A University of Alberta study uncovers an often-overlooked trigger for both grief and healing in people coping with the loss of a loved one.
By Gillian Rutherford
When Donna Wilson pulled up to visit her aunt and uncle on their farm near Eatonia, Sask., a few years ago, she came across a comical scene: Her uncle Doug was running around the yard chasing turkeys. The birds kept jumping up on his dog and he was trying to shoo them away with a broom.
It’s a memory Wilson plans to remind her aunt Doreen of soon. Doug died over the winter, and her aunt is grieving. Wilson hopes that sharing a funny story about him will help them both.
“I loved my uncle Doug, and I remember he was always smiling and laughing about something,” said Wilson. “Hopefully we will laugh together and it will be healing.”
Wilson, a nursing professor at the University of Alberta, recently published study findings that show humour can trigger moments of intense grief for people who have recently lost a loved one, but humour can also be helpful in the recovery process.
The key–as always with humour–is timing, plus you’ve got to know your audience, says Wilson.
The study was part of a larger inquiry into grief triggers–thoughts, memories, or events like anniversaries and family gatherings, special places, songs, even jokes. Very little research has been done on triggers and how bereaved people manage them, Wilson says, but they can be incapacitating.
“You can be driving past the hospital where your husband died, and suddenly have a massive grief trigger and have to pull over,” she said. “Now think about if that’s a pilot who’s flying a plane, or a surgeon, or a truck driver going down the highway.”
Working through the stages of grief
Researchers report there are nearly 300,000 deaths each year in Canada and on average 10 people grieve each death. For the study, Wilson and her team did in-depth interviews with 10 middle-aged and older Canadians who had lost a parent, child, sibling or spouse within the past two years, asking about their experiences with grief and recovery.
They all described being completely overwhelmed by grief at first, then being frequently hit by “hard-grief” triggers. Most found a way to reshape their lives without the loved one after about a year, and over the next year they were able to welcome good memories of the deceased person without triggered episodes of crying or extreme sadness. Eight of the 10 interview subjects said humour helped with their recovery.
“I think nobody realized humour is present for our mental health, even in grief,” said Begoña Errasti-Ibarrondo, associate professor with the University of Navarra and a visiting academic at the U of A. “In Spain, for example, at funerals sometimes we make jokes if it is appropriate and we tell funny stories about the person or the tricks they used to play.”
“Humour is what made it possible for me to live,” said one interview subject quoted in the paper. “I looked forward to the times I could laugh or smile; I could get a break from my grief.”
Researchers say when you are supporting someone who is grieving it is important to talk to them about the person who died. However, they caution it’s best to check first with the bereaved person before turning to humour, as some may not be ready or may find it inappropriate.
“Grief is very personal and so is humour,” said Errasti-Ibarrondo.
The saying “laughter is the best medicine” dates back to the King James Bible, originally published in 1611. We now know laughter releases endorphins and positive hormones that contribute to physical and mental health.
For her part, Wilson will continue to remember how her uncle Doug liked to use humour to cope with the frustrations of daily life. Once he was planning to take his family out for a drive when he noticed one of his car tires was deflated. “Well, at least it’s only flat on one side,” he told them with a laugh.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been making soup almost constantly. Never has a nervous breakdown smelled so savoury. Maybe not a nervous breakdown, exactly. But I always act oddly this time of year.
Or have done, at least, for the past four years, since my mum died on a November afternoon. This year, in a cyclone of chopped vegetables and stock that I’d attributed to it being “soup season”, it occurred to me that this was actually grief soup.
That I was channelling the sadness of another year without my mum into the repetitive actions – chopping, frying, blending – that come with obsessive soup-making.
It’s not that my mum herself made a lot of soup (although her cooking in general will always be one of my happiest memories of her).
It’s more what soup represents; it’s warm, it’s comforting, it’s schmeckt. Schmeckt is the Yiddish word my mum always used to describe something truly radioactive with flavour.
