The Jewish Way of Death

Ruben Schindler. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2003.

The Jewish thanatology literature places inordinate emphasis on life, as it does on honoring and respecting the deceased. Preserving life, mitigating pain, being sensitive to the self-determining decisions of the patient—all are to be valued and respected. This chapter discusses a number of significant themes facing family members, friends, and the larger community when an individual’s demise is imminent and death has been confirmed. It explores the commonly accepted Jewish rituals and practices of mourning and bereavement and issues that have emerged more recently regarding the prolonging of life. It examines Jewish responses and literature on this emerging topic.

More specifically, it discusses the mourners’ role prior to interment; the importance of the eulogy for the deceased; the kreiah or rending of the garments, by close relatives; the recitation of the Kaddish, or prayer of mourning; visitation practices; and the highly structured sequence allotted to the mourners for recovery. Jewish belief very much concurs with the mental health dictum of “working through” one’s grief within a reasonable period of time for future self-growth.

In addition, this chapter explores the importance of memorializing the deceased and creating opportunities for reminiscence and reflection. The Jewish view of the afterlife, resurrection, and the belief systems related to this topic are also discussed.

Preserving Life and Mitigating Pain

Alan Wolfe (2001), in his book Moral Freedom, writes on issues of a patient’s right to die. He quotes the legal theorist Ronald Dworkin who favors “a dying person’s right to end his life with the dignity he sees fit” (p. 84). He goes on to say that preventing this act negates the values of equality and liberty. The Jewish thanatology literature, and particularly its legal system, established very clear guidelines for the patient of what is permissible when demise is imminent. In addition, it has a highly structured framework that guides family members, friends, physicians, and community members in their roles when the patient is terminally ill and when he or she has succumbed.

When illness strikes and the continuity of life is in question, the easing of a person’s suffering is of utmost importance. Palliation of pain is integrally related to the commandment in Jewish scripture, “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). Furthermore, Jewish scripture grants authority in establishing licensure to heal the sick. Exodus 21:19 says, “and heal, he shall heal.” The Talmud comments, “From the above we derive that permission is given to a physician to heal” (Talmud: Bava Kama 85:A). Indeed, a central theme and organizing principle in Jewish thought is how best to make the dying patient comfortable and mitigate pain. Therefore, pain and relief medications must be given to the patient to limit his or her anguish (Bleich 2002).

The preservation of life is one of the most important injunctions in Jewish law. The Talmud’s well-known dictum “to save one life is tantamount to saving a whole world” (Talmud, Sanhedrin 37:a) reflects the value of life as infinite. Hence to accelerate the death of a terminally ill person in light of excessive pain, if the patient demands such intervention or the family finds the illness too difficult to bear, is prohibited in Judaism. In the Jewish law, the Goses, or moribund patient, is considered a living person in all respects. The Talmud cautions caregivers to be exceedingly careful in treating the dying patient. There is the danger of indirectly hastening death, by inappropriate means. The Talmud says,

Care must thus be taken not to touch the dying patient without medical cause, because this could hasten his or her death. Treatment that is integrally related to medical or supportive care, however, is not only permissible but obligatory.

Sensitivity to the well-being of the terminally ill, particularly in his or her final days or hours, is highlighted by 13th-century scholar Rabbi Judah the Pious. He writes that “if a person is dying and adjacent to his home he is agitated because of the noise of a tree surgeon then all efforts should be made to remove him” (Sefer Hasidim:723)2, since tranquility for the dying should be the common human response.

Should life be preserved unconditionally according to Jewish law? One of the important Talmudic luminaries of this century, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, argues that when a patient experiences suffering and cannot be cured and it has been established that he or she will not survive, then it is not obligatory for physicians to render medications to prolong life and that nature should take its course (Igrot Moshe, Hoshen Mishpat, 11, no.73 sec. 1).3 Moreover the late Chief Rabbi of England, Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovitz (1959), an eminent scholar of medical ethics, writes, “Jewish law sanctions the withdrawal of any factor—whether extraneous to the patient himself or not which may artificially delay his demise in the final phase of life” (p. 124). Consequently, passive withholding of treatment would be acceptable, certainly in the case of intractable pain. This would not justify active euthanasia, however, even in the most extreme cases.

Prayer has been found to be a valuable and therapeutic support for many facing uncertainty and death (Abramovitz 1993). Others view prayer as hope for their recovery, as touchingly found in Psalm 30 (Cohen 1982).

