Every Wednesday

Every Wednesday I will post something about grief. Sometimes it will be a reflection on an aspect of grief’s landscape. Now and then I will share from my own journey of grief, because in the sharing of our stories we find strength and build a community of people that support one another.

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Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The Hollow Days

I wasn’t finding much that was helpful for dealing with grief in my own religious community. Maybe this was because Ev died unexpectedly. Or because her dying suddenly in her 40s left us in shock and made each of us feel vulnerable, as if any of us could die at any time. So I went looking at other religions to see what they did. 

The grief traditions in Judaism helped me the most, and this is what I understand about them.

The Jewish pattern of care for the first year made me realize that grief was going to last longer than the few weeks I anticipated. That the traditions were 3000-year old gave me reason to trust them and not rush my journey. The basic rabbinic guideline is three days for weeping, seven days for lamenting, and thirty days for mourning. If the death was due to an act of violence, then more time is allowed.

From the moment of death until the end of the funeral, survivors honor the dead in a time called aninut — the “hollow days,” an apt term because that’s how this time feels. They tear a piece of clothing, symbolic of how their lives have been torn by this death.

After the funeral, mourners observe shiva for seven days, covering mirrors so that they do not see how they look, and sitting with their grief while others take care of their basic needs. They also receive well-wishers in a time when they’re numb to everything and the words of grief from others do not deepen their own. This gives the community the chance to acknowledge its sorrow over the death.

Following shiva, mourners return to work but refrain from going to parties and concerts as they continue to mourn for thirty days, shloshim. After this they rejoin the daily life of the world, believing that God will provide what they need. Public memorial services are often held at the end of shloshim. After twelve months, and on the anniversary of the death each year after, the yahrzeit, the dead person is remembered by lighting a “soul candle.”

In addition, after every worship service, a group of people, a minyan, gathers and says Kaddish together as a community. This reminds us that death is always in our midst, that one of us is always grieving, and it affirms that no one grieves alone. It’s a prayer of remembering to praise God and give thanks for Creation even when someone has suffered a tragedy and wants only to curse. In this case, people say the prayer for those who are too grief-stricken, or too angry, to pray.

Accept your emotions.
Express your feelings.
Heal in your own way and in your own time.
Share with others who understand grief.


In Islam, followers observe communal mourning for three days, bringing food, reading verses from the Qur’an, and staying overnight so that the surviving spouse is not alone. The family often wears clothing of mourning for forty days. In some traditions the mourning color is black; in others it is white.

In the Japanese culture, with its mixture of Buddhist, Shinto, and folk beliefs, the bulk of grief work is focused in the first forty-nine days when the living express their sorrow and the community provides support. If grieving is not yet finished, as when the death was due to an act of violence, then more time is allowed. 
The Japanese celebrate all their ancestors during the summer Bon festival.

China has a number of native religions as well as world religions like Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. My brother Kurt witnessed the funeral procession of one tradition where family members wailed loudly until they reached the gravesite. Then the widow ritually tried to throw herself into the grave while other mourners ritually held her back. The Chinese honor their dead during the Qingming “Sweeping the Grave” festival in early April.

In the early Christian Church, the faith community met on the third, ninth, and fortieth days after a funeral for a time of prayer and hymns. Members of the Russian Orthodox Church feel that the ghosts of the dead linger for forty days and then receive God’s judgment about entrance into heaven.

In mainstream Christian denominations in the Midwest, other than a potluck meal after the funeral service, and follow up pastoral visits, I don’t know of much that is organized for grievers. The exceptions are mega churches that are large enough to have an ongoing fellowship group for grievers, and individual congregations that hold periodic or yearly focus groups for those who have lost loved ones. 

The ancient Celtic people have traditionally used wakes to celebrate the dead person. Elderly women of the neighborhood would come in, wash the body, and lay it out in a room where mourners would offer a prayer and say a few words of condolence to the family. In another room the deceased’s life was remembered through stories, song and drink. 

A longer version of this post was originally published by Lunch Tickethttp://lunchticket.org/dress-the-mouse-in-black/


  1. What an exploration. I, too, am impressed by the traditions in Judaism. But it's not enough. I've had to borrow from others' traditions and make up my own rituals and ways to live with the death of my daughter. And like you, I've found that being in nature, especially high up in the mountains and hills or by large bodies of water, I find the most comfort and the most spiritual offerings. Cheers, Mark.

    1. It's interesting, Robin, how specific insights from different traditions speak to us at certain times during our grief journey. Some matters that didn't appeal to us at all in the first month of grief are so perfect at nine months. Same thing with books. We're not always looking for what they're offering. And yes, nature has been the greatest help of all.

  2. You should write about Hinduism also we don't celebrate any festival for one year.

    1. I need to look into this. Do you have any guidance for what I should read?