The loss of a loved one can be an incredibly painful and isolating experience. It is normal to feel loneliness, guilt, fear, irritability and many other conflicting emotions. Although everyone mourns differently, there are some general things you can expect to help guide you through the process. Grief is literally the mending of a broken heart, and like most healing, it happens gradually.
There is no simple “solution” to cure you of grief, but there is usually a level of resolution in which one achieves a measure of closure. As you undergo this process of healing and reintegrating into your new “normal,” expect to experience many ups and downs. Grief counselors sometime describe grief as a river: It is not a straight line, but zigzags without any apparent pattern. At the same time, it flows, rising and falling with regularity, especially on anniversaries or special occasions. At other times it can be wild and unpredictable.
Don’t see bereavement as an illness or weakness. It is a normal reaction to loss and needs to play itself out. However, there are some general stages of grief that have been identified, and can help normalize the process. Many find Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ five stages of mourning helpful: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. These don’t always happen in order nor does everyone necessarily experience all of them. Some have noted a more general mourning process starting with shock, then pain, and then gradually a sense of resolution and readjustment.
This article offers specific advice for each stage of the Jewish mourning process. Below are some general tips that apply to the entire process:
- Find supportive people to be around who accept your feelings, and don’t make you feel judged.
- Think about your sources of strength and resilience, and what strategies you have used to overcome previous challenges in your life, but don’t feel discouraged if the pain last for more time than you thought it would.
- Consider incorporating Jewish mourning traditions and rituals into your life. Though not everybody observes all the Jewish mourning traditions and rituals, being aware of their deep psychological and spiritual wisdom may offer further guidance. Indeed, many people find that having rituals to observe provides a comforting framework for dealing with painful emotions.
There are many helpful organizations and websites, such as Grief.com, that provide support to people who are mourning. Many synagogues and Jewish communities have grief support groups, which are often coordinated through the local Jewish federation. Often, there are a few to choose from and it is acceptable to try some out to see if its a good fit, and then move on to another one if it is not.
You don’t have to be a member of a synagogue to attend these groups, and you can often start by searching the Internet or calling your local federation to find one near you. If there is no grief support in your area, but there is a synagogue, don’t let membership dues deter you from attending synagogue services or other programs. With the exception of High Holiday services and Hebrew school programs, synagogue services and programs are generally open to all, regardless of whether or not they are members or have paid dues.
Even if you’ve never attended the synagogue before, if you inform the rabbi of what you are experiencing, chances are that you will be embraced without any need to pay for membership or any other fees. If this feels uncomfortable, one way to approach this might be simply by reaching out to a local rabbi to ask them what sort of resources are available for someone who is grieving in your community. They can then either welcome you to be comforted by their community, or share with you some other local options that may be a better fit.
You may feel numb, like it is not real, and that you are in a fog-like state of shock. During this time Jewish tradition encourages you to acknowledge feelings of despair.
Jewish mourners are not expected to do anything, not even fulfill commandments like saying blessings or participating in daily prayer services, but simply to plan the funeral and ensure they can give the most fitting final respects to their loved one. It is during this time that one simply comes to terms with the painful reality of the death. Jewish law actually forbids people to offer condolences during this phase. Judaism recognizes that we can’t take the pain away while the dead is still lying before us, and the bereaved are not yet ready to be comforted.
The funeral can be a cathartic part of this phase. It is customary to tear a garment at the funeral (a practice known as kriah) in recognition of the pain and even anger that might be felt at this time. It is an attempt to give expression to one’s anger in a controlled manner. Saying a final goodbye, and shoveling earth onto the coffin are meant to acknowledge the finality of the death, helping to dissipate the shock.
The Jewish tradition of sitting shiva enables you to stop, reflect and accept the reality of the death as the full emotional impact sets in. During this week, mourners traditionally stay at home and are visited by friends and family. They also begin reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish; traditionally a minyan of at least 10 Jewish adults gather at the shiva house to say the Kaddish.
One of the most crucial aspects of this week is talking openly about the deceased: the impact of the death, what caused it, the days leading up to it, as well as good memories and reflections on their entire life. Telling the narrative over and over again makes the death more real and, though painful, is part of the healing process. This is why grief counselors often say that we can’t just “move on,” we have to “move forward” recognizing that grief is a “journey through,” not around.
It is also important to recognize that Judaism takes a community-based approach. That is why we say, “tzarot rabim chatzi nechama” or “a sorrow shared is a sorrow halved” (based on Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvah 331). It can be very helpful during this intense period of mourning to have the comfort of other people’s caring presence.