I cried unto Thee, and Thou didst heal me;
Lord, Thou broughtest up my soul from the nether-world;
Thou didst keep me alive, that I should not go down to the pit. (verses 3-5)

The prayer is one of deliverance and recovery after a life-threatening illness, indicating the patient’s closeness to death (Klein 2001).

However, when death is imminent, the patient is encouraged to recite the confessional, because this is an opportunity for forgiveness and atonement (Talmud, Sanhedrin 43:b; Pollio, Henley, and Thompson 1997:223-24). As the Talmud states, “All who confess have a share in the world to come” (Talmud, Sanhedrin 43:b). Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, an eminent Talmud scholar and thinker, makes this point when he speaks of atonement. Reflecting on the day of Yom Kippur, acclaimed as the Jewish holiest day of the year, Peli (1980)4 writes,

The soul remains in a state of alienation from the Lord of the Universe. It is the function of repentance to purify the personality, to renew it and to restore its status quo ante, prior to the sin, to re-establish relations between man and the Almighty … The Day of Atonement possesses the unique characteristic of commuting sentences, as the divine quality of loving kindness overcomes the quality of strict justice. (Pp. 294-95)

As mentioned elsewhere (Schindler 1990) not only is atonement central to the confessional, but so is hope. The text from Hamadrich reads, “O send me and for all sick persons in Israel perfect cure and healing” (Goldin 1939:106). Although the patient’s prognosis may be grim, change and recovery are conceivable.

An additional function of the confessional is to enable the patient to play an active role in his or her final hours. It is an opportunity to return to the spiritual roots that the patient seeks. It is to counter what Glaser and Straus (1968) have observed as the “failure to understand a patient’s attempts at achieving psychological closure in his [or her] life and… the patient’s increasing isolation” (pp. 168-69). Confession provides us with an opportunity for religious expression in a formal sense, although our thoughts may be confused and often incoherent. Concern for the future of one’s immediate family, relatives, and friends is integrally related to the confessional. Divine protection is recited for the family in simple but touching words: “Father of the orphan and Judge of the widow, protect my beloved kindred with whose souls my soul is bound up” (Herz 1995:1062).

When death arrives, tradition calls for reading the Psalms. Prayers for the deceased’s well-being, atonement, and hope that judgment will be positively administrated are recited. The theme of peace permeates his or her demise. “May the Lord bless thee and keep thee, May the Lord let his countenance shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee. May the Lord lift up His sustenance upon thee, and give thee peace (Numbers 23:27).

Aninut: When Time Stands Still

Jewish law requires the bereaved to mourn his or her loss. (The source of mourning for 7 days is derived from Genesis 50:10 and 30 days from Deuteronomy 21:13.) Normative and excessive grief is aired. The intensity of the pain can be so powerful that a separate period between death and interment is established. The Onen is one in deep distress, unable to deal with the reality at hand. Very much aware of the emotional and psychological stress, the rabbis pointed out, “There is no one to carry his heavy burden” (Talmud Yerushalmi: Berachut: 83). This brief hiatus of time enables the bereaved to reflect upon his loss and gradually gather his or her inner strengths to cope with the stresses that lie ahead. This period of reflection has universal application. As Rabbi Soloveitchik (1972) states,

Man responds to his defeat at the hands of death with total resignation and with all consumed masochistic self-devasting black despair. Halakah, Jewish law, has never tried to gloss over the sorrowful ugly spectacle of dying man. In spite of the fact that Halakah has indomitable faith in eternal life, in immortality and in continued transcended existence for all human beings … it did understand man’s fright and confusion when confronted with death. It permitted the mourner to be relieved of all mizvot [commandments] precepts. (Pp. 2-3)

Furthermore during the period of aninut (time between death and burial), the bereaved is given an opportunity to be alone and is exempt from the many religious obligations. One can appreciate the humanistic approach, reflected in Talmudic thinking because the burden of grief is so difficult to carry. Littlewood (1992) relates to this issue: “The bereaved person may feel that the external world makes little sense to them, since the internal world is badly damaged. The past may frequently be seen as meaningless as the present and future” (p. 45).

