Things I have Learned About Grief from Jewish Mourning Traditions

It used to be that when I’d drive past a cemetery and if I saw a person sitting by a grave, or standing over a grave, my heart would sink, but I didn’t really get it. What was their story? What were they thinking? Why were they drawn to a plot of land with stones, when the soul of the person was not in that ground?

I get it now. I am that person. I have a story. There’s a piece of granite in a countryside cemetery that has our son’s name etched in it, proclaiming that he was. He existed. He was born. He lived. He was here. He was loved and cherished. He was and will always be our boy.

Throughout this grief journey, there have been countless times where I have almost wished I were Jewish. I think, in general, our western society has absolutely no idea what to do with grief. Jewish tradition truly has this grief thing down. In Jewish tradition, they tear their garment to recognize the loss, that our hearts are torn. It also symbolizes that our body is only a garment that our soul wears.  In death we are stripped of our earthly body and take on our eternal body. The garment is torn, but the soul of the person remains. I only learned of this tradition, months after Mikail’s death, but the interesting thing is, that after Mikail’s funeral, when we were in the privacy of our bedroom, Jason tore the shirt he was wearing from his body; buttons flying. It was almost instinctive. When we buried Mikail’s remains, Jason tore a sleeve off the same shirt and buried it with him. Perhaps there is something instinctively within us to have that feeling of needing to tear the garment we are wearing.

Jewish tradition continues immediately after the funeral: During the initial week after death the immediate family stays home while friends and family come and visit and sit shiva with the mourners. I remember the dear family and friends who came to sit shiva with us the day after the funeral. There were no obligations. When we felt like talking, we talked. When we needed to cry, we cried. When we shared funny memories, we laughed. When we needed space, we took the time for that space. This lasted a day, I think. One day. To have seven days like this would have been amazing, but our world doesn’t function like this. In fact it seems that life goes on immediately following the funeral. We were shocked to find that Jason only got 3 bereavement days from work. Three days of bereavement following the death of your son? Seems ludicrous, doesn’t it? Of course he took holidays for a couple of weeks, but two weeks away from work doesn’t even cover the months of shock we were going to have to deal with, and as I am learning more about grief, this has lasting consequences. Grief can be put on hold, but it eventually has to be dealt with.

Following shiva there is shloshim, which translates to mean thirty. The thirty days following the burial. During this time all ‘extras’ besides mourning, are put on hold. Time is actually taken to help come to grips with the loss. Oh how I wish shloshim was something our society acknowledges. We are rushed back into the busy life we had before the loss, and expected to go on as though nothing ever happened.  I believe this rushing of grief and mourning causes more problems in the long term.

Another tradition that I didn’t know was Jewish, until recently, is bringing stones to place at the grave. It is said that in ancient times, tomb stones weren’t always possible, so these monuments of stone grew as loved ones visited the grave and left a stone. We started doing this when Olivia would grow quiet and sad during a fun outing, family event, or we were somewhere she thought Mikail would love. She now picks one stone to commemorate the occasion and then after she has a few collected from various occasions, we bring the stones to his grave.

Isaiah 40:6-7 states, All flesh is grass, and all its beauty like the flower of the field; grass withers and flowers fade.’  Rocks are forever. They do not wither and die and I feel they serve as a beautiful metaphor in regards to the fact that memories last forever.

I have learned so much and have come to much healing thanks to some of the Jewish mourning traditions. What a blessing.
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