How to Mourn Our Friends

In a CJ Interview, Rabbi Daniel Greyber discusses with MICHAEL SCHULSON what Jewish tradition can offer those mourning a friend

by Michael Schulson

Cemetary

Jewish law gives clear guidelines for how family members should mourn the deceased by sitting shivah, reciting the mourner’s Kaddish, and fulfilling other ritual requirements. But the tradition offers less guidance to grievers outside the deceased’s immediate family.

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The death of a childhood friend helped motivate Daniel Greyber to become a rabbi. Watching the long illness of Jay Rosen, Greyber later wrote, “forced me to confront the question of my life’s meaning at a young age,” and led him to develop a relationship with God. Jay died at the age of 24. Greyber entered rabbinical school the next year.

Jay’s death also introduced Greyber to a gap in the Jewish tradition that would puzzle him for years to come. Jewish law gives clear guidelines for how family members should mourn the deceased by sitting shivah, reciting the mourner’s Kaddish, and fulfilling other ritual requirements. But the tradition offers less guidance to grievers outside the deceased’s immediate family. “As just a friend and not a family member,” Greyber writes, “Jewish tradition seem[ed] not to allow for my sadness and grief.”

Rabbinical training did not give Greyber any easy solutions to this problem. Twelve years after Jay died, Greyber lost another close friend, again to cancer – and, again, he found himself unsure how to mourn. Where Jay’s death had helped make Greyber into a rabbi, the death of Greyber’s student and friend Joel Shickman threatened to drive Greyber out of the rabbinate. Deep in grief, he began to wonder how a good and loving God could have allowed Joel to pass away. Adding to this disorientation, Greyber felt betrayed by a tradition that seemed to offer him no guidance for mourning the loss of his friends.

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With time, Greyber emerged from his grief. Today, he is the rabbi of Beth El Synagogue in Durham, North Carolina, and the author of a new book, Faith Unravels: A Rabbi’s Struggle with Grief and God (Resource Publications; www.faithunravels.com). At its emotional core, Faith Unravels is a chronicle of the dizzying experience of grief, and of the ways in which it can both inspire and challenge faith. Recognizing the intense grief caused by the loss of a friend, Greyber also suggests ways to acknowledge and mourn that loss. His book offers, in other words, a response to the question that plagued Greyber for years: how should a friend mourn?

At his home in Durham, Greyber spoke recently about mourning, friendship and Jewish practice.

What is it about Jewish mourning traditions that can make grieving so difficult for close friends?

Judaism is acknowledged even by other traditions as having an especially wise set of mourning traditions. In a time when your life is up in the air, and there’s a lot of ambiguity and unclearness, the tradition says, “Here are what your obligations are, and here are what your obligations aren’t.” The tradition obligates seven relatives to follow its  prescribed path – the person who mourns for a mother, father, sister, brother, son, daughter, or spouse.

The challenge of grieving for a friend is that you have sustained a loss, but that loss doesn’t fall within the circle of those seven relatives. That’s a problem for a number of reasons. One is that if you don’t fall in that circle, the default position is to practice nichum aveilim – to comfort mourners. There’s an implicit message here that you’re not one of those people in mourning. So your loss is unacknowledged because it’s ignored. Or, even worse, your loss is marginalized because you’re told that you are not experiencing a loss. Even if the family members understand what a loss it is for you, the tradition still implies that it isn’t.

Are there cases where the Jewish tradition speaks about mourners other than the seven relatives?

Yes. An interesting example from the halakhah is that if you are in the room when someone dies, whether or not you’re related, you have an obligation to do keria – to tear a ribbon or your clothing, typically done only by close family. So here the tradition acknowledges the reality of grief beyond the familial relationship.

Also, in the Talmud there are traditions where if you were a grandchild and your mother or father lost a parent, when you’re in the house of mourning you mourn along with that parent. It’s still familial, but there’s this broadening, this realization that there are seven relatives, but that the mourning goes beyond the seven. There are biblical cases as well, such as David mourning for Jonathan, but in rabbinic tradition there are fewer examples.

Is there something about Jewish life today that makes these issues more pressing?

The nature of our communities is such that fewer American Jews live in the same city as their parents or siblings or children. And so we end up building lives not as much with our family as with our friends. We may have deep relationships with our families, but they’re often strangers in our day-to-day lives. What often ends up happening – and this is expressed on happy occasions as well – is that we have deep relationships with people who are local, and then our family comes in, and they are at the center of these intense moments. When it’s a bar or bat mitzvah, it may be a happy moment; when it’s a death, it’s a very deep and painful moment, and the family becomes the center of that shivah. But there are other people for whom this loss is very deep, because they have been playing the role that families once might have played. The tradition doesn’t have a way to acknowledge the grief of those people, even though they are in
need of some sort of acknowledgement.

