The Jewish tradition does something brutal to the mourner, to someone who has lost a first degree relative, it forces them to hear the following words, "May you be comforted amongst all those who mourn for Zion and Jerusalem." The message is clear: You're not the only mourner, and while we the community will make sure that you are not abandoned in your moment of loss, pain, and mourning, we also remind you that you are not the only mourner. There have been many mourners before you and long after you are gone there will continue to be many mourners. Your experience is not unique, despite the fact that you and the dead you mourn are utterly unique.
In these times and in our society mourning has taken on new meaning. Mourning used to be about standing for human dignity. When a death takes place, no matter under what circumstances or what age, it is ever and always an assault on the dignity of the human being created in the image of God. As John Donne writes:
"No man is an iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee...." (John Donne 1624)
It is the mourner's primary obligation to stand in protest against this assault. The mourner's rituals are designed so that the dead not be swallowed up by the silence of death. It is the singular task of the first degree relative to protest death's assault on human dignity. No human can be allowed to die without protest. This obligation falls first and foremost on the family, for they know better than anyone else the utter sanctity of the life just lost. If, God forbid, someone dies and leaves no first degree relatives then the rituals of mourning fall upon the community. Mourning in the Jewish tradition is an outcry against death's assault on the honor of life.
Mourning today is focused on the mourner's feelings; and how the mourner will express feelings; and how the mourner's feelings will be managed by those around the mourner. Our society has pathologized mourning. Look at the language that is current in our society in the face of death. We talk about healing, as if the mourner is ill or sick; as if death imparts disease to those who live after. And if death's sting brings illness then we must seek a cure. We must seek closure for that is what a cure means. The illness is no more. We talk about the grieving process as if it is a managerial task, each of whose stages can be mapped out and assigned and monitored.
Mourning is not an illness. The mourner is not sick. The mourner is living through life's most natural experience, death. The pathologizing of mourning erases the central and classic feature of mourning in the Jewish tradition. Mourning means to stand against death's assault on human dignity. When someone has lost a first degree relative there is no healing. For what has been lost will never be restored in this life. There is no closure. A permanent void remains in the life of the mourner. And, there is no grieving process whose managed stages come to closure. For as long as there is memory there is a void. The task, classically, in Jewish mourning is surely not to forget and just as surely not to be healed. The task at hand is first and foremost to assert that death will not have the final word on human dignity. Then the task is for the mourner to fashion out of the life of the deceased a life portrait. That portrait is what we call memory.
The mourner does not need healing. To be in mourning is not to be sick. The mourner has experienced what all will experience, the death of those who create the mourner, the very source of the mourner's life, parents; the death of a husband or wife; the death of brothers and sisters; and in a few horrific cases that death in the face of which we are mute. The Jewish tradition distinguishes between those deaths which are tragic, which are not part of the way of the world and those deaths which are sad. The death of the well-lived old parent or grandparent is sad, deeply sad, but not tragic. That is the way of the world.
And when the individual is a member of a family and the family is a member of a Jewish community and Jewish life is lived in that family and in that faith community then everyone knows their part in this regular and recurring life drama. Tradition recognizes and creates for the mourner the means to express rage at death's violation of life. Tradition expects the mourner to sit for a week, for a cycle of creation, to testify that human dignity, creation itself, has been menaced by death. The task of sitting shiva has two features: the sequestration of the mourner who has known death and is in a state of despair; and the transference of the community to the house of the mourner. The community bears witness to the mourner's stand for human dignity. It is in this setting that the tradition and the community provide the framework for the mourner to give voice and expression to rage, anger, despair, and pain. The community reminds the mourner that he or she will soon return to the community. Then the tradition provides for the methodical reintegration of the mourner into the community of the living. Mourning grapples with great ideas and with common human experiences, but not with an illness.