In a soup (if it’s any good) you have the deep brown savouriness of the stock merged with the sweetness of vegetables such as carrots and onions, and concentrated into pure schmeckt. You basically isolate everything delicious about each ingredient, and put it in a bowl. And it helps that I never feel so close to my mum as when I’m chopping an onion.
I know that anyone who saw a loved one in an ICU with Covid will have two conflicting images of that person.
I visited my mum in intensive care when she was dying of cancer, and the sight of her in a hospital bed, full of tubes, will always be at war with my memory of her bustling around a kitchen, making beautiful smells.
Death rituals, be it those entrenched in different religions and cultures, or those we invent ourselves, are designed to help us remember the good over the unspeakably awful. In November, of course, the entire country becomes enraptured by an increasingly divisive death ritual involving poppies and silence.
At the moment though, I’m still distracted by loss on a personal level. As well as the unofficial remembrance act of soup-making, this year I lit a yahrzeit candle for my mum. This is a Jewish death ritual. We aren’t a religious family at all, but I feel like she’d get a kick out of it.
A candle is standard remembrance fare for a reason; it’s somberly calming to stare into a flame as it dances with life, and think about decrying your mum for picking little piles of dead skin off her feet, only to have her reply, “You’ll miss me when I’m dead”.
After four years, she mostly just feels phenomenally far away. But still – I like to think – out there somewhere, watching me perform my stupid little rituals.
Maybe the dead have ways of remembering the living, too. Light years away, perhaps, my mum is cooking grief soup for me.
Prolonged grief disorder, a new diagnosis, is to grief what long covid is to covid
By Carol Smith
After I lost my only child more than 20 years ago, I told three lies over and over.
Yes, I’m fine, I said when people asked how I was doing.
I said this in the first year because I was in shock and didn’t have the words to begin to describe what I felt. My son was 7 when I got the phone call that he’d died unexpectedly while visiting his grandparents. The fact I wasn’t there to hold him in his last hours haunted me.
I said it in the second year because by then I’d instinctively absorbed the message that it’s not culturally acceptable to continue to talk about deep sadness more than a year after a loss. It makes people uncomfortable. It makes people feel they should be able to do something; it makes them feel helpless.
I said it year after year to convince others I was okay. I said it to convince myself. It worked, for the most part. Three years after my son’s death, I went back to my job as a journalist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. I smiled, laughed even. To the outside world, it looked like I was “over it.” But I was living in my own private snow globe. I avoided relationships, old and new.
The first lie was to protect others. The second was to protect me.
Yes, I’m happy I’ve moved back, I said when people asked about my return to Seattle from California. I said it to deflect deeper conversations about hard decisions. I said it so I didn’t have to talk about why I moved, so I didn’t have to utter the words: My son died. My giggly little boy with eyes the color of maple syrup, who loved trains, and T-ball, and “101 Dalmatians.” My son, who was deaf and helped me see both language and the world around me in a brand-new way. My son, who pressed his hand to mine when we signed I love you, and whose hugs I sometimes still feel in my dreams.
The third lie was the hardest.
No, I don’t have children, I answered for years when people asked. This would later send me into a spiral of shame and agony. “No” felt like denying he had ever lived. “Yes” forced me to explain that he was dead and brought up memories that were still too painful.
These lies kept me frozen for a long time.
It was only recently that the American Psychiatric Association put a name to what I most likely experienced: prolonged grief disorder. The organization included prolonged grief disorder in the updated Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) it published in March. The diagnosis refers to intense emotional pain that persists more than a year after a loss. Criteria include numbness, withdrawal, an inability to rejoin the normal stream of life. Those who lose children are at particular risk, as are those who lose a loved one to violence, natural disasters or other tragedies. Those without support systems or who have other significant life stressors are also at risk.
The identification of prolonged grief disorder comes at a time when it may be especially needed. Deaths from covid-19 in the United States have now reached 1 million. With covid’s grim bereavement multiplier, that could mean millions more at risk for prolonged grief. This kind of complicated mourning is essentially to grief what long covid is to covid.
