Field Guides

Loss & Mourning: Part I


This multi-chapter guide on loss is for anyone: mourners, supporters, people grappling with their own mortality.

While this guide focuses mainly on Jewish rituals and traditions for confronting and mourning a person’s death, the wisdom offered here is available for anyone and can be applied to grieving other types of losses, as well.

The first part of this guide is an introduction to the life-long, non-linear process of responding to loss. We hope this entry point to our guide will validate your unique experience and invite you into a set of practices that may comfort and bolster you as your journey unfolds.

Daring To Grieve

“Your grief for what you’ve lost lifts a mirror up to where you’re bravely working.” – Rumi

Whether you’ve lost a job, a pet, a part of yourself, or a loved one or a not-so-loved one, bereavement – the period after a loss during which grief is experienced and mourning occurs – is a time of change and transition.

The ongoing, often messy and complex journey up and down and all around grief and mourning is where healing happens, and there’s no single path through.

As you grieve, your body may hurt or change. You might feel angry, guilty, sad, or some entirely surprising emotion. You may find it helpful to openly share your experience on social media, or you might want to retreat and spend time alone, even if that’s not your normal state.

Your grief is a healthy, normal response to loss, and working through it by allowing yourself to feel what you feel is how you progress. If you aren’t experiencing progress, you may want to find a professional who can help you along the way.

As Rabbi Anne Brener, author of Mourning and Mitzvah: A Guided Journal for Walking the Mourner’s Path Through Grief to Healing, puts it:

“If you dare to grieve…it is about moving to another place so that your perspective on the loss, your life, and the nature of being human shifts in such a way that enables you to once again embrace life.”

Mourning is a process that may ebb and flow and shift shapes as your own life continues and the world spins on. Making room for this journey and integrating your loss into your life is the courageous work of beginning again.

The Jewish Approach to Loss and Mourning

“Death is the way of the world.” – Rambam

“It was regarded as unnatural not to weep for the dead.” – Ben Sira

“Do not separate yourself from the community.” – Hillel

When it comes to loss and mourning, Judaism has a mantra: you are not alone.

With the help of the divine and each other, Judaism asks us to grieve in public, to not bypass the essential mourning process, and, at the same time, to not let loss consume us.

On Tisha b’Av, a day when Jews remember the greatest tragedies of our history, Gabi Birkner, founder of Modern Loss, shared this wisdom at IKAR in Los Angeles in 2018:

“Rabbi Yehoshua said, ‘Not to mourn at all is impossible, because the blow has fallen. To mourn overmuch is also impossible because we do not impose on the community a hardship which the majority cannot endure.’

Rabbi Yehoshua explains that extreme self-denial is not our way. Instead, the sages suggested small rituals — like building a house, but leaving a tiny square of it without plaster, to acknowledge something is missing.

And the Rambam, he taught that we are not to become excessively broken-hearted because of a person’s death. ‘For death’ he said, ‘is the way of the world.’”

From the moment of death and on, Judaism offers detailed structures and practices for mourning, recognizing that loss is one of the most emotionally and spiritually challenging human experiences.

Rather than leave us to navigate loss alone, Judaism weaves elements of community support throughout its mourning practices and even prescribes ways to measure and spend our time at each stage of mourning so that we may take the space we need to fully express our grief. Finally, Jewish mourning practices offer a path to eventually restoring our faith and reconnecting to what is meaningful about life.

Jewish mourning practices are a mix of tradition (minhag) and commandment (mitzvah) and a balance between respect for the deceased (Kavod HaMet) and respect for those who are still living (Kavod HaChayim), neither of which can be done alone.

These centuries-old tools for adaptation and integration of loss offer a reassuring, helpful map for mourning, but each person’s experience of loss and grief is unique, so please adapt these practices to fit your own needs.

Where are you now?

A guided meditation

This introduction and guided meditation on grief is by Yael Shy, the Senior Director of the NYU Global Spiritual Life Center. Yael began meditating in 2001 in Jewish meditation contexts and co-founded the Jewish Meditation Center of Brooklyn. She teaches regularly at MNDFL in NYC and is a sought after speaker, teacher, and writer on meditation, interfaith engagement, and spirituality.

I once heard the phrase, “grief is the admission ticket for the present moment.” In other words, to be alive is to be confronted with grief over and over again, as we live in an impermanent world and things are always changing on us. Now, we can know this intellectually, but our pesky hearts get attached to people, to pets, to circumstances, to things. When we experience a loss of something we loved, even if we know and believe in impermanence, it isn’t pretty.

In fact, when I’ve experienced loss, great and small, I am always surprised again at how un-pretty grief is. It is gutting. Wrenching. Devastating. It can feel bottomless and lonely, and like there is no way to survive it. And then somehow, I do. The only way out is through.

Mary Oliver writes, “To live in this world you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal. To hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.” Nobody can skip any of these steps, and so grief is bound up in the act of loving and living. Opening to grief is opening to life and love.

Here is a 12-minute meditation on Opening to Grief:

Thumbnail and header photos by Karim Manjra

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