Advice During Shiva
- Although people often say unwise and hurtful things to mourners, try not to see this as being insensitive or intentionally offensive. Rather, people are often uncomfortable in these situations and don’t know what to say. Try to accept the good intentions behind their clumsy attempts to help.
- Even if you aren’t part of a structured Jewish community or synagogue, it may be beneficial to seek one during this time, or attend group grief therapy sessions or find a counselor or therapist (see above for advice on how to find one in your area).
- If you have friends or family who have not reached out to you in your time of need, try not to take it personally and don’t be afraid to reach out to them to let them know how you are feeling. They will most likely be happy that you did.
- Don’t be afraid to take some alone time for yourself during shiva. In fact, this option is built into the shiva tradition on Shabbat, when public expressions of mourning and condolence calls are actually traditionally forbidden.
After shiva it is customary to take a short walk around the block, symbolizing the need to begin reintegrating into society.The walk around the block is a good transition to Sheloshim, the next three weeks, during which there is still some level of mourning, but it is less intense and readjustment begins. It’s normal to continue to feel very sad and emotional during this time.
Advice During Sheloshim
- Just because the initial stage of the mourning has come to an end, doesn’t mean the need to cope goes away. Continue to find people to talk to and tell your story to during this time and beyond.
- When you go back to work, you don’t want to bombard people with your sadness and stories, but you should let them know what you are going through so they can be supportive and understanding.
- Even if you did not say Kaddish during Shiva, you might find it comforting to do so now, especially on Shabbat when you might be able to find some time to attend synagogue and find some communal support.
For most losses, the official Jewish mourning process ends with the conclusion of sheloshim. For those mourning a parent, the process traditionally continues another 10 months.
Of course the loss of a parent isn’t the only one that will impact you emotionally for more than a month and no one expects you to be done mourning in just 30 days, or even in a year. Some people choose to continue to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish beyond the 30 days, and others find different ways to continue to honor their loved one, such as by doing good things or giving charity in their memory.
The entire first year can remain very difficult, painful and an emotional roller coaster, particularly as you attempts to cope with the demands of daily life. It is normal to have conflicting emotions toward the deceased.
Advice During the First Year
- Don’t feel abnormal if the grief persists throughout this year, particularly around special occasions, and just because some days are good doesn’t mean there won’t be more bad days.
- It can be beneficial to have imaginary conversations with the person you are mourning while saying Kaddish, at the graveside, looking at photographs, or even writing in a journal.
- Consider reciting the Kaddish regularly, even if you are not religious. Reciting this prayer affirms that no matter how much you might despair, you are publicly affirming that you will not give up and will carry on the positive values of your loved one in this world. Many people also find it is psychologically helpful to incorporate this ritual into their daily or weekly routine and to be part of a larger community of people saying Kaddish.
- Don’t be afraid to reach out to friends or family, especially after the initial surge of attention ebbs and it feels like people have forgotten about you and/or seem to think you should be over it.
Even after the first year, expect to feel some pain, especially on holidays and at lifecycle events. Allow yourself to feel the pain and acknowledge it, ideally surrounding yourself with loved ones and life-affirming activities, such as finding sources of gratitude (i.e. how your life was enriched by the one you’ve lost), happiness and health. These occasions can also serve as reminders that, as difficult as it is, you have managed to survive another year without your loved one, yet have not forgotten them. It is customary to remember your loved one on certain days of the year, each in a different way:
Advice Moving Forward
- On the Yahrzeit and at Yizkor, it is common to feel once again some of the emotions felt during the first year of mourning. You should re-engage many of the strategies for coping mentioned in this article.
- It is crucial during the grieving process to identify your sources of strength, and to acknowledge your hopes and your fears, and not to be afraid to find someone to talk to openly about them.
As we have pointed out, there is no one right way to mourn nor one normal or universal timeline. Everyone grieves differently and most mourners will return to standard functioning in their own time frame. However, when grief is ongoing and paralyzing, particularly if the intensity doesn’t subside over time, it is known as “complicated grief.” When it continues for more than a year (or less than that if the emotions are overwhelming) this “unresolved grief” may require professional help.
This is especially common following traumatic or unexpected loss and is often characterized by lack of acceptance of the death, avoidance of experiencing pain or grief, resistance to continuing with daily life and unwillingness to be comforted. It also manifests as isolation, lack of desire to form new relationships, decreased performance at work/school, talking often about death in unrelated conversations (or never talking about it at all).
If you or someone you love is engaging in uncharacteristic behavior, has drastically changed sleep habits, suicidal ideation or severe depression, please take heed. The reality is that grief is real and can’t be ignored. When it gets to these extremes for an extended period of time it is crucial to be evaluated by a professional specialist.