The official inclusion of the diagnosis caps years of debate over whether labeling something “prolonged grief disorder” amounts to pathologizing grief. None of us escapes without losing something or someone we love dearly. The process of grieving a loved one is as individual and idiosyncratic as the person who has died. Critics argue that to suggest otherwise is to indicate that a normal process is a disease.
But lost in this heated discussion is what it’s like to live with deep grief year after year. We are taught to suck it up. We are taught to power through. We get our few days of “bereavement leave,” and then we’re supposed to get back to work. There’s not much of a grace period when it comes to grief. And because of that, long-term grief has been invisible to those who most need to recognize it.
During the pandemic, I attended a virtual conference for families who have lost children. One of the other bereaved moms gave a presentation about complicated grief. She ticked through some of the signs and symptoms: intense yearning that interferes with normal life more than a year after the death, numbness and disbelief, avoidance of social contact, difficulties moving on. It was as though she were describing my life in the 10 years that followed my son’s death.
I never received an official diagnosis back then because such a diagnosis didn’t exist. I didn’t even associate many of my behaviors with grief. Neither, apparently, did those around me. No one suggested that my growing social anxiety, my persistent nightmares or my general paralysis in life might have been due to grief. And because of that, I never thought to ask for help. I wish I had. I believe it would have made me feel less alone — less “defective,” not more so. I don’t think the new diagnosis pathologizes grief so much as makes it visible to those who suffer it and to those in their lives who might be able to help. Maybe the best thing that can come from the new diagnosis is not the view that long grief is disordered or maladaptive, but that it exists for some, is a normal response to an abnormal situation and deserves compassion.
We often say of parents who have lost children that they will never be the same. This is necessarily true, as it is for anyone who has suffered a profound loss. But it doesn’t mean we can’t eventually integrate that loss in such a way that life has meaning and joy again. To get there, though, requires all of us to be more aware. Recognizing when someone’s behaviors might be grief-related, even years later, could encourage more of us to talk about it, might make it okay to say Yes, it still hurts, when someone asks how we are doing. It might make it okay to get a little help. And the loved ones of at least some of the million Americans who have died from covid-19 are bound to need it.
I’m no stranger to grief. After all, I’ve been alive for nearly 65 years. And I’ve spent almost 40 of them as a psychotherapist, midwifing people’s grief: the couple who split after their child dies because they remind each other of the loss, the woman who swears her dead husband talks to her every night, the man who can’t clean out his deceased wife’s closet even after three years.
Any therapist will tell you that death is not the only occasion for grief. We can mourn the loss of anything to which we have become attached: a pet, a job, a home, a way of life. In bereavement, what is best about us — our ability to love — becomes the source of our suffering. It’s a wonder that all grief isn’t prolonged and that anyone is able to love again rather than wander through life stunned by its cruelty. And it’s surprising that anyone actually believes that there are stages and time limits to grief or that we know enough about how it works to know what to expect of it.
I figured my job had acquainted me with all the varieties of grief. But then I took on an additional one. Since November 2019, I’ve been the first selectman of a small New England town (population: about 1,575). It means I’m its chief executive officer, as well as its chief of police, tree warden and cemetery sexton, and I wind the clock in the Scotland Congregational Church.
The new job has a lot more in common with the old one than you’d think, or at least more than I would have thought. In both cases, unhappy people tell me what is bothering them and often expect (or even demand) that I do something about it. Responding to concerns about high taxes or flooded storm drains does not, however, usually require an excavation of a complainant’s past trauma; when I can fix the problem with a phone call, I am gratified in a way I would not have expected.
When the American Psychiatric Association added prolonged grief disorder to its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders last fall, the organization’s president, Vivian B. Pender, explained that “the circumstances in which we are living” have made people more susceptible to prolonged bouts of grief. The association noted that in addition to Covid deaths, Americans faced many ongoing disasters, including, at the time, “the wind-down in Afghanistan, floods, fires, hurricanes and gun violence.”