Once the period of aninut comes to a close, the mourner is encouraged to carry out his or her obligations to the deceased, engaging in the bereavement rituals that await. Within this context, Rabbi Soloveitchik (1972) comments,

The Halakah (Jewish law) showed so much tolerance for the mourner during the stage ofAninut [italics added] and let him float with the tide of black despair. Now forcefully and with a shift of emphasis commands him that with interment, the first phase of grief comes abruptly to a close, and a second phase, that of Avelut [mourning] begins. (Pp. 2-3)

The next stage of bereavement commences, which provides another important dimension of release and catharsis for the mourner (Soloveitchik 2003).

Kreiah: Rending the Garment

An important function of the mourning process is to work through and dissipate anger. Linderman (1965), in his classic work on mourning, indicated that the duration of grief depends on the success with which a person did his or her grief work.

Family theorists such as Kerr and Bowen (1988) suggest that the differentiation of self and psychological growth is contingent on efforts made in engaging with the mourning process. Helping persons deal with bereavement can be facilitated professionally by being sensitive to the mourners’ language and metaphors (Siegelman 1990:111-13). Narratives provide opportunities for reminiscences and have also been effective in facilitating the process of mourning (White and Epston 1990).

In Jewish tradition, an opportunity for psychological release is afforded through the Kreiah, the rending of the garment. Prior to interment, the tearing is performed. This is not mere ceremony. It allows the mourner to give expression to his or her deep anger by means of a controlled, religiously sanctioned act of wrath. This act is performed by the mourner and should not be carried out by someone else (Arukh Hashulkan 340:12).

The Talmud (Moed Katan 24:a) says that any rending of clothes not carried out in the flush of grief without full emotional involvement is not considered appropriate (Yoreh Déah, Laws of Mourning 340). The rabbis are quite explicit that there can be no substitutes for this rite through symbolic or other forms. Masochistic or deviant behavior, such as cutting one’s flesh, or rending one’s hair is inappropriate and prohibited. It is suggested that the tearing rite is one of the early obligations that enables the bereaved to engage physically with anger and is legitimized through the tearing. It is a sanctioned formalized deed that brings to catharsis the deep grief that mourners experience.

The Kaddish: The Mourners’ Prayer

The Kaddish is the classic prayer for mourning. It has been recited throughout the centuries and is identified with the loss of the next of kin (including father, mother, brother, sister, son, daughter, husband, and wife). This is the first public prayer uttered by the bereaved. The “orphans’ Kaddish” sets the stage for memory, family, history, and loyalties to parents, although the prayer itself has no mention of this theme. The Kaddish is recited because “the dead are in need of spiritual rescue. And that the agent of spiritual rescue is the son; and the instrument of spiritual rescue is prayer, notably the Kaddish” (Wieseltier 1998:124).

A close analysis of the Kaddish text suggests various interpretations to its words and letters. For example the seven Hebrew words, “May His great name be blessed for ever and ever” are interpreted by a scholar5 as God’s scheme of creation and completion. Similarly, the weekly cycle, 7 years until the Sabbatical year, and the 7 weeks of preparation from the Exodus until the giving of the Ten Commandments, suggests a time dimension, structure, and meaning to one’s life. The Zohar, the basic work of the Kabbalah, puts emphasis on the word Amentruth, referring to the sanctification of God’s name in the context of holiness—Kedusha. This is the same title given to the song of the angels. Its efficacy and relation to the mourner is significant. The Talmud notes, “Anyone who answers the Amen with all his strength opens the gates of Paradise” (Shabbat 119:b) This is the spiritual charge for son and daughter to complete.

The recitation of the Kaddish over an 11-month period exhibits memory and loyalty to one’s parents (Schindler 2000). Often, I would think of my parents and their courage in saving us from the German onslaught during World War II. I recall my father’s determination to find an escape route for us from Munich, Germany, and waiting desperately in the American Embassy in Milan, Italy, to obtain visas for us to the United States. I also recall my mother’s plight in her escape from Germany and finding proper caretakers for us. Arriving in New York in 1940, passing the Statue of Liberty, and seeing my parents waiting on the pier to welcome us serves as a source of memory and indebtedness. More recently, I reflect on the final words of Wieseltier (1998) in his book Kaddish. He writes,

Then I said Kaddish. I stood in the ashes of fury and spoke the sentences of praise. Was that voice my voice? It was no longer the effusion of woe. Magnified, I said. Sanctified I said, I look above me, I look around me. With my own eyes, I saw magnificence.

