As we enter the month of Av, which includes the holiday of Tisha b'Av, a day of mourning for communal tragedy, we are reminded of the power of ritual to sustain us during times of loss. However, for grieving families, the pain of loss can often make funeral planning challenging. In that spirit, we present an interview with Sharon Litvinsky and Jennifer Ross, founders of By Your Side, a funeral and memorial planning service in Princeton, NJ.
Ritualwell: By Your Side offers practical services for those in mourning, including taking care of funeral arrangements, coordinating catering, sending announcements to family, post-funeral services, etc. Why do you think your services are so necessary for grieving families during this vulnerable time in their lives?
By Your Side: We feel our services are invaluable to families experiencing a recent loss. Families are already dealing with so much emotionally and then to have to manage all the aspects of the funeral planning process can be very overwhelming. We are honored to come in and take much of the workload away from the family so they can be together and focus on healing and being together.
Sadly, our services are something many people don’t realize they need until it’s too late. This is the feedback we received from family and friends who had been through the mourning experience without the benefit of practical help.
Our experience and expertise bring families comfort. They have so many questions. For example: How many death certificates should I get? What caterer should I use? How much food should I order? How many hours should shiva be? We answer their questions, drawing from our experience, to help them make the best decisions to personalize the event. We are totally focused on the family while providing compassion and understanding.
RW: What are the most meaningful mourning rituals you have witnessed in your experience offering practical services to grieving families?
BYS: Mourning rituals are unique and personal to each family. At one shiva, the family took comfort reading their loved one’s poetry. Another family honored their father by wearing his favorite color at the shiva. While these things may seem simple, they provided a great comfort to the family. The traditional Jewish rituals also give people a welcome guide, such as washing their hands when they return home from the cemetery, covering the mirrors, and lighting a memorial candle.
RW: In what ways do you feel personally called to this line of work?
BYS: We definitely see what we do as a calling for us. We started this business based on an experience in our own lives after the child of a mutual friend of ours suddenly passed away. Without much thought, we just pulled together and planned a beautiful memorial service in the family’s backyard. It was an extremely sad time, but we remember how crucial it was to help and couldn’t imagine how the family would have managed without us.
When we decided to start the business, we wondered why a service like this didn’t already exist in our area. Who wouldn’t want to pick up the phone and ask for help during such an emotionally draining time? We thought maybe event planners in our area only want to focus on happy life cycle events like weddings, anniversaries, and birthdays. It may seem unusual, but those kinds of events do not motivate us. We thrive on the idea of being there for people in their greatest time of need.
RW: What do grieving families most appreciate about your services?
BYS: Families appreciate the simplicity we bring to them during a confusing time. Many decisions have to be made and we have the experience and network to help them move through a difficult time more peacefully. We can help them with anything, from picking out the casket to cleaning out their loved one’s closet months, or even years, after the funeral.
BYS: Do you think practical support for grieving families is a form of emotional support?
We didn’t start this business with the intent of providing emotional support, but now we believe we do! Our clients are always so grateful for all the work we do—work that is so personal at such an emotional time. We want to spoil our clients, like a Jewish mother would, by taking care of all the little things. Anything we can take off the family’s plate, we will.