“Check in with yourself” if you’ve lost someone, Dr. Pender recommended. “Grief in these circumstances is normal, but not at certain levels and not most of the day, nearly every day for months. Help is available.”
Dr. Pender’s comments marked the culmination of a process that began about a decade ago, when the association identified prolonged grief as a possible mental disorder, a designation that encouraged researchers and the pharmaceutical industry to fund studies into such matters as the brain chemistry of protracted mourning, the difference between prolonged grief disorder and depression and the merits of various talk and drug therapies. They have identified neural circuits, sharpened diagnostic criteria and developed treatment regimens. There’s even an app for it under study called My Grief.
Critics, including me, have called this yet another intrusion of psychiatry into normal life, pointing out that there are no biological markers to distinguish prolonged grief disorder from normal grieving, whatever that is, and that no one has yet come close to figuring out how neural circuits give rise to any experience, let alone one as complex as grief.
But we must acknowledge that the new diagnosis is already doing exactly what a diagnosis is supposed to do — garnering resources for suffering people and attention to their suffering. The occasions for grief, prolonged or otherwise, do seem to be multiplying, and there is more to mourn than the loved ones lost to Covid or war or climate change. Coupled with our polarized, paralyzed politics, these calamities seem to threaten the foundations of our cultural, political and natural worlds. Turning grief into a mental disorder at least draws notice to the enormousness of the losses we face and to the bereavement that underlies all of them: the loss of the familiar.
I am confronted frequently by the derangements of loss. Sometimes it’s obvious, like when a couple are furious about the location of the cemetery plot they are purchasing for their son who died from an overdose. Other times, it’s not quite so on the nose, such as when an applicant for a fishing license likens the masks we’ve mandated at Town Hall to Nazism or when a young couple, baby in arms, tell me the pistol permits I just signed for them are so they can defend themselves but can’t say exactly against what or when a woman calls to ask if anything can be done about her neighbor’s flag with an obscenity aimed at people who voted for President Biden.
But even if you have to squint a little to see it, the loss is always there, lurking behind the anger: loss of control, of certainty, of the confidence that hard work and persistence will pay off with a life that is predictable and secure.
You may have guessed that my town is a Donald Trump town, and you would be correct: He beat Hillary Clinton and Mr. Biden handily here, and MAGA hats seem as common here as caps advertising trucks or construction equipment. You don’t have to squint to see the loss written on those caps. What is nostalgia but a yearning for what once was, at least in imagination, and a wish to have it again — the truck that you can fix yourself, the world before the pandemic, the reliably upward trajectory of an American life? Isn’t anger a way to stave off the helplessness that accompanies the recognition that something precious is gone forever?
I am also nostalgic for the time, probably also imagined, when the Enlightenment dream prevailed. That tolerance would bring forward our differences so that reason could sort them out, with facts as our common ground. That fairness and liberty might pull in different directions but would not pull us apart. At the very least, that we could unite to fight a virus. I am also bereft, heartsick over the incipient loss of a shared world so total that we can’t even agree on what has been lost, let alone mourn it in unison. Or, for that matter, pick up the pieces and see if we can fashion something better out of them.
Perhaps the American Psychiatric Association is correct to turn prolonged grief into an illness and to cite the multiplicity of world-historical calamities to support this claim. Not because the diagnosis will lead to finding errant brain circuits to treat but because, as the links in the supply chain of our familiar world weaken and snap, we may need to be reminded that behind the outrage and blame is bereavement, that we may be entering a long age of grief and we have no one to console us for our losses or to build something new with, except one another.
After more than a decade of argument, psychiatry’s most powerful body in the United States added a new disorder this week to its diagnostic manual: prolonged grief.
The decision marks an end to a long debate within the field of mental health, steering researchers and clinicians to view intense grief as a target for medical treatment, at a moment when many Americans are overwhelmed by loss.