When friends are like family, why not tell them to sit shivah and join in the mourning ritual like close relatives?

There are places in the Jewish world where the answer would be, “Of course, just go ahead and say Kaddish, just mourn. Whatever you want to do you should do.” I don’t believe in that approach because I think that part of what religion does is connect you to something larger than yourself. The extent to which religion becomes a product of your own making is the extent to which it starts to defeat its own purpose.

On the other hand, there are others in the Jewish world who would say, “No, only the seven mourners.” I think that’s a mistake also. It’s as if permitting people to do something beyond the way in which we’ve received the tradition would corrupt it.

In your book, you do encourage people to take on certain obligations of mourning, such as saying Kaddish.

The irony is that the mourner’s Kaddish likely developed from a non-familial relationship – from a prayer said at the end of studying with a rabbi, which developed into a prayer said at the time of the rabbi’s death. Your student said Kaddish for you, both as your student and as your friend. That developed into the mourner’s Kaddish, but then the circle closes, and you don’t use the mourner’s Kaddish anymore for a non-familial relationship. What I would have us do is breathe a little bit of life and space into the tradition, which is an authentic expression of the way in which Jewish traditions evolved through history.

You go into a minyan, you start to say Kaddish, and people ask you questions. That’s part of the purpose of saying Kaddish, so that people know you’re in mourning. Then they ask who you’re mourning for. I think most people would be fine if you say, “I’m in mourning, and I’m saying Kaddish for a dear friend.”

I don’t think you should say Kaddish for as long as one does for a parent. Maybe you mourn as if this person were your brother or sister. Traditionally, one mourns for a sibling for 30 days.

As you say in the book, in times of grief it’s important for us to “obligate ourselves” when the tradition does not place an obligation on us. How do we take on these obligations in a way that doesn’t feel inauthentic?

What came into my mind as soon as you asked the question was “Go see a rabbi.” This is one of those times when trying to answer by yourself can be self-defeating.

There is a category in Jewish law of obligating yourself to do something. This is something you are choosing to do, but if you’re going to do it then really obligate yourself. In other words, if you wake up two mornings later and you don’t feel like going to the minyan, you need to take your obligation seriously, and you need to push yourself beyond what you might do if this were just an ordinary choice. I also think trying to grieve alone is a mistake. Finding a community of people is really important.

Do you think Conservative communities are equipped to welcome self-obligating mourners?

I think Conservative Judaism offers a very beautiful balance because our communities are not rigid and close-minded when it comes to some ritual deviation. We also have a strong enough communal ethic that when people need space to grieve through a daily minyan, or through regular study, or through the giving of tzedakah, we satisfy that need. Unfortunately, while many of our communities have a daily minyan, not all of them do. The more times we can say that our communities are gathering for daily prayer services, beyond Shabbat, the more opportunities we offer for people to work out their grief through the structure of community.

You struggled with the idea of a God that would allow Joel to die at such a young age. You find yourself healing when you realize that these type of questions can be a “stumbling block towards a relationship” with God. How do you think about God today?

At this point, I would describe myself as a theological pragmatist. My image of God is not one where God controls these things. The ability to say that is enormously helpful for me. There’s no question that this approach is sustained and supported by Jewish tradition. But if we’re honest with ourselves, we must recognize that we have a multifaceted tradition, and there are plenty of sources that say quite the opposite, that God judges and is in control. There are many people for whom it is terrifying or disconcerting to let go of God’s responsibility.

I’m not arguing one way or the other. I’m arguing for what works. When we start to believe in the rightness of our own answers for everyone, we’re making an idol of our own knowledge. Anybody can say to me, “God is not responsible for this tragedy.” I don’t need to take that belief in God away from them. My measure for the truth of such theologies is whether it brings this person comfort in this moment.

What I value, and what I needed to work out, was how I could continue to be in relationship with God. My teacher, Rabbi
Bradley Shavit Artson, said to me at a key point in my journey that believing that God kills is toxic. He counseled me to let go of that image of God. The image is an image, not God, and it says more about our own ways of thinking and our theologies than it does about God. I want people to be in relationship with God.

In your first chapter, you say that you wrote the book for your 25-year-old self, reeling after Jay’s death and unsure how to mourn.

The death of a grandparent is sad, but very rarely tragic. The death of a friend at a young age is tragic. There are very few people who don’t encounter this in some way. And while there are wonderful books out there that describe the Jewish mourning practice, there wasn’t something that spoke to this situation.

When I got on the plane after Jay’s funeral, I was alone. I hope my book makes its way into the hands of people who are feeling similarly. I want them to know that there’s a story. That’s not to say that you should just feel better. But it’s important for people to hear, “You’re not alone.”

Michael Schulson is a freelance writer in Durham, North Carolina. He graduated from Yale University in 2012 with a B.A. in Religious Studies.