How To Handle Grief And Mourning

Dec 2, 2014

[guestpost]Today’s post is from Rabbi Evan Moffic, spiritual leader of Congregation Solel in suburban Chicago and one of my dear friends. Although I rarely do guest posts, his insights on grief have been a huge source of encouragement and wisdom for me as of late. In addition, the holidays can often stir the pot of past grief unexpectedly, which makes this post timely. I hope it encourages you. To learn more about Rabbi Moffic, he blogs at Rabbi.me and Huffington Post. Author of Wisdom for People of All Faiths, his next book, What Every Christian Needs to Know About Passover, is available February 2015 from Abingdon Press.[/guestpost]

Michele has shared her journey through loss and mourning with us. Her reflections and tribute to her dad continue to teach and inspire. They have also generated discussion about the process of grieving. What more can we learn about how to handle something we all will face during our lives?

My work as a rabbi gives me a front-row seat to human experience. The more I have met with grieving families, the more I have witnessed the power and wisdom behind several Jewish practices of mourning. You do not have to be Jewish to appreciate them. They rest on values that transcend any one religion. They are based on psychology and faith, not a set of beliefs or dogma. In short, they are a time-tested response to the universal experience of loss.

They include the following:

1. Take the time to mourn: A few years ago I met with a family who experienced the tragic death of a young mother. Her four children and husband were devastated. The husband thought going to school would get the kids’ minds off their loss. He believed the pain of being in a home filled with sadness would make the loss harder for them.

I understood his concern, and we talked at length about it. I told him the kids were going to feel enormous pain regardless of whether they were in school or not. I urged him to let the children stay home and grieve with the people who loved them most. In the end he decided to let them stay home, and he told me recently how grateful he was that he did.

Jewish tradition instructs to take seven full days to mourn after the death of a close relative. We are not to attend parties or concerts or weddings or any celebratory activity. We are to sit at home with our friends and family. We are to share stories, pray and simply be together.

We might think getting out of the house or going out with friends will get our minds off of our pain. Yet, I have found that the pain is with us, regardless of what we doing. By addressing and acknowledging it, we can later return to our regular lives with renewed vigor and perspective.

2. Let it out: There is no need to sanitize our grief. The Hebrew word for mourning is avelut. Avelut is also the Hebrew word for crying or shrieking. When we have experienced a loss, we do not need to “keep up appearances.” We need to let ourselves mourn. Jewish tradition would agree with the philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, who wrote in his “Confessions” that he considered tears the most eloquent testimony of love.

3. Lean on your community: Jewish tradition considers it a sacred obligation to visit and comfort those who are in mourning. We should not grieve alone. During the seven-day period of immediate mourning known as shiva, the family of the deceased opens their homes to family and friends, but they are not expected to entertain or feed them. In fact, the guests are supposed to bring all the food and drinks and whatever else can meet the mourners’ everyday needs.

Even the prayers we say at a service of mourning try to bring us out of the shell grief can create. The primary Jewish prayer of mourning is known as the Kaddish, and it asks God to bring peace and comfort to all people who are in mourning. By saying this prayer, the mourners link themselves to mourners everywhere. They know they are not alone.

4. Create rituals of memory: For the people to whom we were close, we never really stop mourning. A member of my synagogue recently told me she was sitting at her desk concentrating deeply on a project when the phone rang. Her first reaction was to think it was her father, though he had died fourteen years ago. It was the time of day he used to call her.

One of the most meaningful Jewish rituals is to light a candle and say a special prayer on the anniversary of a loved one’s death. The light remains us of their enduring influence in us. The prayers we say connect us and them to God and to one another.

The prayer I always share brings these two parts together. It reads, “God, help us to understand that grief and love go hand and hand, that the pain which loss inflicts is the measure of a love stronger than death. Though we cry in the anguish of our hearts, may we be like children who know that their parent is near and who cling, unafraid, to the trusted hand. In this spirit Oh God, do we commit all that is most precious to us to You and Your keeping. Amen.”

Death can be especially painful and confusing for children. You can find here the best guide I have discovered for how to talk to children about death.

What prayers or traditions have brought you comfort during periods of mourning?

15 Comments

  1. Bruce Cross

    Rabbi Moffic – Although I am not personally experiencing the loss of a loved one at this point in time, your words and the thoughts conveyed are very beneficial and can be applied elsewhere as well.

    We also can mourn the loss of certain facets of our life other than the loss of another person.

    In 1988 I worked for a large church where I also attended. I was asked to leave (not due to performance) and the day I left was one of the worst days of my professional career.

    Forgiveness was extended at the outset and I honestly held nothing against those for whom I worked, despite the less than compassionate manner in which my employment ended.

