Is There a Jewish Way to Grieve?


Confession: My husband can’t win right now.

Even in his texts, I can hear the crackle of the eggshells he’s walking on.

Our sweet 4-year-old puggle, Louie, got suddenly sick. Unbeknownst to us, he had a degenerative disk disease. One of the disks in his spine ruptured, and he went from rambunctious to paralyzed in less than two weeks. He was sad and in pain and we chose to put him down; and I am reeling.

Those of you who read Minnesota Mamaleh when I first wrote for TCJ might remember when Louie joined our family. I was a reluctant pet owner, but, my goodness, did I ever fall in love with him.

I had no idea how hard this could be, and I definitely didn’t know how to mourn him. I’ve been lucky (blessed, even) to not feel loss so close to home before.

Trying to process losing Louie while mothering my kids through their own loss is tricky and overwhelming.

My oldest cried for 12 hours straight, then shifted to focusing on getting a new puppy. Like my husband, she’d rather not think about anything sad, so she weaves precariously between these two seemingly polar opposite places. My middle wants to help everyone with everything, but isn’t talking about her own feelings or articulating what she wants and needs. And my youngest is ever direct. He tells us he misses Louie and looks for signs of him everywhere we go. A butterfly at the park. A deer on the road. A tiny frog on the window at night.

I’ve shifted into and out of all of these spaces. I miss Louie so much it hurts. I’m angry that we lost him so young. I want a new puppy to join our family. But I worry that I won’t love him like I did Louie.

What I’ve learned so far is this: Mourning is messy.

In an article on Psych Central, Julie Axelrod writes, “The stages of mourning and grief are universal and are experienced by people from all walks of life.”

And I believe it. Sadness is sadness and loss is loss. When I’ve told people our story, if they’ve experienced loss of any kind, they understand. There’s a rhythm to mourning. It’s messy, but it’s there.

In 1969, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross wrote the book, On Death and Dying. In it, she suggested that there are five stages of grief that everyone experiences. This is still the most cited, and Googled, resource for grievers.

I reached out to Rabbi Erin Polansky, to ask if there was a Jewish lens to look at grief through. And, of course, there was. I could feel her smile over email when she wrote, “I’ve always said that the Jewish laws of mourning intuitively knew about the Stages [of grief] that we talk about now. The rabbis were way ahead of their time.”

The psychological stages of grief are Denial and Isolation, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance.

The Jewish response is Sitting Shiva (seven days of mourners being surrounded by friends and family), Shloshim (30 days where mourners say Kaddish daily, don’t attend parties or social gatherings, but do return to work), and Yarzheit (saying Kaddish on the anniversary of our loved one’s death.)

I found puzzle-piecing these two frameworks so very comforting. It helped me see the rhythm others found, and that I could look for. Kübler-Ross’s Stages are stepping stones, Polansky’s explanations of the Jewish ways are the soft ways to step onto them.

The first seven days after Louie died were sad, sad, sad at our house and were filled with more tears than stories. We were all prickly; those eggshells were sharp.

But there’s been a shift this week. We’re still sticking close to each other, but we’re filling the spaces between us with good memories. Louie’s first ridiculously big bone, the funny way he “tap danced” at us to get our attention, his silly toothy smile.

We’re finding our rhythm, and I’m grateful to have a – psychological and a Jewish – framework for it.