Loss & Mourning: Part II
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 accessible to anyone and can be applied to grieving other types of losses, as well.
The second part of this guide will accompany you from the moment you hear the news of a death to the time of the burial. In Jewish tradition, this is a brief time, but an essential rite of passage characterized by respect and tender care for the dead, as well as recognition of a mourner’s dazed state.
Upon Hearing the News of a Death
Baruch dayan ha’emet. Blessed is the True Judge. In Jewish tradition, these are the first words uttered upon receiving tragic news of any kind, including a death.
Why bless God or praise the divine in a moment of shock or sudden grief, when that may be your last instinct?
At a practical level, this blessing provides a prescribed, short script to recite in a moment where we may otherwise be speechless. It’s a way of saying, “I have no words for this.” The blessing also acknowledges that death is beyond our understanding, especially unexpected death. It’s a way of saying, “I don’t understand how this could have happened.”
Still, how do we cope with the metaphor of a divine judge, particularly in a moment where the loss we’re experiencing may feel unjust? A Velveteen Rabbi blog post teaches that one answer to this question can be found in the very letters of the blessing:
“Specifically the Hebrew word אמת / emet, truth. The letters of the Hebrew word for ‘truth’ are aleph, mem, and taf – the first letter of the alef-bet, the middle letter, and the last letter. What is true of every life? Every journey has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
In the lifecycle, too, every ending opens up a new beginning: for the soul of the person who has died, and for we who remain. When we make this blessing, we bless the One Who grants each of us our stories a beginning, a middle, and an end – or maybe the One Whose presence we strive to discern in our journeys, as they begin, during the great middle of every lifetime (no matter how long or short it may be), and as each journey comes to an end.
The circumstances surrounding any loss may be difficult to reconcile, and there are certain types of loss that are particularly stigmatized or that often go unrecognized in mainstream and religious content, leaving mourners feeling extra shame, guilt, or isolation.
For instance, experiencing a loss – miscarriage, stillbirth, abortion, failed adoption – during the time when you are joyfully expecting a child can be traumatic and may bring on painful and difficult emotions. Our three-part guide to becoming a parent offers Jewish wisdom and ritual for grieving a loss in that context.
Perhaps you are struggling with your own health or you have no siblings with whom to share the loss of a parent. Maybe you’ve lost a sibling who was a rival. Maybe your loved one overdosed or was estranged or was sick for a long time and you now feel relief. You may have lost your spouse, and, amidst your own grieving process, you’re also arranging a funeral and reordering finances, in addition to supporting your children emotionally. Maybe your loss isn’t related to the death of a person; retirement, grieving a national tragedy, getting divorced, empty nesting, and breaking up with a close friend may all be tragic shifts for you.
One particularly difficult circumstance of loss for many Jews is suicide, since the traditional Jewish view of suicide is as a form of murder – a sin that breaks Jewish law – so, mourning rites are not observed for people who take their own lives. A more contemporary Jewish interpretation recognizes the depression or other serious mental illnesses that may prompt suicide and considers a person who dies by suicide to have died of causes beyond their control. The Talmud also recognizes that many elements of Jewish mourning ritual exist as much for the living survivors as for the dead, so these rituals may be practiced even in the case of a suicide.
Non-verbal ways to remember someone when you just don’t have the words
Good Grief, a resource for managing loss that is launching in early 2019, understands that finding the right words to honor or remember someone after they have died can feel like a nearly impossible task, so they shared this list of alternatives with us.
There are plenty of meaningful ways to honor or remember someone that don’t require words at all.
Just because you inherited it that way doesn’t mean you need to use it that way
Instead of keeping every old t-shirt and sweatshirt in its current form, make a quilt out of old clothing
Frame something they wrote, like a birthday card, poem, journal entry, or recipe
Incorporate handwritten messages into your day-to-day life: bring a few words from your favorite card or letter to a jeweler and have them inscribe the words on a necklace or bracelet, or have those words printed on fabric and create a pillow cover
Take a robust collection of ties, hankies, or table linens and turn it into a purse or tote
Turn some of your favorite photographs or postcards into a collage or mobile
Honor What They Loved
Carry on with the things that brought them joy
Donate their clothing or other belongings to one of their favorite organizations in their honor or go one step further and set up a fundraiser in their memory
Spend a few hours doing one (or a few) of their favorite activities: go for a bike ride, read a book, play a round of golf
Listen to their favorite record or make a playlist of their favorite songs
Cook their favorite meal and invite family and friends to enjoy it with you
Host a movie night and watch their all-time favorites with family and friends
Finish a project that they were working on before they died
Keep Their Memory Alive
Creating items that can be shared with others is a wonderful way to reflect on your most treasured memories and also ensure future generations get to know the best parts of the person you have lost
Make a memory book or box with photos and stories about them and ask the people who knew them best to contribute
Create a recipe book of their favorite meals
Plant a tree in their honor – you’l be able to celebrate them every year when it blooms
This one might be cheating, since it technically requires words, but write a letter to the person you want to remember, addressing anything that may have been left unsaid. Make it the first entry in a journal full of letters to them. Moving forward you can write to them on important dates or whenever the mood strikes
Care for the Deceased
There is a Jewish belief that the human body is created in the image of the divine. In the Book of Proverbs, it says, “The soul of man is the candle of God.” When a person dies, a candle is placed near their head to symbolize the spark of the divine that is within each of us.
