For a Christian, when a loved one dies, grief feels a little softened by belief in an afterlife and what that afterlife entails. Not so easy for us Jews. Many don't believe in an afterlife at all, and for those who do, no elaborate description of some "place" where our loved ones "go" exists. What can we do, then, psychologically, ritually, and communally?
First, don't underestimate the power of the initial Jewish rituals of death.
When my mother passed way, I found a great deal of comfort in Jewish rituals. Because my mom wasn't Jewish, I missed out on the beautiful ritual of having her body lovingly washed by the community, accompanied by blessings, along with the comfort of someone sitting with her until the funeral. After her Christian funeral, however, the Jewish community joined me at her gravesite to say kaddish, talk about what her life had meant to me, and place three shovels of dirt upon her casket. In ancient times, people buried their own family members and regarded this as the last loving act bestowed upon them. Having a community with whom to share these rituals eased a bit of the crushing grief when my mother died.
Today, some Jews don't follow traditional burial rituals, and some live in communities or attend shuls where no chevra kadisha society performs Jewish burial rites.
Others lack even a strong Jewish community. A friend of mine suggested that people in these situations wear a piece of jewelry that belonged to the parent, or keep the black piece of cloth pinned to your clothing for as long as you feel it's needed. At one rabbinical study week I attended, our name tags included a particular colored dot for various reasons, black indicating we were in a period of mourning. Choosing to wear this indicated that others were free to offer condolences and give the grieving person a chance to talk when they wanted to. Gather the courage to talk about your pain, your memories, and how you're coping or failing to cope. Look for ways to build community when none is apparent.
Modern humans evolved 50,000 years ago and anthropologists have found signs that religious rituals were practiced thousands of years before that. It doesn't matter if you simply believe that all of these individual cultures invented God or an afterlife mythology as a way to deal with death. The reality is this: we need some kind of religious ritual. It seems ingrained in the vast majority of us. In addition to the above rituals, you might light a candle each day and set a journal beside it for yourself and others to record some loving memory of the person for whom you're grieving.
Second, connect with your loved one in your imagination if you don't believe in an afterlife, or in spirit, if you do believe. When my dad passed away, even though he was 88 and had only been ill for three months, I was shocked to find that I dreamed - for at least two years - only of his illness. In one dream I found him on a park bench, emaciated, curled in a fetal position, close to death. I cradled him in my arms and carried him home. How could I have known him as a healthy vibrant man for my 40+ years, then dream only of his illness? Of course, I knew that my subconscious was struggling to deal with his death and in time, my nightmares disappeared, replaced by an occasional dream of happy times with him.
I also struggled with haunting thoughts during the day. When a thought of my dad popped into my mind, a vision of him crying and in pain almost always accompanied it. I countered those thoughts with conscious ones of happy memories. I did the same with my mom, even though my relationship with her had been rocky for most of my life. Digging through my keepsake boxes and my memories, sacrifices they had made for me readily appeared. For some reason I had kept a raggedy robe Mom had made for me when I was a teenager and could find nothing long enough to fit my 5'10 scrawny frame. From there, I recalled a candle she had spent months making when I collected them; the candle she made weighed about 60 pounds, dripped with every shade of color imaginable, and sat on a decorative white stool. I never had to ask her if I could bring friends over for the night, and she never set a limit on the number that could stay with us. Although we struggled financially, she kept the kitchen stocked with enough food to satisfy a boxcar of teenagers and our home was always open to everyone.
What are your memories of your parents? Even if thoughts of their deaths fill your mind and weigh you down with grief, counter them consciously with thoughts of the beauty of their lives. Whether you believe their souls live on or not, feel the energy of the presence they've left in your home and life. Visit places where you shared happy moments with them.
Third, visit their graves or, if you're unable to do that, find a secluded spot that you can return to repeatedly. There, allow your grief to spill over. If you believe in God, pour out your heart with whatever emotion springs to the surface. If you don't believe in God, pour out your heart with whatever emotion springs to the surface. During the months that followed my parents' death, I visited their graves as often as possible (we no longer lived in the same state), and I usually visited alone, during a time of day when it was least likely for others to be at the cemetery. They had been buried on the highest spot of the cemetery, surrounded by trees and the countryside. It was a beautiful burial site. Somehow, being there brought me a great deal of comfort. Some believe that spiritual energy resides at the graves of good people. I found that to be true.
Fourth, find a place to say kaddish. If you don't have a community, please contact me and let me know if you're interested in a virtual community. Kaddish has long been a source of comfort for Jews. Naming a person out loud, bringing their memory to life, reciting a prayer that Jews have used for several hundred years brings healing. Some simply find the tradition comforting. Others believe it elevates the soul of the deceased. Whatever your belief, though, it's a positive, uplifting expression of joy and gratitude for your loved one's life.
Fifth, realize you do not know whether the soul of your loved one lives on. People who claim to know that an afterlife exists are deluded. So are people who claim to know it does not. No one has been there and returned to let us know. Be open. Know that you do not know. Many Jews think of themselves as too intellectual to contemplate life-after-death, or they think it's a Christian concept. Judaism's belief in an afterlife, however, goes back at least to the time when Saul called up Samuel from the dead. While Judaism may not have any detailed idea of an afterlife, this myth leaves us with the idea that it's a "place" of shalom - wholeness and rest. Jewish mystics have also left us with a wealth of contemplative philosophic texts on the afterlife, some of them no less "intellectual" than pagan philosophers who posited emanation and return to the "One".
Death is surreal and while Judaism sets various stages of grief recovery, accompanied by set periods of time for grieving, in reality, there is no set time for when grief ends, and there is no single answer to recovery. Obviously, if you're unable to function, seek professional counseling. Otherwise, ease back into normalcy at your own pace. Read comforting prayers. Talk to people who have hearts full of compassion and who are capable of deep listening. Recall your loved one's life, even as you grieve his or her death, and know that they will always live on in your memory.