Rabbi Brian on Mourning
What follows is a collection of the advice that I often give to people when they are facing a loss.
Take what you like and leave the rest. I hope you find comfort.
SCREAM! cry. Wail. Weep.
Be sad. Very sad. Your darling has been taken from you and you have to stay here. Your pain is in direct proportion to how much you love. But, alas knowing this gives little solace.
To be honest, there is little solace. And, there is no hiding from the pain that you are in.
There is no one correct way to mourn. Really. Honest. There isn’t. Please, please, please do not think that you ought to do anything other than what feels appropriate to you.
Don’t worry about what you “OUGHT” to be doing. (In fact, Judaism permits mourners to violate and fail to keep most every commandment.)
Do not try to do “this” or “that” to take care of other people. Take care of yourself. Give yourself the permission to mourn as it feels appropriate to you. This advice will be repeated at the end of this page.
When you are mourning, emotions and memories come in waves. They will come and leave on their own accord. You cannot control waves in the ocean; neither can you control emotions or memories when you are mourning.
At times, emotions will be overwhelming and take you without warning. You won’t be done with them until they are done. You may try to delude yourself that you are in control of them, but you’re not. It’s the same with memories. Memories you didn’t even know you had may arrive seemingly from nowhere; and, again like waves, you are not in control of them.
These waves will come and go on their own course of time, heavier and harder now and lighter in the future; but for today, you are not to look to be anywhere but where you are.
As people dislike dealing with other people in pain, mourners will be consoled. Or, better put, people will often try to console mourners. Of course, it’s an impossible thing to do, right? You can’t really say anything. Consequently, the intended comfort will, often, miss the mark. Let’s think about it… Even under the best circumstances, kind words and deeds cannot take away the feelings of pain and loss that mourners face. Words intended to comfort don’t work. What then happens, when the first bit of would-be comfort doesn’t help, the would-be comforter will usually make a second effort to comfort which also doesn’t help – this often leaves both feeling worse. Here’s my suggestion to mourners: maintain a list of the 5 least comforting things you hear while you are mourning. My rationale is that if you make it part of a game while you listen to some ridiculous things that are supposed to pass for comfort it might take a bit of the sting out.
Walk Around the Block
Rituals are to move us from one place to another — to help our spirits know that what has happened is real and to help our sense of self – understand the new identity that we are called to in light of our loss (from companion to the one left behind). Many people underestimate the power of rituals. Ripping your clothing, covering mirrors so you don’t see how you look, and others are all good rituals. Ask around, people have great ideas to share.
Rituals help us move in our sense of identity.
Here is one that I always suggest: after a week of mourning (or a week after the death), take a walk around the block either by yourself or with loved ones. This ritual is ancient and unbelievably effective. The mourning doesn’t end with the walk around the block, but something shifts.
In the movie Fight Club, one of the main characters talks about having had a near life experience. It is after having a brush with death that life and the quality of life shifts. I heard Rabbi Arthur talk about it as the moment when you are driving and you almost get hit and you wake up to the fact that you are driving – that somehow you had drifted into a somewhat dreamlike state of consciousness. Facing death knocks us off of auto-pilot and that consciousness, paradigm shift is often quite jolting – and, as with many paradigm shifts, we can feel shame, like we have wasted time, or as though we are in a dream not certain that when we were awake, that was the dream. This realization can feel like quite a mind-trip.
Mind / Body
The stress of loss does amazing things on our psyches. Your body might react in ways you are not used
You are entering a new chapter of your life when a major figure of your life dies. My friend Rabbi Arthur Rosenberg says it is like starting a new chapter of a book. You don’t know what is going to happen – it’s a new chapter. Some old characters from previous chapters might start acting differently. Some new characters might be introduced.
But, the same way you wouldn’t pretend to know what will happen when a new chapter of a book starts, you
It is a game-changer to lose your _(dad)_. [I’m putting dad here, but substitute as need be.] My friend David M. puts it like this, “No matter how psychologically deft you are or if you are a freaking Jedi Zen emotional master, when you face the loss of your dad, you aren’t a freaking Jedi Zen emotional master… nah, you are 10 years old and you just want your daddy – that man who is your original role-model, the real life
When we first are faced with death, it is just that – it is right in front of our face. We cannot see much else. It is at the forefront of everything.
Over time, it moves about a foot away.
Still in the forefront, still smack centered, but a little moved back and we start to see some of the other things in our lives… peripherally.
Then, move time, and it moved backs even further.
And, then, gradually, it becomes one of the many things we see.
Do not criticize yourself for being single focused until enough time has passed.
Do not make any major life decisions until the death is no longer the single focus of your life.
Grief is love with no place to go.
Someone else just emailed me about mourning, explaining that what is lost is the WITNESS to our own lives. That, of course, we exist outside of other people, but they witness us and give us feedback… and in the absence of them – when they die – we get lost a little. That makes good sense to me. Indeed. The loss of witnesses.
You can tell when you are done crying. It is when you realize you have run out of tears.
All mourning is idiosyncratic — that is, you will mourn differently than you expect.
Give yourself the permission to mourn as it feels appropriate to you.
A great article by Frank Ostasesk about mourning.