When is the time to stop grieving?

Dear Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin,

My church has been under grief for over a year, due to a lady in the church losing her baby girl just before she was born.The woman had to give birth to the baby even though the baby was going to be dead on arrival due to a blood clot that stopped the baby’s heart. 

Last night I attended a women’s meeting where the women of the church old and young got up and declared that grief is always a part of us, there is no expiration date, and we just need to grieve forever, allowing grief to be apart of us.And saying things like no one knows anything about grief unless they have experienced the same thing themselves.Talking about the physical debilitation it can do to your body and so on. 

Then after all this they had the woman who lost her baby get up and answer questions about her grief talking about it for 30 minutes or more. She proceeded to make angry remarks about people whose babies had been healed and how praying and putting your grief down to live a victorious life was all more harmful than good, because a life of faith is a hard life with no advantages except for the afterlife.

Needless to say I don’t feel like this is biblical at all.Yes, we have time to grieve,but it shouldn’t be for ever and one eventually needs to pick up the pieces and move on.

Please help! Thanks ever so much for your time.


Dear Gina,

As a student of our teachings, you have most likely heard us often explain that, as important as our emotions are, we must be in control of them rather than allowing them to control us. You have successfully worked on yourself to “think Biblically”  and what you have learned is guiding you. We want to validate that your instincts in this case are entirely correct.

As you say, ‘it shouldn’t be forever’ because if it is, added to other deaths in the church community, all of them also observed forever, eventually the church becomes overwhelmed by an incessant tsunami of grief in the midst of which no celebration of anything is ever possible.

The Bible does impose a time limit on (public) grief “and when the days of his grief were over” (Genesis 50:4) and “The Israelites grieved for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days, until the time of weeping and mourning was over.” (Deuteronomy 34:8)  Privately, one observes an annual commemoration on the anniversary of death however, imposing one’s grief upon the entire community forever is wrong.

We do want to warn you that we don’t think that there is anything that you can say or do that will change the minds of the women in your church. They seem to be following today’s general culture that elevates feelings above all else.

Ancient Jewish wisdom has a great deal to say about grieving. This should come as no surprise. Life and death, and joy and sadness are huge parts of our lives. Ignoring death is unhealthy but so is letting those difficult periods overwhelm us.

The grief of this woman in your church seems to have turned into bitterness against church teachings and God.  She needs wise and warm counseling from a faith leader. People who mean well sometimes say unhelpful things to those who are suffering. Among these are statements like, “If you truly had faith, nothing bad would happen,” or “You must be very special for God to choose you for such an affliction.” People are uncomfortable around grief and while trying to help, can cause a great deal of pain.

Unfortunately, by attempting to validate this woman’s pain (a good thing) it seems that, as a group, the women in your church are losing all perspective (a bad thing). As it says in Ecclesiastes 3, there is a proper time—and time limit—for all things. “A time to cry and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance”.

In Genesis 23:2 it says that Abraham cried after the death of his wife, the matriarch Sara. Not visible in translation is that, for all time in a proper Torah scroll, one of the letters in the word meaning ‘to cry for her’ is written small. This leads us to the ancient Jewish wisdom teaching that Abraham diminished his grief. While personally devastated at the loss of his loving partner, he recognized that his mission in life demanded both proper mourning and then a return to an active and joyful life. Learning to do so doesn’t mean forgetting or turning your back on your loss. It does mean that stopping to actively grieve is as important as actively grieving. Life has changed and we can never go back to what it was before this death, but our own life, filled with meaning and happiness, does need to go on.

We have written in a number of places about the Torah’s directives for dealing with the loss of a close relative, starting with seven intense days of mourning surrounded by friends and family and then an easing back into full life. Death in utero or delivering a stillborn baby follows a different path. In some ways that can be more difficult. There has been a trauma, but the mourning is private and less regimented. What we can learn, is that making this into public, unending mourning is not helpful. Rather than supporting this poor mother’s healing, her grief (and anger) is becoming institutionalized. This is not good for her and it certainly isn’t good for the church family.

Perhaps what these church ladies need is for a pastor or church leader to offer a special class on how God calls upon us not to follow our hearts and emotions.  He would draw a distinction between secular culture in which talking about feelings has been elevated into a form of secular devotion and religious culture in which we learn to control our feelings and not be controlled by them. “Remember all the commandments of the LORD, so as to do them and not follow after your own heart and your own eyes,” (Numbers 15:39)

We hope that you can share your reservations with others especially those in leadership, Gina, but you will need to do so in a firm but sensitive way. This is no easy task.

Everything in its time and place,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin


21 thoughts on “When is the time to stop grieving?”

  1. You write above that “We have written in a number of places about the Torah’s directives for dealing with the loss of a close relative.” Would you be willing to link us to those articles or to point us in the direction of those resources? I would be interested to (re)read them in light of this article. Thank you for your work!

    1. Brad, I did a quick search for the words “shiva” (the intense mourning period of seven days) and mourning, and came up with too many places to look at them all. You might try the same thing. Some will be on target and others won’t. I was surprised not to see certain places, though some of them may be in our Thought Tool books yet not have made the migration to our new website. Here is one that I did find: Sitting Shiva

  2. Thank You for your Biblical answers to our questions. I lost my husband of 61 years back in October, today I found out that I have now lost my eldest brother. Your answers give me so much more than even counseling would. And I love that I can go back and re read this whenever. Yes everybody needs a Rabbi, and His Wife. Thank You again.

