Configuring Grief in Spiritual Terms

by Rabbi Anne Brener

This is an excerpt from Rabbi Brener's chapter in Seeking & Soaring: Jewish Approaches to Spiritual Direction, a Reclaiming Judaism Press volume created in honor of Rabbi Shohama Wiener in order to reveal the leading teachers, methods and value of the emerging profession of mashpia - Jewish spiritual director.

So many people come to spiritual direction after a loss. Very often their sense of God has been shattered. They may feel betrayed or abandoned by the God that may have been their bedrock in the past.It is the privilege and challenge to the mashpia to serve as midwife as a new spiritual identity is birthed and with it, perhaps, a new understanding of God.

It is appropriate to add the spiritual dimension to our understanding of grief. The fact that Jewish law exempts mourners from certain religious obligations during the early days of grief indicates an assumption that a death provokes a spiritual crisis. In addition, the search for the Holy Presence can be perceived at the core of the practice of saying the Kaddish, Judaism’s primary tool for mourning the death of a close relative [1]. That our doxology for mourning centers on praising God as the principal balm of comfort is another indication that the intention of the Jewish mourning rituals is to focus the mourner on loss as a spiritual journey. The ritual involved in saying Kaddish holds and guides the mourner’s journey through the wilderness of grief.....

Stephanie stood in the room stamping her foot as we said the Kaddish. Her voice was angry and each time she reached a point of punctuation in the prayer, she read it as if it were a question mark. Finally she turned to me and shrieked, “These words are an insult. They were put here to torture me. ‘God’s Great Name?'" Sarcastically, she asked me, “I should want it Praised beyond all the other praises?” The Kaddish challenges our relationship with Holiness. It inserts a question mark as mourners ask, like Stephanie, “What kind of God would do that to my brother?” [6]

Beriyah is the intellectual World. This is where mourners ask the existential questions about life on a planet where people die, and about the nature of God, justice and the universe. In the world of Beriyah mourners consider how they want their lives to change in light of these questions: If, after a loss, a person gets back to his or her regular path immediately— what has he or she learned? A significant loss is likely to call into question each assumption that is held about life. The mourner, who is on the path to becoming an elder, is not likely to retreat to familiar rhetoric, bromides and explanations about the meaning of life. In all of these situations the one who grieves has lost, not only a significant person, situation or object, but may have lost the foundation of his or her world.

From the depths of grief, the mourner may wonder what the purpose of suffering must be or, to broaden the question, if life itself has any meaning. Often, after a loss, people no longer are satisfied with the answers to these profound questions that may have served in the past. This is especially true for those whose image of God may have been of a benevolent protector who rewards good and punishes evil.But this existential earthquake of meaning is essential to loss. If a person is not lost following a loss, they may not yet have experienced that loss as a teacher, prompting the mourner to examine the human condition and his or her own mortality. With all the anguish and difficulty that come with suffering, what a shame to feel that the experience had no impact on the way in which life is viewed. In the World of Beriyah, meaning is sought. Mourners must write a new contract with life, God, and the Universe.


Finding Meaning: A New Contract with Life, God, and the Universe


The cauldron of mourning is a place to question everything. Here meanings of the words of the Kaddish begin to come into focus, however sometimes they are less of a balm and more of a challenge. The words of the Kaddish praise God’s Great Name so highly and express the desire to see the entire universe infused with Its Holiness. Rallying behind these words can be an outrageous expectation of an anguished person. Suffering is likely to provoke a profound spiritual crisis. Loss is likely to cause one to question the nature of God, justice, and the universe. It raises suspicion regarding the meaning of life on a planet where people suffer and mortality is guaranteed.

According to traditional Jewish mourning practice, the Kaddish is repeated over and over following a loss. This repetition is an opportunity to confront the forces that run the universe with all the questions about a world which metes out pain and justice in what appears to be an arbitrary manner. Here the Kaddish can act as a crowbar, forcing open a belief system that has suddenly become too small to hold the great paradoxes of Holiness and Horror that dwell together in the universe. By daring, like Job, to perseverate on God’s injustice, mourners ask the questions over and over again, hammering at the limits of their understanding until they break a hole in it and crawl through a wormhole into a new universe of meaning. Their world gets larger. They come to embrace the paradoxes of being human, and somehow move to a new plateau on which it is possible to make peace with a God and a universe they cannot totally comprehend.

This theme of hiddenness pervades the book of Job as Job seeks to reveal Justice, Truth, and God, all of which are buried in mystery. Early on Job depicts the non-linear and confused thinking of one who has been stricken by grief. His disjunctive statements reveal the chaotic quality of the thoughts of those who grieve. Lost in their internal ruminations the lines of logic are also lost. The thought processes are disordered. Job is hidden from himself.

Later Job’s words become one long question addressed to an unidentifiable force in the universe. In subsequent chapters, he begins to find his voice. This question is particularized and directed to Job’s friends and to God. This indirect, rambling and nonlinear challenge of the cosmic order is a preparation for the later questions, which will directly accost God. It is the inchoate rumination of the world of Beriyah, in which those who suffer gain courage. They rise from stunned grief and premature spiritual acceptance to be energized for the healing journey. With powerful images, the words of Job hammer on the psyche as do the repetitive string of words of interrogation and resistance. This unremitting perseveration is the tool of grief through which it “knocks on heaven’s door" [2] in an effort to find an opening which will reveal the secret passage to a wisdom and peace which can shatter the old world and give shape to the new. 

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[1] As with all clinical vignettes presented in this work, this is a composite constructed from my work with many clients and does not describe any one individual or situation. All names are changed and stories rendered so as to make identification impossible.

[2] Bob Dylan. “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.” Pat Garret and Billy the Kid. Musical album, 1974.