Seudat Havraah: The Meal of Condolence

Jewish law insists that the mourner not remain alone in grief. There are societal obligations that offer support, restore equilibrium, and ease transitions that the mourner is unlikely to arrive at by himself or herself. Jewish law turns to the community and seeks its partnership in assisting and helping the bereaved with their difficult burden. The rabbis require that the mourner’s “first meal” after interment be supplied by friends or neighbors. Maimonides6 writes in the Laws of Mourning,

On the first day of mourning it is prohibited for the bereaved to eat from his own food. The mourner is worried and concerned about his loss. He is not strong enough to eat. His desire is to die. It is therefore obligatory for him to eat from others. (4:9)

The act of friends providing the meal of condolence is not merely a gesture of goodwill but a direct intervention to assist the bereaved to return to society. Jewish law is very specific in placing on society the responsibility of assisting the mourner during his or her early period. As mentioned earlier, during this early period of mourning the bereaved is dazed and needs help with the simplest decisions. Furthermore, there is need for accepting bereaved people as they are with all their irrational thoughts and distorted responses.

To a large extent, Jewish law within the mourning structure requires “significant others” to offer support and acceptance. The natural tendency for the mourner to withdraw and regress into his or her loneliness is dramatically countered by the community’s obligation to ease transition into society. Lindermann (1965) has noted that the

bereaved is surprised to find how large a part of his customary activity has some meaningful relationship in his contacts with the deceased and has now lost its significance. Especially the habits of social interaction. …This loss leads to a strong dependence on anyone who will stimulate the bereaved to activity and serve as the initiating agent. (P. 3)

Community support, group encouragement, and individual help in facilitating the mourning process are vital and often critical factors in the mourner’s rehabilitation. The earlier the assistance and support, the more successful recovery will be.

Nichum Avelim: Comforting the Bereaved

The act of visiting the bereaved is to pay homage to the deceased, comfort the grieved, and enable the mourners to verbalize their most inner feelings of loss. Comfort is also experienced by the relationship with the caller. Jewish law requires utmost sensitivity by the visitor to let the bereaved direct the theme of the discussion. It is the latter who chooses the topic, time, and content of conversation. Indeed, relationships of a special quality are established when visiting the bereaved, which creates the support that is so vital for well-being. This ritual has been philosophically elaborated by Buber (1970) and extensively discussed in the therapeutic literature (Hazler and Barwick 2001).

Not only are support and sympathy important, but there is also comfort in the opportunity for reminiscence and the recollection of events that have lain dormant for decades. As mentioned earlier, my brother and I had to remain in Germany for a number of months while my parents sought desperately to obtain visas for us. We were designated as stateless (in light of Nazi prohibitions denying Jewish citizenship) and restricted from traveling abroad.

It was during the Shiva (7-day mourning period) for my father that a visitor related an important historical episode to me. The latter was a doctoral student, researching the Jewish community of Munich in postwar Germany. He presented a document to me dated late 1945. It contained a detailed list of the 350 children who lived in the Jewish community in Munich. Only four children were reported to have survived the war. The event was terribly significant for me in seeing my parents from a perspective of heroism—and very upsetting that so many children my age were caught up in the tragedy of the Holocaust. It was a brief encounter of comfort but so very meaningful.

There are varying opinions about when comforting the bereaved should begin. The Talmud notes that visiting the mourners should commence on the third day, following the burial. This is based in the view that during Gimmel Yamim LeBechi, 3 days for weeping, the mourner is caught up with grief; he or she simply is unable to receive anyone. The mourner’s shock is so great that death has not yet taken on reality (Talmud, Yebamot 21:b), therefore the waiting period for consolation. The ritual for comforting mourners is stated by the 12th-century scholar Maimonides. He writes,

After the body is buried the mourners assemble and station themselves at the border of the cemetery. All who have escorted the dead stand around them, forming themselves into row after row, each consisting of no less then ten people including the mourners. (Laws of Mourning 13:6)

This brief ceremony at the gravesite is continued in its entire efficacy when the mourners return home. Visiting the bereaved is not an act of being courteous. As Lamm (1969) has noted,

The fundamental purpose of the condolence call during the Shiva [italics added] is to relieve the mourner of the intolerable burden of intense loneliness. The sum effect of the visitation of many friends and relations, some long forgotten…is the softening of loneliness, the relief of the heavy burden of internalized despair. It is a beckoning with open arms for the mourner to return to society. (P. 136)

Is it appropriate to visit the mourners on the Jewish holiday or the Sabbath? Because these days are viewed as festivals and a period of tranquility, perhaps this obligation should be put aside? The psychological importance of Leyashev Dato, “easing one’s mind,” and freeing him or her from constant preoccupation with the deceased permits this act.

