Learning Grief: What Jewish Wisdom Taught Me

I didn’t know I would have to learn how to grieve. As it turns out, we’re not born knowing how to navigate this fundamental part of life.

My beloved aunt Deborah Kantor Nagler, of blessed memory, died on April 3, 2020 from COVID-19. She was only 66 when she died, but she was really more of a grandmother figure to me, teaching me the traditions of my ancestors, showing up for me whenever I needed support, and loving on everyone around her with an impish twinkle in her eye. 

Aunt Debie was at once one of the fiercest and most gentle people I’ve ever known. She was a pillar of my life.  

She landed in the ER so early in the pandemic that the tools available to help her were minimal. After 11 terrifying days on a ventilator, she was doing better and was able to come off of it and leave the ICU, to our sweet relief. But a few days later the virus intensified, overtaking her exhausted body, and she passed away. 

Our shock and horror were magnified by the limitations we faced in how we could mourn her. Only her husband was allowed to attend her funeral in person. The rest of us were relegated to numbly watching a choppy livestream alone at home. We couldn’t gather at all.

My aunt’s death initiated my ongoing learning journey of trying to understand my grief and how I could move through it. Three years in, I share some of my most important learnings in the hope that they can help someone else along their grief journey.

You can lean on (and adapt) Jewish mourning rituals even under the most impossible circumstances. 

After my aunt died, I assumed we would have no shiva at all due to the raging pandemic, and when my dad (my aunt’s brother) said he wanted to use Zoom to hold shiva, it felt absurd to me. 

How could we approximate the feeling and utility of in-person shiva – that crush of presence, distraction, and support for the week following the funeral – on Zoom, a platform that we barely knew how to use in early April 2020? 

But our Zoom shiva turned out to be deeply meaningful. Loved ones from all over the country were able to join, and since only one person could speak at a time, everyone present got to hear each story that was shared about Aunt Debie. I was so grateful for the adaptability of this tradition and the comfort our new version brought us.

Recently I realized that my dad, who lights a lot of yahrzeit candles each year to honor family members and days of remembrance, uses a beautiful metal holder especially designed for yahrzeit candles. I had never seen that before – I was used to seeing the candles sitting on the counter, adorned only by their gaudy branded labels. 

I immediately connected to this opportunity for hiddur mitzvah, making the effort to beautify Jewish observance to enhance the holiness of the experience. Buying a beautiful fused glass yahrzeit candle holder in time to use for my aunt’s third yahrzeit was a new way to honor her and tend to my own grief. 

Grief is in the body. 

A few months ago, I learned from Naomi Less and Rabbi David Ingber about the role of the mekonenot, professional sacred grief wailers, usually women, in Jewish tradition. I learned more about them from this source sheet by Jericho Vincent: the goal of the mekonenot was to help mourners cry, and they were so important that according to the Mishnah, even the poorest people saved money to be able to hire them. 

Vincent shares this passage from the Kohenet tradition: “The word mekonenet means ‘one who laments’ but can also mean ‘one who makes a nest.’ The mekonenet embodies the pain and truth of change… She brings the gifts of comforting the bereaved, burying the dead, healing the mourners, and facing cataclysmic change." 

Just as the mekonenet used her body to pour out and process grief, so, too, do each of us need to tend to our bodies during periods of intense grieving. 

At times I’ve felt myself avoiding feeling my grief because it has felt too big and scary, like maybe it would overtake me completely. But in working with a somatic-focused mental health therapist, I learned to allow those big feelings to be present in my body and to make space for them. When pain is acknowledged, it can move through and, eventually, make some space for comfort.

Grief is long, and grief is love. 

The long, layered stages of mourning in Judaism provide a needed contrast to the refusal of broader American culture to acknowledge the grieving process. 

Being equally steeped in Judaism and the American context, I had to recognize and unravel the harmful messaging around grief I’ve received: that it’s something to get over as soon as possible. The book It’s OK That You’re Not OK by Megan Devine taught me that major grief is something you move with and accompany as you continue through life, rather than something you ever “get past.” Grieving someone you loved is a manifestation of that great love; it is normal and healthy. Understanding that, I was better able to honor and tend to my grief. 

One particularly moving gesture of support was when a friend sent me a card expressing her condolences right after my aunt died – and then sent another card a few months later to share that she was still thinking of me and my loss. That she still cared about my grief enough to reach out, long after the larger wave of sympathy had quieted down, made me feel seen and cared for.

Now, moving into my fourth year without my Aunt Debie, I continue to hold my sweet memories of her close: her tight loving hugs; her Shabbos table filled to the brim with a million different dishes; her slowly drizzling honey over the challah on Rosh Hashanah with a satisfied smile; staying up late, laughing, on her living room couch. 

I wish she was still here, and I feel grateful for what I’ve learned from losing her — wisdom about grief and love that I know will support me throughout my life.

At The Well uplifts many approaches to Jewish practice. Our community draws on ancient Jewish wisdom, sometimes adapting longstanding practices to more deeply support the well-being of women and nonbinary people. See this article’s sources below. We believe Torah (sacred teachings) are always unfolding to help answer the needs of the present moment.


How To Sit Shiva, My Jewish Learning 

Mikonenet: Sacred Grief Work, source sheet via Sefaria.org

Timeline of Jewish Mourning, My Jewish Learning 

Hiddur Mitzvah: The Case for Beautiful Ritual Objects, My Jewish Learning 

Learning Grief: What Jewish Wisdom Taught Me
Nava Kantor
Nava Kantor

Nava Kantor, MSW (she/her) spent the last five years working in the St. Louis Jewish community, where she also co-founded and volunteers with MaTovu, an inclusive Jewish community space for spiritual, educational, and social programming. Nava is passionate about creating experiences that foster meaning and connection and works toward a world that centers wellness, equity, and sustainability.

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