A Jewish Perspective on Healthy Mourning
One of the most difficult things we face in this life is losing someone we love. When disease, accident, or violence claims the life of one who means so much to us, it is tempting to surrender to despair. Grief is a process that allows us to express the pain and sorrow we rightly feel after loss.
Jesus Himself wept when Lazarus died, even though He restored His friend to life shortly after (John 11:35). While physical death is temporary for those who trust in Jesus, the separation is painful for those the deceased leaves behind. Jewish mourning rituals teach valuable lessons on how to grapple with loss.
Remembrance is a key value in Jewish culture. Author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said, “I marvel at the resilience of the Jewish people. Their best characteristic is their desire to remember. No other people has such an obsession with memory.” Whether for personal suffering, such as losing a parent, or collective trauma, such as the Holocaust, remembrance is a duty.
One practical way that Jewish people remember deceased loved ones is by lighting a candle on the anniversary of their death. These candles are called yahrzeit candles, from the Yiddish word for “anniversary.” The burning light symbolizes immortality. This notion comes from Proverbs 20:27, which some see as connecting a flame with a person’s soul: “The spirit of man is the lamp of the Lord, searching all the innermost parts of his being.” Thus, lighting a candle communicates that, although the person in question has died, their soul goes on.
Jewish mourning is also communal, incorporating the immediate family as well as friends and neighbors. Following the burial, the deceased’s parents, children, spouse, and siblings gather for seven days in a period of mourning known as shivah (from the Hebrew word for “seven.”)
During this time, the mourners sit on the floor or low stools and abstain from normal activities such as work, bathing, and changing clothes, depending on one’s interpretation of observance. Neighbors and others who knew the deceased are welcome to visit, bring food, offer their condolences, and share memories. These practices allow everyone an opportunity to express their grief and ensure that one does not mourn in isolation.
Loneliness often accompanies grief. One of the challenges of losing a loved one is figuring out what life looks like without that person’s presence and encouragement. Moreover, as we walk through the grieving process, we may feel as though our painful experience isolates us from others around us.
Isolation, however, risks leaving us stranded in our sorrow—allowing it to fester into despair. Observing shivah can help prevent sinking into such depths because of the community’s encouragement and support of the bereaved. As Jewish tradition teaches, mourning with others helps us support one another and know that we are not alone in our grief. Likewise, Paul himself taught us to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15).
Finally, mourning in Jewish culture is worshipful. For eleven months after burial, the deceased’s immediate family recite the Mourner’s Kaddish prayer daily. While this is often known as a prayer for the dead, forms of it are said on numerous other occasions. This prayer does not even mention death or loss; rather, it is a prayer of praise.
The Mourner’s Kaddish opens with “Magnified and sanctified may God’s great Name be throughout the world which He has created according to His will” and continues in a worshipful tone.  To recite this prayer is to declare that even a loss as heavy as that of a close family member does not negate one’s faith. It is a bold statement of trust in God’s character and faithfulness.
Praising God in the midst of tragedy does not mean downplaying what has happened or suppressing our emotions. We can and should be honest with God about how we feel, for expressing grief is essential to healing. Worshiping even in our sorrow means affirming God’s goodness, agreeing that He is “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth” (Exodus 34:6).
We do not know why God allows horrible things to happen, such as terrorist attacks, mass shootings, and deadly floods. Nevertheless, we know that God is good and does not change (Malachi 3:6). By making praise part of our grieving—singing worship songs or praying certain psalms, for instance—we demonstrate that we can maintain faith in the midst of suffering.
These principles—memory, community, and worship—are valuable in helping us mourn in a healthy way. Practicing them may take many forms, such as lighting a candle, journaling, or reading worshipful psalms. Worshiping, giving thanks to God despite not understanding the “why,” allows us to grieve and express our pain and despair without succumbing to it.
 Elie Wiesel, (1980), quoted in Diana Cohen Reis, “The Immigration of Jews from France to Montréal: An Investigation of the Changes in a Complex Jewish Identity” (master’s thesis, University of Ottawa, 2008), iii.
 Barry A. Budoff, trans., A Messianic Jewish Siddur for Shabbat (Skokie, IL: Devar Emet Messianic Publications, 2011), 109.