The new diagnosis, prolonged grief disorder, was designed to apply to a narrow slice of the population who are incapacitated, pining and ruminating a year after a loss, and unable to return to previous activities.
Its inclusion in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders means that clinicians can now bill insurance companies for treating people for the condition.
It will most likely open a stream of funding for research into treatments — naltrexone, a drug used to help treat addiction, is currently in clinical trials as a form of grief therapy — and set off a competition for approval of medicines by the Food and Drug Administration.
Since the 1990s, a number of researchers have argued that intense forms of grief should be classified as a mental illness, saying that society tends to accept the suffering of bereaved people as natural and that it fails to steer them toward treatment that could help.
A diagnosis, they hope, will allow clinicians to aid a part of the population that has, throughout history, withdrawn into isolation after terrible losses.
“They were the widows who wore black for the rest of their lives, who withdrew from social contacts and lived the rest of their lives in memory of the husband or wife who they had lost,” said Dr. Paul S. Appelbaum, who is chair of the steering committee overseeing revisions to the fifth edition of the D.S.M.
“They were the parents who never got over it, and that was how we talked about them,” he said. “Colloquially, we would say they never got over the loss of that child.”
Throughout that time, critics of the idea have argued vigorously against categorizing grief as a mental disorder, saying that the designation risks pathologizing a fundamental aspect of the human experience.
They warn that there will be false positives — grieving people told by doctors that they have mental illnesses when they are actually emerging, slowly but naturally, from their losses.
And they fear grief will be seen as a growth market by drug companies that will try to persuade the public that they need medical treatment to emerge from mourning.
“I completely, utterly disagree that grief is a mental illness,” said Joanne Cacciatore, an associate professor of social work at Arizona State University who has published widely on grief, and who operates the Selah Carefarm, a retreat for bereaved people.
“When someone who is a quote-unquote expert tells us we are disordered and we are feeling very vulnerable and feeling overwhelmed, we no longer trust ourselves and our emotions,” Dr. Cacciatore said. “To me, that is an incredibly dangerous move, and short sighted.”
‘We don’t worry about grief’
The origins of the new diagnosis can be traced back to the 1990s, when Holly G. Prigerson, a psychiatric epidemiologist, was studying a group of patients in late life, gathering data on the effectiveness of depression treatment.
She noticed something odd: In many cases, patients were responding well to antidepressant medications, but their grief, as measured by a standard inventory of questions, was unaffected, remaining stubbornly high. When she pointed this out to psychiatrists on the team, they showed little interest.
“Grief is normal,” she recalls being told. “We’re psychiatrists, and we don’t worry about grief. We worry about depression and anxiety.” Her response was, “Well, how do you know that’s not a problem?”
Dr. Prigerson set about gathering data. Many symptoms of intense grief, like “yearning and pining and craving,” were distinct from depression, she concluded, and predicted bad outcomes like high blood pressure and suicidal ideation.
Her research showed that for most people, symptoms of grief peaked in the six months after the death. A group of outliers — she estimates it at 4 percent of bereaved individuals — remained “stuck and miserable,” she said, and would continue to struggle with mood, functioning and sleep over the long term.
“You’re not getting another soul mate and you’re kind of eking out your days,” she said.
In 2010, when the American Psychiatric Association proposed expanding the definition of depression to include grieving people, it provoked a backlash, feeding into a broader critique that mental health professionals were overdiagnosing and overmedicating patients.
“You’ve got to understand that clinicians want diagnoses so they can categorize people coming through the door and get reimbursement,” said Jerome C. Wakefield, a professor of social work at New York University. “That is a huge pressure on the D.S.M.”
Still, researchers kept working on grief, increasingly viewing it as distinct from depression and more closely related to stress disorders, like post-traumatic stress disorder. Among them was Dr. M. Katherine Shear, a psychiatry professor at Columbia University, who developed a 16-week program of psychotherapy that draws heavily on exposure techniques used for victims of trauma.
