November 22, 2017

Mourning and Grieving in Community

Lamentations of Jeremiah, Chagall

By Chaplain Mike

Note: The following is a transcript of a talk I gave to our hospice team a few years ago. As I promised earlier this week, we will be having several posts on the subject of grief and caring for the bereaved in the next short while.

This particular piece shows one of the reasons why American evangelicals (broadly speaking) don’t often deal well with helping those who lose loved ones—we are an a-traditional people. We have not developed community traditions that we practice in disciplined ways that obligate us to be with the bereft and minister to them over the long haul. We have a short-term fix mentality instead. For us, it is about getting on with our lives. Anything less is not “productive.”

Furthermore, we have an individualistic mindset. If a grieving person needs help, he or she should seek out personal counseling, or perhaps a support group of other individuals who can meet for a period of time and “deal with” their issues. It’s about getting “fixed.”

Other communities of faith are wiser than this. Allow me to introduce you to one today.

I’ve been involved in a lot of funerals lately. It’s got me thinking about how we in our culture deal with death, funeral rites and the grieving process, especially as interpreted in the Protestant Christian community.

Lauren Winner is an author who converted to the Christian faith from Orthodox Judaism. In her book, Mudhouse Sabbath: An Invitation to a Life of Spiritual Discipline, she writes eloquently about things she misses from her Jewish traditions, and what we might learn from them. One chapter deals with avelut, or mourning. Listen as she critiques some weaknesses in our typical approach in the Christian churches:

What churches often do less well is grieve. We lack a ritual for the long and tiring process that is sorrow and loss. A friend of mine whose husband recently died put it like this: “For about two weeks the church was really the church—really awesomely, wonderfully the church. Everyone came to the house, baked casseroles, carried Kleenex. But then the two weeks ended, and so did the consolation calls.” While you the mourner are still bawling your eyes out and slamming fists into the wall, everyone else, understandably, forgets and goes back to their normal lives and you find, after all those crowds of people, that you are left alone. You are without the church, and without a church vocab-ulary for what happens to the living after the dead are dead.

In contrast to this short-term fix mentality, Winner points us to the way Orthodox Jews deal with grief.

  • First, she notes that, “Judaism understands mourning as a discipline, one in which the mourner is not only allowed, but expected to be engaged.”
  • Second, she observes that grief is not viewed as a merely private matter: “Rather than asking the mourner to paper over his grief, the Jewish community supports him in mourning.”
  • Third, she tells us how the Jews understand that grief is a process that covers an extended period of time. She writes, “Jewish bereavement marks the days, and then the months, and then all the years after a death.”

Here’s how it all works:

Abraham Mourns Sarah, Chagall

The first period of time marked by the Jews in grieving is called aninut, which means “burial.” This is the space between the death and the burial. Rabbis say that the work of comforting the bereaved cannot begin during this time because, in a sense, the death is still happening; the mourners border on death themselves as they face the acute reality of loss. During aninut, mourners are exempt from other requirements of the Jewish law but are expected to devote themselves wholly to the one commandment of preparing the dead for burial.

The second period of time is called shiva, which means “seven.” This marks the first week after the burial. This tradition originates in the Book of Job, where it says that Job’s friends came to him in his grief and sat down with him for seven days and nights. And so the Jews speak of “sitting shiva” with someone. During these seven days, people fill the mourner’s house, bringing food and surrounding the bereaved one with their presence. Winner writes, “The mourner who wants to be alone to weep in his cups alone is out of luck. On those days when he desires nothing more than to crawl back under the covers and shut out everything that breathes and has three dimensions, people pack into his home.” On the last day of shiva, friends take the grieving one by the arm and escort him out of the house and walk with him around the block, symbolizing reentry into society.

The third season of mourning comprises a month, and is called shloshim (“thirty”). Now the mourner begins to return to work and normal routines, but avoids parties and other social events. The Talmud divides the thirty days into four weeks, marked by their Sabbaths. On the first Sabbath, mourners attend synagogue, but wait outside during the “praise” portion of the service. When they enter, the congregation greets them with a liturgical expression of comfort. On the second Sabbath, mourners attend the entire service but do not sit in their usual seat, as if to symbo-lize their unsettledness. On the third Sabbath, they go to synagogue and sit in their usual seat, but leave immediately at the end of the service, avoiding the neighborly chit-chat that follows. On the fourth Sabbath, they fully participate.

The Tomb of Rachel, Chagall

After the thirty days comes one full year of mourning. The central act during this year is for the mourner to repeat a prayer called Kaddish twice a day, every day. Kaddish may not be prayed privately, but must be said at synagogue in the daily service in the midst of the worshiping community. This prayer is not an expression of mourning, but rather of praise, reminding the mourner that regardless of his vacillating feelings, God is real and faithful. Yahrtzeit, the time of one year, marks the anniversary of the death. Every year on that date, the mourner lights a memorial candle and stands in the synagogue to say Kaddish. Many add other special observances to mark this day and honor the departed.

These Jewish traditions reveal a deep understanding of the importance of…

  • time,
  • community,
  • spiritual discipline,
  • and respect for the human grieving process.

May we learn from their example as we seek to comfort the brokenhearted.

Comments

  1. i’m recently married, and this post kind of scares me. It scares me to think that at any moment, I could be without my wife in this life, and it scares me more to think that I wouldn’t have support like the kind described here to endure that loss.

    God grant me the support I need if I should have to face this!

  2. Working as pastoral care assistant in a long-term care centre, I find this very, very helpful! Thank you! Having lost my mother in May and four dear friends, just a little older than I, since August, I totally agree that the expectations of my community, with the exception of 2 or 3 close friends, is that we leave the past behind and move forward. Any emotions I might show obviously means that I’m still a soulish person instead of a more spiritual one. I’m so glad for the Holy Spirit who is my strength and comfort!

  3. Scott Miller says:

    Thanks for this posting!

  4. That is also the way my Reform congregation approaches mourning. I am coming up on the yartzeit memorial for my mother, the first. She died last November. I have been assisted in the process by the rituals of mourning even though my Mother was a Baptist.

    But I have to toss some praise to the Independent Baptist community that my mother’s husband belongs to. They’ve been very involved all along with him, before her death when she suffered through a long illness, immediately after her death, when we were all conglomerated in the house and now, as he’s approaching his 1 year anniversary and beginning to consider going courting, not forgetting my mother, but finding another partner to spend his days and nights with.

  5. Thanks for your post Chaplain Mike. The Orthodox Jewish perspective has proven to be helpful. I also find the Psalms instructive in times of sorrow. Many of the psalms are dedicated to lament, both as individuals and as a people, a lost art in the Evangelical community as well as in American society.

    Peace,

    Tim

  6. Thanks for sharing this. I never knew this about the Jewish tradition even though I’ve worked with grief/loss many times with folks. Even if we try to help people understand grieving as journey that can be framed with helpufl rituals, it still tends to be very private. Personal is one thing. Private another. Grief support groups help with this but to make this part of your faith community with rituals and disciplines and presence with those who are not currently going through a loss could help both the person and the community.

  7. Thank you for sharing. I find the ability to deal with grief the biggest need among evangelical churches and pastors. If I hear one more person tell me “Just trust God” or “God has a plan for your life”, I may hit them :(.

    For quite a while I have been looking for a book with information like you share above, or with general guidelines for historical ways of helping those grieving. I thought perhaps there might be a pastors handbook written before World War II that might be helpful. Any ideas would be appreciated.