Grief Rituals

When someone close to you like a parent, grandparent, spouse, life-partner, child, sibling or best friend passes away there are specific grief rituals within Judaism which are universal and effective.  It is customary to bury the dead as soon after the death as possible.  There is no open casket at the funeral, but the family will view the body in private to say goodbye before the funeral service.

The ritual of Shiva is one of my favorites to share. This tradition designates a time and space to mourn that is filled with the love and support of your community.   Traditionally, the mourning family is not supposed to leave their house. The shiva, then, the community brings evening prayers and services to the family in their home.

Without the religious prayers, the following shiva rituals could be adopted by people regardless of faith background for a comforting ritual during a difficult period.

Shiva lasts for the seven day period following the funeral, burial and reception.  However, even doing this ritual just once within the week following the burial is transformational.  It brings in family and friends for extra support and can be life affirming.

Mourners are not expected to be hosts.  The custom is for the close relatives of the deceased to stay at home. They do not dress nicely, put on make-up or shave.  Friends and extended family will customarily visit the bereft at their home.  When you pay a shiva call, you bring food for the family to eat.  Usually casseroles or things that are easy to freeze and reheat are best.  This is so that the family does not have to cook during their period of mourning.

At a shiva, bring food to the kitchen and set it up if need be.  You may want to label your dish so the grieving know it is from you and can return it to you.

Mourners need friends and family around to support them. You may take a seat near them, put your arm around them, offer a hug, or just say you are sorry.  There is no need to try to cheer them up or distract them. Shiva is meant to give mourners an opportunity to sit quietly with friends, or to speak of their loss.  Any words or tears should not be avoided or suppressed.  Inevitably you will want to talk to friends, and it may feel like a social event, but the focus should remain on comforting the mourners.

The month following the death of this loved one remains a sacred time for the mourner: the Shloshim period.  Shloshim refers to being “excused.”  The community at large excuses the mourner from having to do all of the normal things they would expect from the individual.  This may mean that one may miss a meeting or refrain from doing as much volunteer work.  Perhaps the mourner has a lighter work load that month.  One is excused because he or she is re-entering society after dealing with a profound loss.  No one expects such a person to act normally.

One year after the passing, the grave stone is “unveiled.”  Usually there is a short prayer service at the sight of the tombstone.  The close family will gather there with extended family or close friends who would be a comfort, or be comforted by getting together.  There might be a few words said by loved ones, or songs sung.  After the unveiling, the group heads to the home of one of the close family members for reception. Again, it may feel like a party, but there is special consideration for the reason for the gathering.

Finally, there is the Yartzeit ritual.  Yartzeit means “year time” and refers to the fact that each person will inevitably have their time to meet the here after.  At the one year anniversary of the persons death, and forever after on that specific date, a special memorial candle that burns 24 hours is lit in the individual’s honor.  It is a way to acknowledge his or her memory and give those of us left on earth a way to express that this day is special.    The traditional saying is: “may your memory be a blessing.”

Photo Above: “Garden of Memories” Yarzeit Memorial Candle Holder