Along with the experience of loneliness, one of the most acutely painful aspects of bereavement is the feeling of loss. A person whom we knew and loved—possibly for an entire lifetime—is now gone.

After experiencing the death of a loved one, it can be difficult to move forward while harboring this continual sense of loss. The feeling of emptiness can be overwhelming and paralyzing.

For the believer, the ultimate source of comfort is the knowledge that the void and absence that death leaves behind is only temporary. A foundational principle of the Jewish faith is the belief in techiyat ha-meitim (“resurrection of the dead”), which will occur in the messianic era, as prophesied by the prophets of Israel.1 Still, in the interim, a dear and beloved person has been removed from our lives. How is one to cope with this devastating reality on a day-to-day basis?

In his communications with people who were grieving, the Rebbe emphasized that from a spiritual perspective, the loss of a loved one is not the complete loss we oftentimes consider it to be.

In the previous chapter, we quoted the Rebbe’s letter to Ariel Sharon, in which the Rebbe cites the traditional words of consolation spoken to a mourner, “May the Omnipresent comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem,” and sees in these words a message on how the burden of grief is shared by the entire community. In that same letter, the Rebbe touches on two additional messages of consolation that can be derived from the connection between the individual mourner’s grief and that of the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem:

Just as we have complete confidence that God will certainly rebuild the ruins of Zion and Jerusalem, gather the dispersed of Israel from all corners of the world through the righteous Moshiach, and bring them joyfully to witness the rejoicing of Zion and Jerusalem, so do we trust that regarding the loss of the individual mourner, God will fulfill his promise, “Awake and rejoice, you who repose in the dust,”2 and we will experience true joy when all are reunited with the future resurrection of the dead.

There is yet a third point: Just as in regard to Zion and Jerusalem, the Romans, and before them, the Babylonians, were given dominion only over the wood and stone, silver and gold of the physical Holy Temple but not over its inner, spiritual essence, felt within the heart of each and every Jew—for the nations have no dominion over this, and it stands eternally—so too, regarding the mourning of the individual: Death has dominion only regarding the physical body and the physical aspects of the deceased person. The soul, however, is eternal; it has simply ascended to the World of Truth….3

In a letter written by the Rebbe in 1978 to a family in Milan who had experienced a death in the family, the Rebbe writes:

The only thing that an illness or a fatal accident can do is cause a weakening or termination of the bond that holds the body and soul together, whereupon the soul departs from its temporary abode in this world and returns to its original world of pure spirit in the eternal world.3

On April 13, 1973, during a public address he gave on the occasion of his seventy-first birthday, the Rebbe spoke movingly about those who had perished in the Holocaust.

“A sword or gun, fire or flood can affect only the physical body or the soul’s connection to the body, but never the soul itself. If you ask a rational individual, “What is the person’s essence, his body or soul? With whom are you truly connected? Who is precious to you? Whom do you defend, and whose pain alarms you?”—he will acknowledge that it is the soul.

What does this tell us? The beloved soul with whom one had a connection, who was sent to Auschwitz and there gave his life for being a Jew—the body may have taken, but the soul remains.

“The soul remains the day after Auschwitz, a year after Auschwitz, and a generation after Auschwitz… the soul remains whole into eternity.”4

In 1960, a group of college students came to see the Rebbe. One of the topics they discussed was the Jewish understanding of death.

The Rebbe explained: “The term used to describe death in Judaism is histalkut, which does not mean death in the sense of coming to an end, but rather an elevation from one level to another. When one completes his or her mission in life, the departed person is elevated to a higher plane.

“So death is not a cessation of life, but rather describes the process whereby one’s spiritual life takes on a new dimension. This notion is consistent with the scientific principle of conservation of matter, which states that nothing physical can be annihilated. This table or a piece of iron can be cut up, burned, etc., but in no instance can the matter of the table or the iron be destroyed. It only takes on a different form.

“Likewise, on the spiritual level, our spiritual being—the soul—can never be destroyed. It only changes its form or is elevated to a different plane.

“Accordingly,” the Rebbe concluded, “the term ‘afterlife’ is actually inappropriate, for what we experience after death is a continuation of life. Until 120 (the human lifespan mentioned in the Torah), life is experienced on one level, and from 121, 122, and 123 onward, it is carried on at another level, and we continue to ascend higher and higher in the realm of the spirit.”5

On the evening of December 31st, 1952, Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Zuber, dean of the Lubavitcher yeshiva in Boston and rabbi at Congregation Beth Hamidrash Hagodol in Roxbury, Massachusetts, was attacked by muggers who beat him so severely that he died. This man had survived Stalinist Russia with his religious integrity intact, only to be murdered in the safe haven of the United States. The Rebbe sent representatives from Brooklyn to the funeral and reached out to the family. A few months later Chana Zuber (today Chana Sharfstein), the daughter of Rabbi Zuber, came with her mother to New York for a yechidut (private audience) with the Rebbe. She established a warm rapport with the Rebbe and remained in contact with him over the years.