By 2016, data from clinical trials showed that Dr. Shear’s therapy had good results for patients suffering from intense grief, and that it outperformed antidepressants and other depression therapies. Those findings bolstered the argument for including the new diagnosis in the manual, said Dr. Appelbaum, who is chair of the committee in charge of revisions to the manual.
In 2019, Dr. Appelbaum convened a group that included Dr. Shear, of Columbia, and Dr. Prigerson, now a professor at Weill Cornell Medical College, to agree on criteria that would distinguish normal grief from the disorder.
The most sensitive question of all was this: How long is prolonged?
Though both teams of researchers felt that they could identify the disorder six months after a bereavement, the A.P.A. “begged and pleaded” to define the syndrome more conservatively — a year after death — to avoid a public backlash, Dr. Prigerson said.
“I have to say that they were kind of politically smart about that,” she added. The concern was that the public was “going to be outraged, because everyone feels because they still feel some grief — even if it’s their grandmother at six months, they are still missing them,” she said. “It just seems like you’re pathologizing love.”
Measured at the year mark, she said, the criteria should apply to around 4 percent of bereaved people.
The new diagnosis, published this week in the manual’s revised edition, is a breakthrough for those who have argued, for years, that intensely grieving people need tailored treatment.
“It’s kind of like the bar mitzvah of diagnoses,” said Dr. Kenneth S. Kendler, a professor of psychiatry at Virginia Commonwealth University who has played an important role in the last three editions of the diagnostic manual.
“It’s sort of an official blessing in the world,” he said. He compared it to astronomers deciding on a definition of planet. “This one’s in, and Pluto we kick out.”
If the diagnosis comes into common use, it is likely to popularize Dr. Shear’s treatment and also give rise to a range of new ones, including drug treatments and online interventions.
Dr. Shear said it was difficult to predict what treatments would emerge.
“I don’t really have any idea, because I don’t know when the last time there was a really brand-new diagnosis,” she said.
She added, “I really am in favor of anything that helps people, honestly.”
A loop of grief
Amy Cuzzola-Kern, 54, said Dr. Shear’s treatment helped her break out of a terrible loop.
Three years earlier, her brother had died suddenly in his sleep of a heart attack. Ms. Cuzzola-Kern found herself compulsively replaying the days and hours leading up to his death, wondering whether she should have noticed he was unwell or nudged him to go to the emergency room.
She had withdrawn from social life and had trouble sleeping through the night. Though she had begun a course of antidepressants and seen two therapists, nothing seemed to be working.
“I was in such a state of protest — this can’t be, this is a dream,” she said. “I felt like I was living in a suspended reality.”
She entered Dr. Shear’s 16-session program, called prolonged grief disorder therapy. In sessions with a therapist, she would narrate her recollection of the day that she learned her brother had died — a painful process, but one that gradually drained the horror out of the memory. By the end, she said, she had accepted the fact of his death.
The diagnosis, she said, mattered only because it was a gateway to the proper treatment.
“Am I ashamed or embarrassed? Do I feel pathological? No,” she said. “I needed professional help.”
Yet, others interviewed said they were wary of any expectation that grief should lift in a particular period of time.
“We would never put a time frame around when someone should or shouldn’t feel that they have moved forward,” said Catrina Clemens, who oversees the victim services department of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which provides services to bereaved relatives and friends. The organization encourages bereaved people to seek mental health care, but has no role in diagnosis, said a spokesperson.
Filipp Brunshteyn, whose 3-year-old daughter died after an automobile accident in 2016, said grieving people could be set back by the message that their response was dysfunctional.
“Anything we inject into this journey that says, ‘that’s not normal,’ that could cause more harm than good,” he said. “You are already dealing with someone very vulnerable, and they need validation.”
To set a year as a point for diagnosis is “arbitrary and kind of cruel,” said Ann Hood, whose memoir, “Comfort: A Journey Through Grief,” describes the death of her 5-year-old daughter from a strep infection. Her own experience, she said, was “full of peaks and valleys and surprises.”
