It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart. (Ecclesiastes 7:2)
The Scriptures take our mortality to heart. Whereas in many places in our modern world mourning and grief are seen as an affliction to be downplayed, avoided, or gotten over quickly, our ancient texts say there is “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (Ecclesiastes 3:4). Jewish tradition embraces mourning as an essential part of life.
If we were uncertain before, the pandemic has made it clear to all of us: we all experience loss—whether it’s of a life or a lifestyle. As much as we may like to sidestep or truncate the process, grief is inevitable. How then can we do it well and even embrace it through the process of mourning?
Before we can process grief, we need to be aware that it exists and have a sense of how deep it goes. Picture a tree being removed from your yard. There is a large hole where it once was, now covered with dirt. For a long time, you notice the “scar” in the lawn where the tree once grew, until one day, the grass has grown over it and the spot has become less noticeable. Mourning is the process of filling that hole in the soil of our lives, of restoration from loss.
Each hole is different and unique; its size and shape reflect the role that the person or process played in our life, not necessarily its status or perceived importance. For instance, the loss of an absentee biological father might create a small hole in comparison to the loss of a great uncle or a neighbor who had a very significant and constant paternal influence. Even a seemingly minor loss, like a new parent no longer having time to take a jog or write in their journal every morning, could result in an unexpected grief if the small, daily tradition helped them feel more like themselves.
Grief isn’t linear. It comes in waves and it’s unpredictable. It may appear at odd times with unexpected triggers. You might not feel it until the moment you would have normally practiced your personal ritual or process, or until the moment you would have called the absent person for support or advice. We have the information of loss in our mind, but we may not experience grief until those moments when we’re reminded of the hole. Maybe at the funeral of a neighbor, you find yourself thinking and even crying over a grandparent who had died three years before and not your neighbor whose funeral you are attending. Or perhaps at the passing of a parent who didn’t play much of a role in your life, you think of an older hole of not having a parent who loved and cared as you would have hoped.
Understanding these realities about grief can give us more grace for ourselves and others throughout the process of mourning. It also helps us realize that seasons and set-apart times for mourning are critical because they allow us to take the time we need to fill in that hole.
Grief can be disorienting. It’s often hard to concentrate or get work done, and we’re left frustrated by our inability to focus and work hard. Rather than this being viewed as a deficit, it can be seen as a God-given process to slow down and address the hole you now have in your life. In fact, this is exactly how Jewish tradition teaches us to see it.
Jewish tradition includes shiva, a seven-day period of mourning observed at home after the funeral. It’s an intentional and conscious time to process loss alongside a supportive community that shares in the grief. Psychiatrist Dr. Jorge Casariego says the shiva process “add[s] structure to the life of a mourner following a death. In the period after suffering a loss, a mourner may be comforted by the structure and routines prescribed by traditional Jewish mourning laws.”1
Traditionally, the Mourner’s Kaddish is recited every day for a year when a loved one passes. In that way, we begin each day by praising God and allowing ourselves space to remember, reflect, and acknowledge our very real loss. It declares the truth that God provides peace in the midst of loss. The prayer opens: “Glorified and sanctified be God’s name throughout the world which He has created according to His will.” Every time we recite the Kaddish, we remember that God is in control and ask Him to establish His kingdom—a world without loss and grief, “speedily and soon.” Even in times of loss, the Kaddish helps us remember that our God holds all things together. In our pain, we can pray for peace not only for ourselves, but for all Israel.
Once a year, we’re called to light a candle in honor of the person who has passed away. This tradition, called yahrzeit, is observed on the anniversary of the loved one’s death by burning a long-lasting candle in our homes.2 The flame serves both as a reminder of our loss and as a celebration of their life. In this way, Jewish tradition builds in an annual acknowledgement of loss into the structure of our lives.
Through examples like these, we see the importance that Jewish tradition places on taking time to grieve, and on the value of doing it both as individuals and as a community. We take note together of the full truth: the reality of our loss and the hope we have in our God.
But grief isn’t limited to mourning death, and as such, methods of mourning can be applied to other circumstances as well. When you stop working at a job that was a big part of your life, move away from home to a new city, or your child goes off to college, you likely experience grief. A friend of mine used to remind me of this well-known truth: “All change is first perceived as loss.”