From the moment of death, the body is not left alone until after it is buried. This practice – shemira, guarding or watching – honors the dead and is full of sacred ritual. Put beautifully by Mourning and Mitzvah, a “dead body is like a damaged Torah scroll, no longer fit for use but still deserving reverence for the holy purpose it once served.”
In Jewish tradition, a family member or a member of the chevra kaddisha, a secret burial society of volunteers, makes sure the body is honored, shown respect, ritually cleansed, and carefully shrouded. Serving as a member of a chevra kaddisha is one of the greatest mitzvot, because it is one that goes without recognition and which can never be repaid.
The chevra kaddisha washes the body, then ritually cleanses it with a mikveh. They wrap the body in a simple white burial shroud, whether rich or poor. Some people are also wrapped in a prayer shawl, or it may line the casket; one of the fringes of the tallit is cut off to demonstrate that it will no longer be used for prayer and that the deceased is no longer obligated to do mitzvot. The body may also be belted with a sash knotted in the shape of the Hebrew letter shin, which represents one of God’s names, Shaddai. As the chevra kaddisha passes time before the burial, they recite soothing psalms.
Once the body has been prepared for burial, it is placed in a simple pine box without embellishment or, in Israel, left in its shroud and buried directly in the ground. In Jewish tradition, the casket remains closed during the funeral and burial, and there is no viewing. While an open casket may provide closure or be healing, the tradition comes up against a few Jewish values.
It says in the Torah (Genesis 3:19), “Dust you are, to dust you shall return,” and so the changes that a mortician might make to the deceased to prepare them for an open casket, like applying makeup or embalming, contradicts Jewish practice. There is also the Jewish belief that we are each created in the image of the Divine, so we should preserve the natural state of the deceased for burial. A viewing is one-sided – the mourners may look at the deceased, but the deceased can’t look back – and objectifies the body, challenging the Jewish tradition of honoring the deceased. Finally, it is Jewish tradition to remember the deceased in the most vibrant moments of their life.
For many of the same reasons, Jews do not typically cremate the deceased, although there is no specific legal prohibition against it. The Kabbalah tell us that the soul slowly leaves the body as it decomposes; cremation would interrupt that process and even, perhaps, cause pain to the deceased.
Similarly, Jewish law does not allow for the donation of vital organs from a donor who is still alive, even if they are dying. The only exception for this is if the donation will save someone’s life.
The Time between Death and Burial: Aninut
The time between death and burial in Jewish tradition is very brief, ideally within a day, according to the Torah, but realistically up to a few days, and the people closest to the deceased receive a special status for that period: onen.
An onen is not yet a mourner – that status is received from the burial on. An onen is in a state of aninut – “under pressure” – in a daze, in shock, totally disoriented. Because of the intensity of this experience and to smooth the way, an onen is exempt from performing many of the positive commandments, like praying and saying blessings before and after meals. Instead, the onen is given space and time to help their loved one transition from death to burial, including planning the funeral and caring for the deceased.
Aninut is a rite of passage. According to My Jewish Learning,
“In the throes of such grief we may be overcome by the impulse not to memorialize our dead, but instead to die along with them. Our tradition, in its wisdom, indulges — but does not overindulge — this impulse. For a short while, though, it allows us to play dead, exempting us temporarily and allowing us to identify fully with those we’ve lost. But Jewish law does not allow us to remain there for long. As Jews we bury the dead quickly not only as a kindness to them but also as a reminder to us. Life can and must continue in the wake of even the most tragic losses.“
Go back to basics
Emily Pinzur, an end of life companion and the owner of Silver Wheel End of Life Doula Care in Seattle, Washington, is passionate about care, comfort, and choice when it comes to end of life experiences. Emily created the following guidance and rituals to accompany Arq’s community through aninut.
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Grief is oceanic. It rocks us back and forth, again and again, through waves of emotion. The waves are rough, frequent, and unpredictable.
