What Christians can learn from Jews about grief

The arduous process of returning to the real world after the one-year anniversary of Dad’s death revealed something poignant to me about grieving: that self-care is just as important as preserving memory. The rest of the world does not care that you’re grieving. Bills still need to be paid, work still needs to get done. I’ve learned that burying grief under mundane tasks only intensifies it when the memories do come back, and they will: for me they hit hardest when Billy Joel comes on the radio, and that one time I saw a man carrying a little girl on his shoulders into Starbucks – a little girl with similar blonde curls I once had. It could have been a scene out of my own childhood.

That hurt. It hurt a lot. There is something to be said about setting aside designated time just to be sad and let yourself despair for a bit. It’s what Judaism calls “sitting shiva,” in which friends and relatives take care of all the household stuff – cooking, cleaning – while you, the bereaved, sit in that carved-out space and let yourself feel whatever you need to feel. On the one-year mark, the yahrzeit, you light a candle of remembrance that burns for twenty-four hours.

And then you return to the real world.

My experience with death in Christian circles has been somewhat different, to say the least. While sad for those left behind, the bigger picture is that death is a big Welcome Home party; it’s nothing to be afraid of, because in the end we’ll be with Jesus. In that context, death is really something to celebrate, not mourn. Sitting shiva is one piece of Judaism I think Christianity could really benefit from. For those who are deeply hurting, we need to remember that death can be a ugly, brutal thing.

It feels like a very tall order to believe wholeheartedly in an eternal dwelling place that is equally accessible as the deceased – you can’t see it, touch it, or experience it in any tangible way. If there’s a strong emphasis on the dead being “better off” some place else, rather than here with us, it does sort of make grief seem…pointless?

I haven’t been to many funerals, but it bothers me when the service is turned into a celebration of the dead person going to their “real home.” Funerals aren’t really for the dead, but for the living, and this doesn’t do much for the people who still need to find a way to function without their loved one in their lives anymore.

Well, maybe heaven is comforting for some people, but I’d rather just have my dad back in this life.

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3 thoughts on “What Christians can learn from Jews about grief

  1. Crystal says:

    I’d like to share something from my New Zealand culture as it relates to grief. Unlike us Pakeha (whites) the Maoris (our indigenous people) have many beautiful ceremonies, not the least of which is tangihanga, or mourning for the dead. I don’t know everything there is to know about it but what I do know is that the Maoris allow themselves to grieve. They don’t bury the grief under wraps. Among other things they do in the tangihanga, they weep and they remember their loved one, now passed on, for three days straight, at their marae* (“a communal or sacred place that serves religious and social purposes in Polynesian societies”) – Quote taken from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marae.

    After their grieving period has passed they move on. Whereas we Westerners would just hold a funeral and struggle to get back to life afterwards. Here’s an important quotation from one source about tangihanga:

    “Tangihanga are important healing processes for Māori, and generally last for around three days. Traditionally this would have been longer, depending on the status of the deceased and the time needed for loved ones from afar to attend. Open grieving and outpouring of emotion is encouraged. ‘Māori discourage people from concealing their emotions. It is regarded as therapeutic for all who participate to feel comfortable expressing their grief openly.’1”

    Quote taken from http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/tangihanga-death-customs/page-5

    Personally I feel such rituals are something we could benefit from. We need to be open about our pain when we lose loved ones, because it’s as if a piece of our hearts was taken with them when they died.

    Here’s more about the tangi ritual:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tangihanga

    http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/tangihanga-death-customs/page-1

    http://www.seasons.com.au/maori/a-maori-funeral/

    *and an article about marae:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marae

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  2. My Soul Found Rest says:

    Thank you. This week is the two-week anniversary of my dad’s death, and while I’m glad he’s sure a lot happier in heaven than I am on earth, I miss him dearly. I had just started grad school at the time and I remember bringing all my homework home with me so I could work on it (two days after the funeral!) because otherwise I would fall behind, and feeling so paralyzed during the following weeks that the sweetest thing anyone did for me afterward was coming over for a few hours and cleaning my house and baking dozens of muffins so I would have weeks and weeks’ worth of breakfasts. I wish we had sat shiva. I think it would have helped. Instead, I just shoved all the grief down because I didn’t have time to deal with it and got hit with a massive wave of depression over Christmas break. I was pretty close to trying to get some counseling because I could tell my emotional health had taken a real nosedive. Thankfully I pulled out of it after a while… but it was such a dark time.

    I think as Christians we either take two courses to our grief–everything is yippy skippy immediately afterward (I mean, a month max, come on, it’s just your family dying, no biggie, right?) or we drown ourselves in puddles of grief for years to the point where it’s really unhealthy emotionally. Please let’s find a middle ground for everyone’s health and (I use the term advisedly) sanity.

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