What is Grief

Excerpted with permission from 'More than a Tear, A Shiva Guide for Mourners and Consolers' by Yigal Segal.

Before we explore the origin of Shiva, we need to clarify what happens to a mourner after the death and burial of a loved one.  When we lose someone close to us, we enter a world of grief and mourning. Let's define these two terms. Webster's Dictionary defines grief as "intense emotional suffering caused by loss, disaster, misfortune, etc.; acute sorrow; deep sadness." Mourning is defined as "the actions or feelings of someone who mourns; specifically, the expression of grief at someone's death. " Mourning is more closely associated with death. Grief, in contrast, can be a response to many different losses, such as the loss of one's job or a decline in one's health. We tend to separate the grief over a loved one's death from these other circumstances, but in essence, they all represent a form of loss.

Grief is a painful process which Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, author of the classic On Death and Dying, divided into five stages: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. Hundreds of books have been written about these stages, among the most accepted approaches to grief. An essential point in Kubler-Ross's theory is that no two people experience these five stages in precisely the same way. For some, denial can take minutes; for others, decades. The fact that grieving has no fixed timetable can be very frustrating for those surrounding the mourner.

Jewish tradition dictates that the official mourning period following a parent's death is one year (or, more precisely, twelve lunar months). In contrast, the official mourning period following the death of a sibling, child or spouse is one lunar month. In part, this contrast reminds us that grieving is a process. Each person experiences that process differently. For some, any loss elicits the same response; for others, the loss of a particular relative triggers a particular response. Some mourners heal quickly; others are sure their grief will never end.

A friend of mine had a sister, with whom he was not particularly close, who unfortunately was diagnosed with terminal cancer. During the eight months of her illness, and after her death, he was in a deep depression, unable to cope with his loss. His wife just couldn't understand his intense grief. "It's very sad that she got sick and passed away," she would tell him, "but you weren't close to her when she was alive. Why are you still grieving for here?" From his wife's perspective, it was over and done with; from his, he was in the middle of a process with no end in sight.

I recently came across a book entitled When There Are No Words by Charlie Walton. The loss Charlie and his family endured was horrific. Two of his sons, along with their close friend, died from carbon monoxide poisoning while sitting in their car. Charlie writes about the 3:25 AM knock at the door.  He paints a vivid picture of the hours following the accident. He speaks of trying to make himself cry. Like many others, Charlie was able to cry on happy occasions or maybe even during a tearjerker movie, but now, after the greatest calamity anyone could imagine, he just couldn't cry.  Guilt stricken, he tried to shed tears, but they just wouldn't come. He eventually learned a lesson from this, a lesson that we all need to learn: Your natural response to a grief is the right response for you. It doesn't matter what you or others expect. It doesn't matter what conventional wisdom dictates. The way you grieve is the way you need to grieve.

One psychologist writes that grief counseling is a waste of time and money. Since everyone has their own unique way of grieving, it is impossible for a counselor to pinpoint the specifics of that person's grief, let alone recommend how to cope with it. This insight is crucial if we are to understand a mourner's mindset. Everyone grieves differently, no matter what circumstances cause the grief.

Rabbi Maurice Lamm is renowned for his groundbreaking book,The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning (Jonathan David Publishers, 1969), a must for any Jew mourning for a loved one. Soon after my father passed away, I was surprised to learn from a close friend that Rabbi Lamm had written a second book on the subject: Consolation(Jewish Publication Society, 2005). In this masterful work, Rabbi Lamm explores a myriad of issues connected to grief and mourning. He writes about the process of mourning, how we deal with the death of a close relative as time goes by. At one point, he describes what happens to a mourner before reaching grief's fifth and final stage: acceptance. He explains that before we are able to redefine our relationship with the deceased, "we experience an uncommon confusion -- not necessarily delirium or chaos or even bewilderment but rather dislocation, a form of discontinuity. We sense that something is out of sync, but we cannot quite decode it....During our loved one's lifetime, we were safe within a circumference of images and memories ---the departed and the family and our friends ---and now this world is simply not the same. We are disoriented."

Disorientation is what grief is all about.  We are evicted from our normal routine, our normal lives.  The person for whom we grieve was part of a stable picture in a frame that included us, and now that frame is broken. The picture is torn, and we struggle to deal with the new reality.

More Than A Tear

More information about Yigal Segal and his book'More than a Tear, A Shiva Guide for Mourners and Consolers' is available at http://www.guidetoshiva.com/