The first time Ms. Hood walked into her daughter Grace’s room after her death, she saw a pair of ballet tights lying in a tangle on the floor where the little girl had dropped them. She screamed. “Not the kind of scream that comes from fright,” she later wrote, “but the kind that comes from the deepest grief imaginable.”
She slammed the door, left the room untouched and eventually turned off the heat to that part of the house. At the one-year mark, a well-meaning friend told her it was time to clear out the room — “nothing worse than a shrine,” he told her — but she ignored him.
Then one morning, three years after Grace’s death, Ms. Hood woke up and returned to the room. She sorted her daughter’s clothes and toys into plastic bins, emptied the bureau and closet and lined up her little shoes at the top of the stairs.
To this day, she is not sure how she got from one point to the other. “All of a sudden, you look up,” she said, “and a few years have gone by, and you’re back in the world.”
Sit shiva for seven days. Spend another 30 in sheloshim — a secondary mourning period — and say the Mourner’s Kaddish for a year. Between all of its mourning rituals, Judaism offers plenty of structure to mourners, which can offer comfort and a structured space in which to grieve.
But as many rituals as there are, there are even more ways to make them one’s own.
“There’s so many ways that grief and mourning are aligned from person to person, and it is so unique and personal,” said Naomi Less, an associate director at Lab/Shul, a New York Jewish community that welcomes members who don’t believe in God. With a significant number of people who identify as Jewish also identifying as not religiously observant, that adaptability in ritual has begun to prove key to ensuring that age-old rituals stay relevant — and that even the nonreligious find comfort in spaces where those rituals are observed.
“Your own experience of grief is wildly different for each loss,” Less said.
Even with religion taken out of the equation, it can be hard to negotiate your own grief along other people’s ways of grieving. When different approaches to religion come into play, especially within a family or communal group all mourning the same loss, it can be particularly tricky.
A recent study from the Pew Research Center found that about a quarter of Jews do not identify with the Jewish religion, meaning they consider themselves culturally and ethnically Jewish, but may also identify as atheists or agnostic. That number gets higher for Jews under the age of 50, with four of every 10 Jews aged 18-29 identifying as nonreligious.
The need for common practices for handling family divides is therefore increasing. To cope with this challenge, Less suggests adding practices that feel right, rather than subtracting ones that don’t.
“If they’re doing a more traditional funeral service, maybe there’s a piece of poetry you can bring in, maybe there’s a song as people are entering the space that evokes a memory,” she said.
That approach can help make sure there’s room in mourning rituals for everyone.
Rabbi Tzemah Yoreh of the City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in Manhattan, which also welcomes secular Jews, offers similar advice.
“Find the reading, find the piece, find the memory that you’d like to bring to the occasion,” Yoreh said. For example, many of the secular mourners he works with like to recite the Torah passage that begins, “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.”
When there’s real disagreement within families over how to observe mourning rituals for a loved one, it can be helpful to bring in a rabbi or someone else who can mediate. “Sometimes it’s helpful to have somebody to sit with you to talk about these things, because the emotions are running so high,” Less said. “It’s just nice to have somebody sit with you, actively listen, share back, and try to find commonalities for families.”
When the pandemic hit, Lab/Shul, where Less works, compiled a guide to mourning for its congregants, consistent with its emphasis on artistic expression.
The guide, which is available online, is largely geared toward adapting traditions for social distancing. But it also offers ways to mix up traditions that might be more palatable to those who aren’t religious, such as making a playlist of songs the loved one liked or volunteering to honor their memory.
“It’s kind of a glossary of Jewish mourning and the cycles of mourning,” Less said. “And then it offers different kinds of ideas for creative ways to make it your own, ways to make it more personal.”
Lab/Shul also offers a weekly virtual Kaddish call that usually attracts about 20 people. She says it has been a meaningful way for mourners from all walks of Jewish life to create community.
