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Grief, Loss and Mourning

Remembering my Mother



This week is my mother’s yahrzeit. She passed away fifteen years ago at the age of 94, and our extended family all travelled north (to Scotland – the other Promised Land) to bury their matriarch in the place where her family are buried, in a cemetery leaning up against the Old Kilpatrick Hills in Clydebank on the banks of the River Clyde. We performed the appropriate rituals for her and buried her with her ancestors.


In Jewish burial practices, place is important. Some of our community will be buried in Israel, and many more, according to the tradition, will bring a little bit of Israel with them in their casket as they are buried in the land that adopted them. Death has its important rituals, its appropriate times and places.


I’ve noticed a few comments on Facebook lately about that statement at the top of every Facebook newsfeed. In my case: ‘Brian, what’s on your mind today?’ And of course, my mother is on my mind. But not only my mother, also community members, people who are close to me who have lost loved ones recently and people who are caring for the terminally ill.


But in our hyperconnected world we are faced with the reality of death every day, every time we watch the news. How do we cope with all this death? In part by making a distinction in our lives between death and personal loss. Death inspires grief. When we turn on the news every day we experience a sense of grief at the untimely deaths of children, women and men, often in tragic circumstances. This kind of grief makes as sad, often profoundly sad, but it usually doesn’t inspire mourning. Mourning is a special kind of grief, a ritualised grief, we reserve for those who were part of the fabric of our lives. We don’t sense loss when we are faced with anonymous death, only when we are faced with the death of those who were part of our lives. More especially the people we lived with, shared with, ate with, slept with, made love with, carried, embraced, nursed, all the things we do every day with those who are part of the fabric of our everyday lives.

How do we deal with loss? By first recognising that a cog in the machine of my life is no longer there. The machine of my life isn’t turning as it should because of the missing cog and it never will. That’s why we often experience the impossibility of getting over the death of a loved one. People close to us are part of the fabric of our lives. When we lose them their impact on our lives doesn’t change. We learn to give their loss a place in our lives, in a different part of the machine, but the machine never turns in the same way as it did.

Mary Wright Doyle

I was once asked by someone who was very conflicted by the fact they sensed enormous grief and loss at the death of their dog, and almost nothing when their estranged father passed away. The dog had been part of the daily fabric of their lives for more than a decade, but their father had disappeared from their lives during their childhood. Why did they feel profound grief at the death of their dog, so much so that they needed to ritualise their grief with a funeral – in this case a cremation with the ashes, in an urn, in a ritualised space in their home, where they regularly lit a candle? Their father had never been part of their lives, never been a cog in the machine. There was no lasting grief or sense of loss that had to find a permanent place in their lives as they moved forward. They buried their father with ritual grief. The death of their dog engendered a sense of loss, the grief of loss, and a need for mourning.


Accounts of the deaths of the patriarchs and matriarchs are heavy with ritualised mourning, and their complex family histories are no different from our own: death for some is experienced as profound loss, inspiring sometimes deep and extended mourning, and for others as a short process of ritualised grief. Our tradition informs us that the pain of loss, and the pain of grief can be different. And that both have their rituals.


Rabbi Brian


* Photo by Chaka Welch



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