with no clear path.
This is a daring project. In the face of vast experiential differences in mourning – and the unknowability of the soul’s journey – Rabbi Iliinsky endeavors to synthesize Jewish tradition and lore with her own experiences.
“It’s not an exhaustive account of the mourning process. It is a poetic/artistic response to our most painful human experience,” she writes.
Between shloshim and yarzheit she provides a “roundabout,” an emotional traffic circle. It’s a reminder of the many paths through – and back into – mourning. I’m particularly aware of the impact of a shiva cut short due to holy days. My wife Ami’s z”l shiva was abruptly ended after only two days by Passover. The loss was raw when the Jewish calendar demanded that we celebrate. Shiva interrupted also made the shloshim period particularly challenging. I found myself stuck between shloshim and yarzheit, mostly traversing Rabbi Iliinsky’s roundabout of emotions.
The final spread – Yarzheit – implies a finality that’s been outside of my experiences of major losses. I would have preferred a more open-ended element of the map at the close of the first year of mourning, much like the compass rose or the round about. Each mourner is on a different journey. Like any map, it functions as a guide through an unknown place. In a future time of need, I imagine looking to Rabbi Iliinsky’s Map for touchstones, reminders and hints in my mourning process, using it together with either Leon Wieseltier’s Kaddish or Anita Diamant’s Saying Kaddish.
Mapping the Journey is an artistic validation of the many textures of grief. It is an empathic visual guide to the Jewish mourning process.
Alden Solovy is an acclaimed liturgist of over 700 original works of Jewish liturgy. He will be teaching an online course, through the Reconstructionist Learning Networks in collaboration with Ritualwell, entitled "Ingredients of Prayer: Writing Contemporary Liturgy," beginning October 16th. Learn more and register.
Rabbi Me'irah Iliinksy has worked as an artist, clinical social worker, congregational rabbi, teacher, and a hospital and hospice chaplain. She is the author of Mapping the Journey: The Mourner & The Soul.