“These folks who came because they heard about this call are now wanting to connect in person,” Less said. “There are groups that have connected in different parts of the country because folks call in from everywhere.”
For people who want to say Kaddish but don’t believe in God, the synagogue also offers alternatives to the prayer in English that use nonreligious language.
Of course, there’s no one set of customs that all secular Jews will want to follow when it comes to mourning.
“Secular Jews tend to be individualistic and are not seeking those unifying rituals, necessarily,” Yoreh said. For them, resisting structure might be part of the point.
Olena Koval found out that her husband was dead via text message. He was shot by Russian soldiers inside their home in Bucha while she was sheltering nearby, their neighbors told Human Rights Watch. In the days that followed, despite the brutal cold and her spinal disability, she made repeated attempts to recover his body but was turned back each time by the soldiers’ threats.
As the atrocities escalated, Olena fled Bucha to save her remaining family. Before their departure, she left a note with a neighbor that marked where her husband’s body was, hoping someone could give him a burial.
War is synonymous with death, but its emotional toll extends beyond the loss of life. The inability to say farewell to one’s loved ones and lay them to rest can often be just as painful.
Humans have always cared for their dead – so much that archaeologists often consider mortuary rites among the traits that distinguish Homo sapiens from other species. In other words, it is a fundamental part of being human.
As an anthropologist, I have spent two decades studying rituals, particularly those that can seem “extreme.” At first glance, these customs seem puzzling: They appear to have no direct benefits but can feel utterly meaningful. A closer look, however, shows that these seemingly senseless acts express deeper, profoundly human needs.
Take funerary rites. There is a practical need to dispose of a dead body, but most burial customs go far beyond that requirement. Among the Toraja people of Indonesia, for example, deceased family members are kept in their homes for months or even years. During that time, their relatives treat them as if they were still living: They offer them food, change their clothes, and bring them the latest gossip. Even after their funeral, their mummified bodies are exhumed, dressed up, and paraded around town on ceremonial occasions.
The Toraja are not alone. In Madagascar, I have visited communities where people lived in fragile reed huts, at the mercy of frequent deadly cyclones, as the only robust brick-and-mortar buildings in the area were used as tombs. And in the ancient city of Petra in Jordan, the architectural masterpieces carved into the rock by the Nabataeans two millennia ago were resting places for the dead.
Those practices may seem like outliers, but they are not. In all cultures, people clean, protect, embellish and carefully deposit their dead. Muslims wash and shroud the body before interring it. Hindus may bathe it with milk, honey and ghee and adorn it with flowers and essential oils before cremation. Jews keep watch over the deceased from the time of death until the burial. And many Christians hold wakes at which family members gather to pay tribute to the deceased.
Funerary rites are ostensibly about the dead. But their importance lies in the roles they play for the living: They allow them to grieve, seek comfort, face the reality of death and find the strength to move on. They are deeply human acts, which is why being deprived of them can feel devastating and dehumanizing.
This is what is happening in Ukraine.
In besieged cities, people cannot retrieve the bodies of their loves ones from the streets out of fear of being killed. In other cases, Ukrainian officials have accused the Russian army of burying victims in mass graves to hide war crimes. Even when they are retrieved, many of the corpses have been mutilated, making them difficult to identify. To people who have lost their loved ones, the lack of a proper send-off can feel like a second loss.
The need for closure is widely recognized to be indispensable – not only by anthropologists and psychologists, but also first responders, governments and international organizations. This is why armies go to great lengths to return the remains of fallen soldiers to their families, even if that takes decades.
The right to a burial is acknowledged even for one’s foes. The Geneva Convention stipulates that belligerents must ensure that the bodies of enemies are “honorably interred” and that their graves are respected and “properly maintained and marked so that they may always be found.”
Given the importance of those rites, it is also striking that the Russian defense ministry has reportedly been reluctant to bring their own dead back home, because they are concerned with covering up the scale of the losses. This seeming indifference to the suffering of Russia’s own people and their need for closure may be yet another act of dehumanization.