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.
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.
What we do
At the grave
7 days after burial
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.
Full year after burial
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.