    1. We are truly sorry to hear of your losses, Betty and thrilled if we were able to provide some consolation.

  3. Carl August Schleg

    THANK YOU, this is what I attempt to teach my ‘brothers’ who came back from Viet Nam as well as strive to teach in AA/NA…..
    ONLY through this mind set I have 29 years, and as I share
    Tell my Rabbi ‘HOWDY”
    From a Misplaced ‘COONASS’

  4. Is 2 Samuel 12:13-23 of help here? King David’s approach may be more easily described then adopted, but then again he was King David. Nevertheless, the need to grieve deeply and then move on and resume one’s life and responsibilities in a timely manner seems right, though not necessarily easy.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Michael–
      Of course you are correct-we are told of King David’s ordeal for instructional and advisory purposes not for historic reasons. Coming from you, your words are especially eloquent and also poignant. As you say, much easier to write about than to actually live by.

  5. Neweverymoment, Deb:
    When my own beloved first husband of 22 years died, I began to deal with my own grief by walking down to the local library and researching grief counseling (I happen to be a psychologist). What I learned helped me and gave me a tool to help many others since. Most of it matches precisely what you outline here. When a loved one dies, particularly if you have been the caregiver, it leaves a person-shaped hole in your daily life. Now there is the work of grieving to be done, and it takes as long as it takes you, without connection to how much you loved the person. Grieving is the work of closing that hole, which heals but may well leave a scar that aches in damp weather. “We” can join you in looking ahead to a time when your work of grieving will have been completed, and you face the future in a way that will make your loved one proud. The point is–again–that the work of grieving is somehow finite. Others can and should join you for the short run, but again, look forward to the other side of this challenge. The death of a child is somehow out of expected time and is therefore always even more challenging. Still, the same pattern helps one deal with it. I have had to confront deep grief twice, with two beloved husbands; and have used this approach to help myself and many others by personalizing it in a note. We still do have the happy memories. Process thought holds that God is present in every occasion of experience, holding out perfect possibilities tailor-made for that experience.

    1. You have turned sad events in your life into a way to help others, Deb. I wish this mother in our Ask the Rabbi had access to women who could help her move forward.

  6. Many people are sad this time of year because there will be an empty chair at the table. If you are a believer, you know that the departed family member is at our Lord’s table where every meal is a banquet.

    1. Absolutely, Carmine. Special events like holidays, birthdays, and even events years down the road like weddings can all evoke many feelings of grief. Yet, we mustn’t let the sadness destroy the events for those who are alive. It does help to know that death is not the end of the picture.

  7. I understand that woman’s grief ….
    As a strong believer in prayer…..I said My God is bigger than any circumstance…and if He isn’t, I am at the wrong altar.

    My husband suffered with cancer for a year …He was a Believer. He died.. He was the love of my life.

    It took 3 years, not knowing anymore, where or If God was, saying…so……is He even real…? where is He? Does He check back every thousand years or so to see how the human experiment is going? …..having to handle difficult circumstances alone, walking through that grief, never ever knowing when it would blindside me, to come to a point if or when I could say…death, you didn’t win.

    I kept walking and eventually came to the decision that I refuse to ” live sadly.”
    Grieving takes as long as it takes…no more…no less……You have to do ” life” , one minute at a time…every day and night, when just taking a breath is all you can do.
    There are 3000 to 5000 new widows every day who will walk that walk…..no one can do it for them …I hold them up to God daily…and I call Blessings upon them and those who help them, for the truth is, they are now foreigners living in a foreign land..learning to take each step in a landscape totally unfamiliar to them, and their eyes are different ..a widow can spot another widow in a heartbeat.
    So to those of you who have a heart for the Widow….God Bless you and make His face to shine upon you.


    1. Dee, your words very articulately explain why there is are special directives in the Bible for how to treat widows. As you say, grief doesn’t end on a schedule and learning to live a new life is not easy. I hope we were clear that we were making a distinction between the woman’s private grief and public grief of the community around her. That is why we encouraged her finding support, but not through the community publicly mourning with her.
      We are sure that you are a source of strength for others walking in your path.

  8. Thank you! We lost our adult son 15 months ago. There are times when we withdraw and pour out our emotions to God, but more and more we want to live our life with peace and expectancy until it is our time to leave this earth. We know we will see him again. In the meantime, we aim to be obedient to what God has called us to do for other “sons and daughters”.

    1. Lynda, you and your husband have lived through every parent’s nightmare. I’m so sorry. May God bless you with strength to keep moving on and to honor your son’s memory.

    2. You write above that “We have written in a number of places about the Torah’s directives for dealing with the loss of a close relative.” Would you be willing to link us to those articles or to point us in the direction of those resources? I would be interested to (re)read them in light of this article. Thank you for your work!

  9. Please pass this along to the writer,
    “Rejoice with those that rejoice, and weep with those that weep.” , in Romans of brt hdsha

    Recall not to be as the buddies of Job.
    A good reminder.

  10. Please pardon me if I seem to rehash your superb teachings from Ancient Jewish Wisdom, however: you have told us that God’s critical commandment to us is to ‘Be Happy!’ and to conduct our lives with joy in serving the Lord. In the same vein, I am reminded that the Lord exhorts us to ‘Choose LIFE!’ (and not death). The lesson both to Hebrews and Christians seems crystal clear. Even on the earthly plane, our departed loved ones would never wish us to remain mired in the Slough of Despond over their deaths, but would wish us to live on, to enjoy, to thrive and prosper, and to remember the good times that we enjoyed together.

    1. James, our writer’s concern is that her church is doing the opposite of what you write. When we have a loss it stays a part of us forever – and sometimes rears its head years down the road. However, meeting those feelings privately or with a trusted companion is healthy. And the goal is for sadness not to lead to despair. Asking that our loss dominates the people around us and keeping it front and center is not helpful.

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