Memorial Service at Auschwitz

People who suffer serious setbacks and loss should take time to recover, absorb it, and come to acceptance, rather than stuff the pain, or deny it.  Otherwise, the pain can fester, get worse, become permanent, affect other parts of your life, and come out at times that are inconvenient and damaging to you.

It can take over, and become inseparable from the rest of you.  How do you recover from loss before that happens?

Everyone experiences the death of a loved one.  For most people, it’s the hardest loss to accept. Civilizations have developed different ways to recover from loss that can be found in their ways of accepting a death.

In this column, “mourner” refers to a person dealing with any kind of loss, not just death.  People often use similar recovery tools, regardless of what kind of loss it is.

Examining how Jews recover from loss — so similar to the principles of modern grief counseling — might suggest new strategies and tools that non-Jews as well as Jews can create for their individual personalities, situations, and needs.

Recovering and Moving from Victim to Survivor

Funerals help mourners recover from loss by making the reality and finality undeniable, the first step toward acceptance.

Experience has taught Jews to survive loss

The Jewish people have been forced to recover from loss so often through the centuries that they’ve developed customs and rituals to help them that remarkably similar to the principles of modern grief counseling.

Studying them, and the principles behind them – adapting them to your personality, community, situation, and needs — might lead you to practices and tools that will help you recover.  Adopting them unchanged requires a Jewish community.

Jewish law and custom provide community support in the early stages of numbness, confused thinking, and jumbled emotion, and a year of customs, in diminishing intensity, to recover one’s usual feelings, counteract the natural tendency to isolate, and move in stages from shock, anger, depression, and denial to acceptance.

We Recover in Stages, Modern Experts Say

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler, in their classic work The Five Stages of Griefidentify denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance as the steps people go through to recover from loss.

Kubler-Ross’s works, On Death and Dying and On Grief and Grieving, plus The Five Stages… with Kessler, are the basis of modern grief counseling.

On www,, Kessler writes that the five stages were never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages. They are responses that many people have, but there is no typical response because there is no typical loss.

“Our grief is as individual as our lives,” Kessler says.

“The five stages [are]…tools to help us frame and identify what we may be feeling. But they are not stops on some linear timeline in grief. Not everyone goes through all of them or in a prescribed order. Our hope is that. with these stages, comes the knowledge of grief ’s terrain, making us better equipped to cope with life and loss,” Kessler says.

Time is your friend, I’ve found in my experience.  At first, all the feelings come intensely, in a jumble, in waves.  With time, the waves get farther apart, gentler, and less overwhelming.  The feelings change more slowly and less chaotically, so you can deal with them one at a time.

Jews Always Knew People Recover in Stages

For 2,000 years, Jewish mourning rituals have recognized the value of time, and encouraged the five stages. Jewish law and custom prescribe rituals of diminishing intensity for mourners in the first 24 hours, the burial, the first week, first month, first 11 months, first anniversary, and subsequent anniversaries of the loss.

Note how peer and community support are central to the way Jews recover from loss.

Here are some Jewish traditions most helpful to me when I must recover from loss:

Sitting Shiva

“Sitting Shiva“:  The First Days After a Loss

  1. In the days immediately following the burial or any loss, an ancient custom encourages peer support. “Sitting shiva” is an open house at the mourner’s home or a close friend or family member’s.  Family and friends send in food, come and go, and offer support.
  2. The mourners only sit on small, hard chairs (provided by the funeral home), and cover all the mirrors in the house to keep them focused.
  3.  Visitors at a shiva are supposed to pick up cues from the mourner about whether to talk, what about, and in what spirit.  Sometimes mourners need to talk, and hear other people talk, about the loss directly.  Other times, mourners need to talk about anything else 
  4. Shiva houses can be happy or sad, or changeable, depending on the nature of the loss and the needs of the mourner.
  5. There is a morning (when possible) and evening prayer service with a quorum of at least 10 adults (a minyan) every day at the shiva house, so the mourner can say Kaddish at home. A request to help a mourner make a quorum is practically a command.
  6. When Sabbath comes during shiva, the home ritual must be interrupted.  Mourning on Sabbath is against Jewish law, but the real reason is to get the mourner out into the larger community, stand with the other mournner’s for the mourner’s prayer, and receive consolation from people outside the immediate circle, who might not already know, who might want to say a kind word.
  7.  The legal requirement of seven days of shiva (shiva is Hebrew for seven) is often shortened, but cannot be extended.  A week of shiva can be exhausting, and many mourners are ready to go back to their normal lives sooner. But you must end shiva after a week, and not get stuck in that early stage of mourning.  That’s not the way to recover from loss.

Would it help you recover if your friends and neighbors took care of your meals and keep you company for a few days?

Mourning Is for the Survivors

Mourning rituals are for the living, not the dead, or even to please God, in Jewish life.  So many time-related customs that used to be laws have become adjustable.

The rule requiring burial within 24 hours is often extended today to accommodate people who must travel distances to get to a funeral.

Though shiva is often shortened, and burial is often extended beyond 24 hours, many Jews still go to great inconvenience to say the mourner’s prayer (Kaddish) three times a day for the first month, sometimes the first 11 months,  in the presence of a quorum (minyan) of 10 adults.

Orthodox synagogues have a minyan every morning and late afternoon, where a mourner can say Kaddish.  The mourner’s Kaddish concludes every Jewish worship service.

Yahrtzeit (Memorial) Candle

On the first anniversary of a death (yahrtzeit), the gravestone is unveiled at a graveside ceremony. Every year after that, yahrtzeit is observed at home by burning a special candle.

Your synagogue will announce the loved one’s name along with the other people who died or have yarhtzeit that Sabbath, and invite you to rise with the mourners for Kaddish.

Would something to mark the anniversary help you recover from loss?

The Mourner’s Prayer (Kaddish)

The Kaddish prayer is an affirmation of individual faith and God’s greatness that does not mention death. It is said at the end of every worship service.

The mourner’s Kaddish must be said in the presence of a quorum (minyan) of 10 adults.  Grieving in isolation is not allowed, but being alone when you need to be is OK. The minyan is another form of community support.

Reform temples have everyone stand for Kaddish in memory of Hitler’s victims. , Orthodox and Conservative Jews maintain the old custom of having only the mourners stand.

Standing and being recognized as a mourner is part of the ‘grief work’ that helps a person recover from loss, an Orthodox rabbi explained to me.  That was the first time I ever heard the expression “grief work.”  What does it suggest to you?

What kind of grief work and tools help you recover from loss?


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