When the coronavirus pandemic first hit, there was an enormous sense of loss. We all lost the normal rhythms of everyday life, children felt the loss of school, families felt the weight of lost vacations and events, and working online without in-person interactions left a hole in our lives.
But as much as we celebrate the end to the global pandemic, there also might be a bit of anxiety around the loss we feel as “normalcy” returns. A friend of mine is distraught at the prospect of commuting into downtown Boston again because she has loved her time at home with her family. My own children are dreading the return of in-person school. Many who work from home can’t imagine the idea of returning to an inflexible, 40-hour week in the office.
Loss is everywhere, experienced by all in many different ways. So learning how to grieve well and to see it as a healing gift from God is a challenge that’s critical for each of us to take on.
Whatever loss you’re grieving, here are four simple ways I’d recommend approaching the process of mourning:
Take time to acknowledge your loss. Take long walks, take some time off work, or spend some intentional time with friends. It’s become normalized to distract ourselves with stimulating things like our phones or work, but really, these things impede the mourning process or cause unhealthy ways of grieving. Grief doesn’t disappear by us not looking at it.
Sometimes we need to know ourselves well enough to know when we need to compartmentalize. It could be helpful to set apart a designated time each day to recite the Kaddish or another psalm or prayer. Intentionally creating a space for your mind, body, and soul to grieve can feel uncomfortable at first. Give yourself grace—God created us to need breaks.
A critical part of moving through the grief process is to identify what exactly you are grieving. What are you missing? I knew someone whose grandfather died. He had played a special role in her life, counseling her through all her big decisions. It wasn’t immediately apparent to her that when she lost her grandfather, she was also grieving the loss of his wisdom in her life.
It took me six months after losing my mother to be able to admit to myself that I was angry at her, and I had lost the ability to work through that anger with her. I felt like I needed to be positive, but it was only when I named that loss and sat with it, that I was then able to forgive her and release it.
Naming things is a process, and you may often have more than one thing to name over time. It is hard to understand the role someone played in your life and what exactly you will be missing. It is more like working on a sculpture: with each strike, you get closer to forming its shape.
Oftentimes, the temptation when grieving is to pull away from others. But God didn’t make us to bear our pain alone. We’re meant to live in community with one another, mourning with those who mourn. Others can’t take away our pain, but they can help us bear it if we let them. Find a friend to journey with—someone who is willing to be a listening ear, a walking buddy, or someone to simply sit beside you. Sometimes the most comforting thing is another’s presence.
Sitting shiva with a community provides a space to tell stories and regale memories of the lost loved one. In order to fill the hole in our lives, we need to get a sense of how deep it is and where it goes. Talking about the person can help us do that. That’s also why it can be particularly comforting to talk about the deceased with other people who knew them, as their own stories and memories can help us flesh out and understand the hole in our own lives.
Over and over through Scripture, we are told to give thanks to God. “Let everything that has breath praise the LORD” (Psalm 150:6). God doesn’t tell us to do it because He is feeling unappreciated. It’s for our own good. Even non-religious substance abuse programs promote learning gratitude and thankfulness because they know the impact they have. Thankfulness resets our lens, fills our heart with joy, and gives us a sense of abundance in our life rather than scarcity.
Thankfulness is a key part of healing. It isn’t a means of denying pain, but a way to work through it. The reason one feels loss is because they were given a gift they no longer have. Thankfulness allows us to acknowledge the gift we were once given, and acts as a balm to the wound of loss.
The account of Job in the Tanakh tells of a man who lost everything in a moment—his family, his possessions, and his status. Yet still, he says with confidence, “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised” (Job 1:21). Job opens himself to the process of mourning and acknowledges God is with him through the valley. It’s not easy to get to the place where we can say, “The LORD gives and the LORD takes away, blessed be the name of the LORD.” But God doesn’t expect us to get there alone by our own strength. Though loss itself is a terrible reality of our broken world, the way God helps us work through that loss is a blessing. Mourning is a gift, and through it, God heals our hearts and draws near to us.