Consoling the bereaved is an act of benevolence of the highest order. It is the view of Maimonides that if one has to decide whether to console the bereaved or visit the sick, then “the duty of comforting mourners takes precedence over the duty of visiting the sick because comforting mourners is an act of benevolence towards the living and the dead” (Laws of Mourning 13:6).

The mourning rituals are time limited. They are so structured that the early days and weeks are seen as the most difficult. But the rabbis look with disfavor when mourning is carried too far. An excess of mourning, too much preoccupation with the deceased, and continuous reference to the past prompted the rabbis to state with insight, “Whoever indulges in grief to excess over his dead will weep for another” (Talmud, Moed Katan:21b). Rabbi Soloveitchik (1972) writes,

Death is indeed something ugly and frightening, something grisly and monstrous. . . . Nevertheless, Jewish law adds, death must not confuse man. He must not plunge himself into total darkness because death. On the contrary….death gives man the opportunity to display greatness and to act heroically, to build, even though he knows that he will not live to enjoy the sight of the magnificent edifice in whose construction he is engaged in. (P. 3)

Given the opportunity to mourn enables the individual to propound one’s deepest emotion, hurt, and pain. In Israel’s short history and its too frequent wars, whole families have faced the heartlessness of death. Ritual cannot erase these deep scars, but it can provide, if only slightly, some comfort for the deep loss and anguish.

Yiskor: The Memorial

In the long history of the Jewish people, memory of the past is critical in understanding its present, and its future. For example, in Israel and the many diverse Jewish communities throughout the world, the Holocaust experience is commemorated with particular significance. Wiesel (1990) writes, “Memory creates links between past and future. To remember is to affirm man’s faith in humanity, and to convey meaning in our fleeting endeavors. The aim of memory is to restore dignity to justice” (p. 194).

One colleague who continues to recite Kaddish in memory of his father on delegated holidays and the Yom Kippur related to me the importance of remembering and honoring.

It was in 1942, and I was sixteen at the time and my father served as head of the Jewish community in Poland. It was because of my father’s promise that the war would be over in the summer that I agreed to flee. We would meet in Warsaw, he said. I recall the cold winter morning when I left home….I never saw him again….It was the hope that we would see each other in due time that enabled me to carry on….It’s painful, but he accompanies me everywhere.

An elderly survivor of the Holocaust now in his late 80s recalls,

It was my third year in the labor camp. The workday came to an end, but we were forced to continue through the night. We were asked to move heavy equipment, but my energy had given way. The officer in charge stood behind me, pointing to a massive pole. The consequences of failing to carry out his orders would have been fatal. A fellow prisoner, a complete stranger, took hold of the mast, moved it to its appropriate place and saved my life. I have no doubt about that. (Weintraub 1996:pp 53-54)

When reciting the memorial prayer, he always thinks of this act of altruism. He recorded this, and many other stories, as a memorial in an 80-page narrative shared with family and friends.

The Jewish calendar has specific holidays allotted for memorial services. New prayers have been composed, for the remembrance of the 6 million Holocaust victims. The prayer records the tragic fate of over 1 million children who perished in the Holocaust. There has been overwhelming affinity with the survivors, reflected in the attendance of third-generation family members and friends filling pews of the various houses of worship.

It is also customary in traditional worship, when the Torah scroll is read on Monday and Thursday to recall the personal memory of loved ones. At the conclusion of the reading, the rabbi or sexton recite, “May her/his resting place be in the Garden of Eden, therefore, may the Master of mercy shelter her/him . . . in His wings for eternity” (Complete Art Scroll1992:1).

It is also customary in Jewish communities the world over to erect a tombstone in honor of the departed at the head of the grave. This custom in related to the patriarch Jacob in erecting a monument on the grave of his wife Rachel. “And Jacob set up a pillar upon her grave, the same is the pillar of Rachel’s grave unto this day” (Genesis 35:20). And as early as the Talmud period, memory of the loved one inscribed on the tombstone was firmly incorporated into ritual (Talmud, Horayot:13b).