Tragically, less than five years after the death of Chana’s father, her mother, Rebbetzin Zlata Zuber, suffered a fatal stroke and passed away the following day. Utterly devastated, Chana requested a yechidut, at which she told the Rebbe of the great emotional pain she was still experiencing and asked for guidance on how to deal with her grief. The Rebbe responded by revisiting a few points he had made to her in the condolence letter he sent her upon her mother’s passing: “All believers in G‑d believe also in the survival of the soul. Actually, this principle has even been discovered in the physical world, where science now holds, as an absolute truth, that nothing in the world can be physically destroyed. How much more so in the spiritual world, especially in the case of the soul, which in no way can be affected by the death and disintegration of the physical body....”6

The Rebbe acknowledged the pain that people experience when someone dear to them passes on, the terrible void that is felt because one can no longer touch, hug, or converse with the deceased. But if the most important attachment we have with the people we love is to the quality of their soul, “including such spiritual things as character, kindness, goodness, all of which are attributes of the soul and not of the body,” the loss and devastation will be less acute. We can summarize the Rebbe’s view thus: When you love a person, you love what the person is, you love the person’s character, his personality. And those are things that cannot be destroyed.

When my uncle, Rabbi Yitzchak Vorst, lost his two-year-old son to a fatal car accident, he drew enormous comfort from the Rebbe’s teachings. Rabbi Vorst subsequently wrote a book, Why? Reflections on the Loss of a Loved One, in which he communicates the Rebbe’s message of solace and comfort to others who, like him, have suffered bereavement.

To illustrate this concept, Rabbi Vorst provides his own analogy of a television broadcast: a transmitting station broadcasts images and sounds in the form of energy waves, which are received by a physical device that displays them. Imagine that something goes wrong with the device itself, so that its screen and speakers no longer display the ideas, feelings, and actions encoded within the energy waves. But the transmitting station, and the energy waves incorporating the media, exist no less than before; it is only that the physical receiving device is no longer translating them into physically visible and audible phenomena. By way of analogy, says Rabbi Vorst, we can envision the soul itself as the transmitting station (i.e., the source of the person’s personality, character, thoughts, emotions, actions, etc.) and the body as the receiving device. The death of the body does not in any way affect the integrity of the soul, nor does it halt the soul’s self-expression (analogous to the energy waves that are emanating through space); it is only that we have been deprived of the ability to see and hear it.

The comfort in knowing that the soul lives on may be clouded by our inability to comprehend fully the concept of life beyond the physical realm. We may have disconcerting questions and concerns about the quality of the soul’s existence and experience in the next world: How is my beloved one faring in the next world? Has he come to harm? Is she in pain? What is it like for a soul to be “deprived” of a physical existence?

In the letter written to the aforementioned family from Milan, the Rebbe described the soul’s experience when it departs this world:

Needless to say, insofar as the soul is concerned, it is a release from its “imprisonment” in the body. For so long as [the soul] is bound up with the body, it suffers from physical limitations of the body, which necessarily constrain the soul and involve it in physical activities that are essentially alien to its purely spiritual nature…. In other words, the departure of the soul from the body is a great advantage and ascent for the soul.7

Elsewhere, the Rebbe continues this theme:

Henceforth, the soul is free to enjoy the spiritual bliss of being near to G‑d in the fullest measure. That is surely a comforting thought!8

In these and numerous other communications, the Rebbe echoes the words of the great 12th-century Jewish philosopher Maimonides:

Just as the blind cannot see the spectrum of colors and the deaf cannot hear sound, so too, the mortal body cannot understand the spiritual joys (attained in the Hereafter), which are eternal. These joys have nothing in common with the happiness derived from material things. The essential nature of this heavenly bliss lies in the perception of the essence of the Creator…in the Hereafter, where our souls become wise with the knowledge of G‑d. Presently, this joy is unknowable and completely beyond description. There is nothing in our experience that compares to it. For us mortal creatures, it is merely possible to speak of it in the words of the prophet, which express the wonder of this eternal joy: “How9 abundant is Your goodness!”10