When we grieve, no matter what or whom we grieve (maybe a person, a pet, the end of a relationship, an illness), it can feel like the grief is taking over. Everything is different: time, space, even our own body. We have to reorient ourselves, again and again, to a world, and a life, that in some important ways is new to us.
When we grieve, we have permission to go back to basics. As Rabbi Benjamin Resnick reminds us, “Judaism bestows a special status on those whose grief is so fresh, it’s consuming.”
Part of going back to basics is doing what we know. One one hand, we may crave comfort. Yet, another part of us wants to give this exquisitely tender time the pause and special recognition it deserves. We toggle back and forth between our need for routine and our need for the extraordinary.
We can acknowledge and hold both needs at once by honoring them in ritual. Ritual asks for our attention and intention. It grounds us firmly in the present moment and makes room for the sacred to join us.
Taking self-care inspiration from the tradition of aninut, you may want to make room for ritual in your life. Be extremely gentle with yourself as you do this, clearing as much space and time as you need. Accept the gift of help. Check in with yourself again and again about what is truly necessary right now. If it can wait, or if it can be done by another, let it go.
Then, create a ritual that will help your body feel grounded, help your mind feel settled into the present moment, and help your heart remember itself. Start slowly and go gently. Know that you are not alone.
These short rituals can be used on their own or combined:
Choose your company
Imagine the support you need, and create it around yourself anytime, anywhere.
“Compassion” in Hebrew is rachmanut, from rechem, or womb. During aninut, or any intense experience of grief, we show ourselves compassion, and we find solace in the compassion of others. Compassion takes us back to basics – to the places we feel most comforted, supported, loved, and normal.
Think about three beings you feel embody compassion. Imagine them in as much detail as you can. It’s okay if you’ve never met them. They can be people, animals, fictional characters, Biblical figures. Who or whatever you see most vividly in your mind’s eye. Imagine two on either side of you, and one behind you; they bolster you, and you relax into them, feeling fully supported. One at a time, bring each into greater awareness and detail: the shape of their body, the feeling of their presence. Lean into that presence, that compassion, that support. Notice in your body what that feels like. When you feel overwhelmed, call your company close. If it helps, write down their names, or place their picture somewhere you can see it. Say their names aloud and ask for what you need: according to the Lakota Sioux, the prayers of those grieving intensely are among the loudest.
Feel your seat
Back to basics can mean simple. This meditation, while simple, is truly restorative. Back to basics can also mean elemental: in this case, we visualize elements to connect body to earth.
Rabbi Myriam Klotz of Mishkan Shalom shares that “spiritual expression through the body is rooted in Jewish tradition…it has been part of Jewish practice since the earliest recorded scripture that we have: the openings in the body more deeply reveal some of the teachings the Torah offers.”
Find a quiet place. Take a comfortable seat in a chair or on the floor. Begin sensing into the places where your body touches the surfaces below. What do you feel? Pressure? Warmth? Stability? Notice it all. Think about the elements in your body where it touches the earth. Think about the minerals in your bones and feel them settle heavy toward the minerals in the earth. Feel how gravity helps your body to feel grounded. You are held by the floor, and the earth beneath it. You don’t even have to try; the support is there. Anytime you need to, breathe, then remember who and what supports you.
Count your blessings
Try to recognize the good that is already yours.
ReformJudaism.org reports that Judaism’s “traditions and teachings emphatically promote gratitude. Woven into thousands of years of Jewish thought is the overriding idea that taking time to recognize what you have in life is one of the uniquely beneficial rituals we can undertake.”
Hikarat hatov, Hebrew for gratitude, means “recognizing the good.” Practicing gratitude means recognizing the good that is already yours. Gratitude feels good and has multiple benefits for the body that are especially helpful while mourning because people who practice gratitude feel less isolated, more attuned to the interconnectedness of life, and are more rooted in the present moment.
A gratitude practice is a simple back to basics list of things we feel grateful for. Some might find inspiration in the Shehecheyanu, the blessing that encourages Jews to offer thanks for new and unusual experiences. Writing our list helps us organize our thoughts and frame our experiences. It gives us perspective, and helps us feel more equanimity, even during difficult times and experiences.
Before bed, close your eyes and take a deep breath. Locate your heart with your mind’s eye and well up a feeling of gratitude there. Think of, then write down 3-5 things you felt grateful for during the day. Include any prayers or blessings that feel meaningful to you or let your gratitude practice be your prayer.
May connecting with these rituals lay you down gently on the shore to rest and breathe peacefully. You are not alone.
Images, in order of appearance, by Iz zy, Sweet Ice Cream Photography, and Carlos Arthur M.R
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