The prescription for Jewish mourning

You look around. Things feel…different. You have just suffered a loss, the death of a significant member of your life. Whether you knew your loved one’s passing was imminent, or were tragically faced with the unexpected, the loss caused you to feel a myriad of emotions. Sad, angry, confused, guilty, dazed, empty…some or all of these emotions may now follow you around stubbornly, refusing to leave, changing places with each other in a dizzying way that leaves you wondering when you ever feel, “back to normal” again. All of these feelings, as different as they are, share the common core of pain. Loss is painful whether the pain arises from mourning a cherished bond, missing the loved one’s place in your life, regretting past differences and distances that can no longer be bridged, or being saddened that the relationship was not closer to the ideal you wished to have.

When we encounter pain, we are hard-wired to try to escape it

When we encounter pain, we are hard-wired to try to escape it. Instinctive reflexes pull our hand away from a hot oven, our toe away from a shard of broken glass, and sometimes make us more concerned with taking an anesthetic than removing the true source of the pain. At the most basic level, pain simply tells us that something is wrong. Pain propels us to change something – address a physical problem, improve communication if interactions hurt, do things differently so the pain will not continue. In this way, pain is a positive force that can bring about welcome changes. Yet what is the purpose of feeling pain after the loss of someone close? That pain cannot bring the type of changes we normally seek; it cannot repair the problems of the past, because that window of opportunity is now closed. The pain seems only to perpetually remind us of what we are missing and what we can never have again… who wouldn’t want to escape that torturous reminder and “get beyond the loss”, “move past it”, and “put it behind us” as quickly as possible?

The Jewish prescription for mourning uses time, space and actions to sensitively and carefully guide the bereaved through the pain, and not around it

While the Jewish view is that in the future, life will continue on for the mourners without the daily, often overwhelming difficult emotions that accompany recent loss, Judaism gives us a process for experiencing the pain in a way that respects both the mourner and the deceased. The Jewish prescription for mourning uses time, space and actions to sensitively and carefully guide the bereaved through the pain, and not around it. In this way, the loss and its effect on the mourner will be incorporated in a meaningful, ultimately positive way as the mourner continues living.

The expression “time heals” is one that has been understood by Judaism for millennia. The power of time to soothe our souls and provide salve for our wounds is well-recognized; give the body time and a cut will usually heal, and even bouts of crying have their eventual end as the tears lessen. In Judaism, when a person first experiences a loss, s/he is not asked or expected to do anything else except focus on funeral and burial preparations that will give the deceased the most possible honor and dignity possible. This stage is called Aninus. Until the deceased is respectfully buried in a final resting place, the mourner is in emotional limbo as well – the loss has occurred but the deceased somehow still seems between worlds when his/her body is still “here”. The loss is too fresh, and cannot be emotionally processed until the person’s body has been placed in context. Accordingly, Jewish mourning practice directs us not to attempt to console mourners at this time.

Jewish mourning practice directs us not to attempt to console mourners at this time

Once in a cemetery, the body of the deceased is where it is now supposed to be, and the mourners can move onto the next stage of their grieving process – the Shiva.

To “sit” with the loss is the next step in Jewish mourning, as the bereaved sit Shiva for their loved one. The outer trappings of shiva, including the low chairs, covered mirrors, and uncut hair, serve as tangible reminders of suffering. Through our torn clothes, we literally wear our emotions on our sleeve, as a display for everyone that sadness and pain are normal and natural responses to our loss. Negative emotions are defined as those that do not feel good, such as anger, jealousy, cynicism, and sadness – but they are not termed “negative” because we are not supposed to have them. They exist with all our other positive emotions along a continuum, with each end of the spectrum contributing to emotional health. (as long as the emotions are felt to a manageable degree without causing dysfunction). Consequently, sadness is not depression and neither is bereavement. Mourning is not equivalent to depression, nor does it inevitably lead there. The grief associated with loss is an expected outcome and even though grief manifests itself in as many ways as there are individuals, the pain is there and Judaism through the process of shiva provides a way to express it.

