Mourning rituals help Jews confront the grief of loss

More than two months after her mother's death at 86, Renee Weinreb finds certain reminders especially painful.

"I looked at her drawer the other day with her little hair rollers and I said to myself, `But Mom's rollers are here. She must be in the next room.'"

Weinreb, 56, knows her longings will never disappear completely, but she feels herself getting stronger. She credits traditional Jewish mourning rituals, which propel mourners head-on through their grief, with buttressing her during this difficult time.

Although most American Jews are not Orthodox like Weinreb, a recent survey showed that Jews at every observance level follow traditional rituals in the wake of a loved one's death. Rabbis say these centuries-old traditions bring great comfort to people in a time of confusion and pain.

"Although I do have my moments and will for a long time, I really feel that having gone through this [mourning process] has helped me a great deal," Weinreb says.

An essential part of this experience is shiva, the seven-day period immediately following burial when mourners stay at home and community members bring prayers and condolences. During that time, Weinreb's San Francisco home was filled with friends, members of her Orthodox synagogue, Congregation Chevra Thilim, and even her husband's non-Jewish co-workers, who came to pay their respects.

"It meant a lot that friends cared enough to interrupt their daily life to show they cared," Weinreb says. "It's a great comfort to have people around you from the moment you get up in the morning to the moment you go to bed at night."

The first meal eaten upon returning from the cemetery is the seudat havra'ah, prepared and served by friends and neighbors. It generally includes round foods, such as eggs — which symbolize life and hope as well as the cycle that connects life and death.

Traditionally during shiva, mourners are released from most economic and social obligations and encouraged to accept the all-encompassing nature of their grief. They are not to read or study Torah, except for the elegiac Book of Job or Lamentations, and are even exempt from reciting certain prayers. During shiva's entire seven days, except on the Sabbath, mourners are to stay at home.

Alterations in daily routine underscore the dramatic change in mourners' lives. Tradition says mourners cannot wear leather shoes, only slippers made of cloth. Hair cannot be cut; cosmetics cannot be worn. New clothes cannot be bought, and a torn garment is worn as a symbol of a broken heart. Mirrors are covered with white sheets or "smoked" with a soapy film to dissuade mourners from doting on their appearance.

"[During shiva] we deprive ourselves of those little mechanisms for cheering ourselves up, because we're supposed to be in mourning," says Rabbi Alan Lew of San Francisco's Conservative Congregation Beth Sholom. Jewish law, he says, "recognizes the human tendency to deny and escape grief, which I think is the tendency that rules our society — which is why we have such a hard time with death."

People's natural discomfort with grief often impels them to try to cheer up mourners during shiva. Jewish law, says Lew, counters that impulse by dictating that visitors allow the mourner to set the tone throughout the seven-day period. It is the mourner who tells a joke or story, for example, or chooses to simply sit and cry.

"The point of shiva is not to distract the mourner from grief, but to support [him or her] in it," Lew says. "Your presence is what heals at shiva. This is the most important aspect: Be present and listen."

Most modern shivas, Lew admits, are "just sort of extended cocktail parties" where hosting visitors distract mourners from their true emotions. But even then, "there's something wonderful about the community gathering around somebody in their moment of grief and shock," he says.

The duty of comforting mourners has been ingrained in the Jewish consciousness through repetition in religious writings and through thousands of years of practice, according to "The Book of Jewish Knowledge." "The Sages exhorted the kindhearted: `The Holy One, blessed be He, comforted those who mourned, as it is written (in Genesis 25:11): "And it came to pass after the death of Abraham, that God blessed Isaac his son." Therefore, do likewise: comfort those who mourn.'"

Rabbis say they have seen mourners benefit from that comfort, time and time again.

"I think those who go through the shiva have an easier time facing the future," says Rabbi Gerald Raiskin of Reform Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame. "Those who rush out immediately after the death have not had enough time to think through their grief or enough chance to mourn. It's delayed mourning — sometimes delayed forever."

For Weinreb, the communal embrace that enveloped her in her most intense grief proved healing.

"I didn't have to go to a grief counselor because all [my feelings] came out," she says, "and there's no better place for it to come out than among the people who've known you best all these years."

Although most American Jews are not fully observant, a recent survey of rabbis conducted by the Jewish Funeral Directors of America found that a majority turn to tradition when facing the death of a loved one.

The burial and mourning rites are valuable to Jewish mourners because they "respond to the profound effect that death has on the living," JFDA president Mark Weissman said in response to the survey. "Faith may not take away our heartache, but following the traditions honoring and remembering the dead can help people manage this anguish better."

Orthodox rabbis, not surprisingly, cited the largest proportion of congregants — 84 percent — who observe shiva. Seventy-two percent of Conservative congregants do the same, according to their rabbis. And 64 percent of Reform congregants observe the ritual. The survey did not explore the extent to which specific shiva rites are observed.

Ron Reisberg followed shiva rites to the letter when his mother died three years ago at 80. In his time of emotional tumult, he found the structure of the ritual immensely helpful.

"I can't imagine doing it any other way," says the 43-year-old Berkeley resident, who was raised Reform but became Orthodox at age 18. "The fact that there are perimeters, rituals to perform, holds you in the grief, but not in an unhealthy way."

When shiva ended, Reisberg proceeded to shloshim, the 30 days following burial that constitute the full mourning period for those not grieving for parents. During that period, mourners' activities are less restricted than during shiva, though they do not attend weddings, musical events or dances. Generally, they refrain from shaving or cutting their hair.

If a parent has died, as Reisberg's did, the period of mourning is a year. Following the end of shloshim, the mourner recites Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, three time daily, every day, for 11 months. On the first anniversary of the death, and each year thereafter, the mourner lights a yahrzeit candle in memory of the loved one.

Even those with little understanding of Jewish death-related rituals often turn to these traditions in times of grief.

"Often it's in respect of parents and grandparents, since many come from Europe, where traditions were followed quite closely," notes Gene Kaufman, executive director of Sinai Memorial Chapel in San Francisco.

Though Jewish burial and mourning rituals have evolved in practice and symbolism since ancient times, they continue to focus mourners on the reality of their loss. Mourners shovel earth onto the caskets holding their loved ones. The deceased are buried not in ornate silk-lined coffins, but plain wooden boxes.

Traditionally, no flowers cover the coffin or decorate the home or funeral parlor — and no open caskets or pompous processionals are permitted.

"And there's no gussying somebody up and pretending they're not dead. They are," Lew adds. "We're not pretending that they're still alive and need a big padded vehicle to ride in."

Facing the reality of the loved one's death, rabbis say, does not diminish mourners' relationship to them. But it does help survivors move from mourning to living.

"Mourning laws are so incredibly evolved and work so perfectly to accomplish what needs to be accomplished," Lew says. "It makes me very proud of Jewish tradition."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.