    However, an unsuspecting virus of sorts was deposited into my spirit and it was not until 21 years later, at a Ransomed Heart (John Eldredge / Wild at Heart) retreat in Colorado that it came full circle.

    In a quiet time while journaling in the woods, I felt God impress upon my spirit these words “it mattered to me.” Questioning the Lord in silent conversation, I sought clarification.

    He impressed upon me what happened to me “mattered” to Him. I had carried a sense of loss with me for over two decades, many times unaware of its effect on me and ultimately my family.

    That day in the woods healing came. I came to grips with what was lost and it began in me a process of restoration.

    Again, thank you for your words of wisdom!

    Reply
    • Rabbi Evan Moffic

      Bruce, what a powerful experience. Losses come in so many different forms, and we do need grieve. Sometimes we think we need to “bounce back” quickly, but if we don’t take the time to acknowledge the pain, we don’t heal.

      Reply
  2. Linda Lochridge Hoenigsberg

    This is a wonderful post, Rabbi Moffit. I have experience a lot of grief and loss in my life. God has been faithful to bring me through it, but not without crying (and yes…even shrieking) and sharing. I like your idea of making a ritual of memory. When a friend’s mother died, I waited for a time and then asked her if I could come over and go through some photographs of her mother and have me tell her about her mother’s life. I had heard snippets, and knew her mother led a very interesting life. She told me she was so grateful for that, because it felt as if she were the only one who cared about her mother’s wonderful life and she had no one to really share her with. It made me think to do that with others…ask about the lives of their family members who have passed and be truly interested. This helps them relive the memories and keeps their family members alive in their hearts.

    Reply
    • Rabbi Evan Moffic

      Hi Linda, that’s beautiful. Showing interest in the life of the person who passed away makes all the difference. You can’t “fix” the grief, but you can empathize. And that’s what we all truly need.

      Reply
  3. Karen Jordan

    Excellent advice & insights! Thx for sharing, Michele. Praying for your healing & recovery. Blessings!

    Reply
  4. Stacey Thacker

    I am learning to be sad and happy at the same time. My dad battled cancer for 5 years and died suddenly last Spring. The 6 month mark was harder than I anticipated and now the holidays are filled with memories. So grief has taught me it is ok to have a tender heart but to let joy rise as well.
    Appreciate your words Rabbi Moffic

    Reply
    • Rabbi Evan Moffic

      Stacey, wow. very powerful. I think many of us feel sad and happy in some ways when we are mourning. We may be happy in the sense of someone is no longer in deep pain or that we are doing something they would love to see us do. But we are still grieving because we miss them. Those emotions can remain mixed for a long time.

      Reply
  5. Bert Rinkel

    Hi Michelle,
    Thanks for sharing this blog. So often we don’t take the time to mourn and this is a good reminder. I have not lost a close relative recently but have been through the grieving process when my dad, then my mother and later my brother passed away over the past six years.

    Reply
  6. Paul R

    Dear Rabbi Moffic,

    Saying Kaddish always had a certain magical aura to it. When a son or daughter says Kaddish for their parent, they are demonstrating capacity to still praise G-d and maintain faith in G-d despite the tragedy of losing their love one. One question I have is that when congregants attend worship & recite mourners Kaddish on Shabbat or recite Kaddish during shiva, G-d ‘s kingdom or G-d’s majesty mentions G-d in a singular sense . Is it possible that there is a paradoxical plurality in that G-d’s kingdom is the spirit of community in comforting the mourners & looking out for one anther as people following G-d’s commandments?

    Reply
    • Rabbi Evan Moffic

      Paul, that’s absolutely right. In a way the community is representing the comforting presence of God for the mourner. We are God’s hands made present.

      Reply
  7. Pamela Stavinoga

    Thank you for your words of understanding. I have just lost my husband Bob, and the hole in my heart feels like a hole in my soul. This time of year will always bring tears and a feeling of deep lost.

    Reply
    • Rabbi Evan Moffic

      Thanks Pam. I remember meeting Bob, and I am so sorry to hear of your loss. Holidays can be among the hardest times.

      Reply
  8. Jamie

    This is lovely. One month from today will mark the 4 year anniversary of my son’s death. He was 16 weeks old. I’ve created new traditions. Sometimes my prayer is still simply please God, please God, please God, which was what I prayed all the way to the hospital on that snowy morning. I have found a new community of loss mamas who get it. Many of my family and friends don’t get it and are very uncomfortable with my grief. Keeping up appearances and being “fine” are, unfortunately, still very much a part of my life. I do love the wisdom in this post and in the heart behind it. Thank you

    Reply

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  1. Grief and bereavement, mourning a loss, Rabbi Evan Moffic, Michele Cushatt, D.G. Kaye - […] How To Handle Grief And Mourning | Michele Cushatt. […]

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