Enduring and Endearing

The seven days of shiva give time and space to confront loss. Distracting oneself from mourning will only delay the necessary processing of the loss that must happen for emotional health: when you avoid working through something, you create a “void”. The loss has created a change in the mourners’ reality and shiva provides that chance to gingerly enter that new normal. If the mourners so choose, they have the chance to talk about their loved one, share stories with those who come to comfort, discuss the impact of their loved one, and look at their loss from many perspectives. Happiness at the joy their loved ones brought can intermingle with grief over the end of that happiness, with gratitude in the mix at having had that happiness at all. The mourners can sit in silence if they choose, since comforters are exhorted to follow the mourners’ lead and not speak unless a mourner speaks first. In this give-and-take, where the mourners have the permission and latitude to discuss the loss in any way they feel comfortable, shiva respects the mourners’ unique needs and provides the opportunity to have comfort on their terms. The mourners do not, and should not, have to return to the outside world while they are still reeling, to wonder why that world is still spinning while their world seems to have stopped. Their world is their shiva house, a space and time dedicated to their needs – physical, emotional, and spiritual.

Stage

Timeframe

What we do

Common Emotions

Aninus

From the time of death until burial
The mourners should do whatever is necessary to provide for the most honorable funeral and burial possible for their loved one. They are exempt from many mitzvot, such as prayer, tefilin, tzitzit, etc. We do not attempt to comfort mourners during this time.
There is no expectation that a person is ready to process the loss. If anything, there is an expectation that a person is not capable of processing the loss. This is not denial; this is a realization of the complexity of emotion involved in this journey.

At the grave

During the eulogies and through the point of leaving the cemetery
Eulogies are a way of honoring the deceased, as well as giving mourners an appreciation of the person. Burial gives mourners closure. Prayers and blessing accepting Hashem’s judgment are said.
At this point there is the duality of acceptance and extreme sadness (not to be confused with depression, which implies a paralyzing emotion to be avoided).

Shiva

7 days after burial

With the help of friends and family the mourners focus on their loved one and gain an appreciation of the loss.
Confronting, understanding, and processing the loss is the best way to endure the loss. When you avoid you create a void

Shloshim

Thirty days after burial

There are visible signs of mourning that are observed (such as not cutting one’s hair, not listening to music)to show that the mourner is still reeling from the loss.

Acceptance is a process and it comes through properly dealing with the many complex emotions we have. Time is also a healer, and at this point the sting of the loss is often not as acute.

First Year

Full year after burial

One who is mourning a parent says Kaddish and observes other mourning practices during this time. These are associated more with “Honor you father and your mother” than as a tool for the mourner.
Many emotions need to be sorted out. The mourners begin a new chapter of their lives without their loved one. As time goes by, each day is different as far as how we feel and what we feel. Emotional and social support remains important during this time.

As shiva proceeds and turns to Shloshim – the thirty days after burial, time slowly dulls the acuteness of the pain, and the Jewish prescription calls for a lessening of outward mourning signs as well. Yet this is gradual, maintaining the respect for the emotional process that does not happen abruptly. To endure means to patiently suffer something painful or difficult, to brave the pain knowing that you can survive even while in it. However, to endure also means to continue existing or to last, and this pain is both a testament to the enduring memory of the deceased, and the changes to the lives around the deceased because of the loss. Reliving happy times through sharing memories, looking at photo albums, and talking about traits and lessons the deceased embodied are all ways to show the enduring power of the deceased’s life; these discussions endear the loved one even more to the mourners. Although purposely remembering how endeared the loved one was may seem to add to the pain, this pain is proof that the deceased had an impact on the world. Focusing on the deceased demonstrates that his or her life had meaning – that there was a reason s/he existed. The people affected by this loss can testify that their lives would have been different had this person not lived and that testimony gives respect to the deceased and honors their memory.

As Jews, we are taught the prescription for confronting loss: through recognizing the pain, feelings sadness, and expressing mourning through overt actions. By devoting time and space to these, we acknowledge the deceased’s role in our lives, and the reality that the loss is an enduring one – we will never be the same people again. Yet in this new reality of who we are after the loss, we also recognize how our loved one’s presence will endure, in the permanent imprint that their life created on every life that intertwined with theirs.

About the author

Rabbi Jay Lyons has extensive experience in Jewish afterlife care. As an expert in the laws and traditions of tahara, he provides training to chevros kadisha, Jewish burial societies, throughout the country. Rabbi Lyons is the director of the South Florida Jewish Cemetery, a non-profit certified green cemetery. Dr. Jordanna Lyons, Psy.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist. Dr. Lyons received her undergraduate degree from Harvard University and her doctorate from the Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology of Yeshiva University. A dynamic husband-and-wife team, the Lyonses live with their children in Boca Raton, Florida where they serve the community bringing support framed by Jewish wisdom to grieving families.

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