The time period after demise in the placing of the stone varies. Some follow the custom of erecting the stone after the 12-month period, enabling mourners to “work through” their pain and anguish. People living in Israel follow their long-held custom of 1 month in setting the tombstone, with the rationale that is this the most difficult time for the mourner. Consequently, dealing with loss at the most heightened period appears most appropriate.

Inscriptions on the tombstone vary, and visiting the cemetery an array of tributes are found. For women, Chapter 31 of the book of Proverbs is popular: “A women of valor who can find? For her price is far above rubies. The heart of her husband does safely trust in her, and he hath no lack of gain. She doeth him good and not evil all the days of her life” (Proverbs 31:10-12). For pious men, an inscription may read, “His delight is in the Law of the Lord, and in His law doth he meditate day and night” (Psalms 1:2).

A sermon, the Kaddish prayer, and recitation of Psalm 23 concludes the stone setting. This well-known Psalm focuses on the deceased and the afterlife, integrally bound in the Jewish belief system (Psalm 23:1-6).

It is customary to visit the gravesites corresponding to the day of burial with tributes and prayers for the soul of the deceased. The Jewish New Year has also become a significant date for visitation, entreating those who have died to guide us with blessings for health and peace.

Afterlife: Resurrection

After the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem in 586 B.C., the prophets integrated the idea of resurrection of the dead as a fundamental belief in Jewish dogma. Ross (1997) writes, “Although such a doctrine represents a departure from previous eschatology, it is not as radical as it might seem” (p. 304). In time, techiat hamytim, the idea of life after death, entered the canon of prayer and the 13 principles of Jewish faith by the 12th-century philosopher and scholar Maimonides. His last principle states, “I believe with complete faith there will be a resuscitation of the dead whenever the wish emanates from the Creator, blessed be his name” (Complete Art Scoll 1992:198). The view stresses that in the Messianic era, the dead will attain a new spiritual and physical level of perfection.

The apocalyptic writings after the fall of the Temple mark the beginning of the doctrine of resurrection, a doctrine that allows for survival after death. Isaiah the prophet, provides the first mention of resurrection:

The dead shall live, many dead bodies shall arise.
Awake and sing, ye that dwell in the dust.
For Thy dew is as the dew of light
And the earth shall bring to life the shades.
—Isaiah 26:19

In this verse, the prophet suggests that at the time of the ultimate redemption, “the dead will sing this song and they will be resurrected”—the idea being that resurrection will lead to a new spiritual life, the resurrected engaging in devotional exercises and in the singing of hymns and praises to God. The “dew is as the dew of life” is interpreted by the 15th-century Spanish-Jewish commentator, Isaac Abarbanel, as the dead being revived as the dew rejuvenates vegetation. In addition, he speaks of the “dew of life” as supernatural dew that will descend on the dead and bring them back to life. The “shades” referred to in the verse, is interpreted by the renowned Spanish commentator of the 11th century, Abraham Ibn Ezra, as the powerless ones who will be brought to life (note Isaiah 14:9).

Discussion

Herman (1992) suggests that “descent into mourning is at once the most necessary and the most dreaded task …of recovery” (p. 188). The context is of mourning a traumatic loss, which indeed relates to many Holocaust survivors in Israel and the world over. She goes on to say,

To the extent that the patient is unable to grieve, she is cut off from a part of herself and robbed of an important part of her healing…. Only through mourning everything that she has lost can the patient discover her indestructible inner life. (P. 188)

This is often easier said then done. For example, my mother, who had lost the major part of her family in Nazi Germany, was not only reticent to discuss her experiences but completely refused to do so. On memorial days, she became very somber, and although she visited the synagogue and recited the mourners’ prayer, she could not share her most inner feelings. On more than one occasion, my mother was asked by her grandchildren to furnish information about her experiences during the war. Tears came to her eyes, but she could not communicate and articulate her memories. My mother was still grieving after so many years. It was my view that “telling her story” would have precipitated additional suffering and deep anguish that she could not control.

My father, on the other hand, spoke constantly of his experiences. He would share this with anyone who would listen. And he always completed his reminisces with, “Why were six million killed and I survived?”

Traumatic loss encompasses a broad range of families and populations. Mourning rituals, highly structured in Jewish life, can likely ease some of the grief, but more work has to be done at times professionally to overcome deep-seated anguish.