Should these points of consolation be taken to the other extreme and eliminate mourning altogether? Indeed, if the soul experiences relief in its release from the body and the freedom to experience unadulterated spiritual bliss, what place is there for grief? Perhaps expressions of grief even indicate a lack of belief in the eternality of the soul and in the perfection of G‑d’s ways?

The Rebbe saw the answer to these questions in the Torah’s laws of mourning:

It may be asked: If [death] is a “release” for the soul, why has the Torah prescribed periods of mourning, etc.? But there is really no contradiction. The Torah recognizes the natural feeling of grief that is felt by the loss of a near and dear one, whose passing leaves a void in the family, and the physical presence and contact of the beloved one will be sorely missed. So the Torah has prescribed the proper periods of mourning to give expression to these feelings and to make it easier to regain the proper equilibrium and adjustment.1

Elsewhere, the Rebbe similarly writes:

Nevertheless, the departure and ascent of the soul to its Heavenly abode is mourned for a time by the surviving relatives and friends, because the person is no longer physically here on earth and can no longer be seen, heard, and felt by the physical senses and is therefore sadly missed.2

The Rebbe saw the Torah’s teachings, and the way they are implemented into practical law, as a prescription to ease our suffering in the face of pain but also as addressing the truth of human nature. The stages of mourning outlined in Jewish law provide the appropriate framework for the mourner, in which he or she can express grief and process the loss in stages as time progresses.

But the Rebbe would also stress how the selfsame mourning practices and rituals that validate the mourner’s grief and facilitate its expression also provide the mechanism by which to gradually move beyond it:

Every Jew has been instructed by the Creator and Master of the world that the matters connected with avelut (mourning) must be limited in time, though during the proper time it is natural and proper to give vent to one’s pain and sorrow at the sad loss in keeping with the nature which G‑d implanted in man.

However, when the various periods of mourning pass—the first three days of profound grief and tears, the seven days of shivah, [the thirty days of] sheloshim, etc.—then it is not permitted to extend these periods beyond their allotted days. And since this is the instruction of the Creator and Master of the world, it is clear that carrying out these Divine instructions is within the capability of every Jew, for G‑d does not expect the impossible of His creatures and provides everyone beforehand with the necessary capacity and strength to carry out its instructions as set forth in His Torah, called Torat Emet (“Torah of truth”), because it is true and realistic in all its teachings and imperatives.3

Sometimes mourners find it hard to let go of their grief. As the traditional seven-day mourning period comes to an end, the mourner might wonder: “Isn’t it callous of me to return to normal living so soon after losing someone so dear to me?” Or: “If I really cared about my loved one, wouldn’t I still be overwhelmed with grief?” And perhaps most devastating of all: “Is it not an insult to the soul that its departure from life on earth is being ‘gotten over’ by its loved ones?”

The Rebbe’s response to such thoughts was emphatic:

Those who think that the gradual lessening of mourning may cause the soul of the departed to feel slighted are totally wrong. The very opposite is true: Excessive mourning by relatives is not good for the soul in the World of Truth.4

Indeed, the Rebbe would insist that not only is it not selfish or insensitive to limit one’s grief, but by overextending the mourning period, one is in fact placing one’s own interests before those of the deceased. The Rebbe writes:

To allow oneself to be carried away by these feelings [of sorrow] beyond the limits set by the Torah—in addition to it being a disservice to one’s self and all around, as well as to the soul of the departed, as mentioned above—would mean that one is more concerned with one’s own feelings than with the feelings of the dear soul that has risen to new spiritual heights of eternal happiness. Thus, paradoxically, the overextended feeling of grief, which is due to the great love for the departed one, actually causes pain to the loved one, since the soul continues to take an interest in the dear one left behind, sees what is going on (even better than before), rejoices with them in their joys, etc.5

In a letter written in 1975 to Mrs. Rose Goldfield, who tragically lost her son in a car accident, the Rebbe took the notion of limiting grief for the sake of the departed soul even further. In his letter he pointed out that not only does the departed soul want its loved ones to move beyond their grief and live life to the fullest, it desires that they do so not out of a sense of burdensome obligation but with inner peace and joy.

…It follows that when a close person passes on, by the will of G‑d, those left here can no longer see him with their eyes or hear him with their ears; but the soul, in the World of Truth, can see and hear. And when he sees that the relatives are overly disturbed by his physical absence, it is saddened, and, conversely, when it sees that after the mourning period prescribed by the Torah a normal and fully productive life is resumed, it can happily rest in peace.

…It is possible to enlarge upon the above, but knowing your family background and tradition, I trust the above will suffice. I might add, however, that one must beware of the Yetzer-hara (one’s Base Inclination) who is very crafty and knows that certain people cannot be approached openly and without disguise. So he tries to trick them by disguising himself in a mantle of piety and emotionalism, etc., saying: You know, G‑d has prescribed a period of mourning, which shows that it is the right thing to do; so why not do more than that and extend the period? In this way he may have a chance to succeed in distracting the person from the fact that at the end of the said period, the Torah requires the Jew to serve G‑d with joy. The Yetzer-hara will even encourage a person to give Tzedoko (charity) in memory of the soul, except that in each case it be associated with sadness and pain. But, as indicated, this is exactly contrary to the objective, which is to cause pleasure and gratification to the soul.

May G‑d grant that, inasmuch as we are approaching the Festival of Our Freedom, including also freedom from everything that distracts a Jew from serving G‑d wholeheartedly and with joy, that this should be so also with you, in the midst of all our people, and that you should be a source of inspiration and strength to your husband, children and grandchildren, and all around you.

It was not enough for the Rebbe to simply state the principle that excessive mourning is detrimental, both to oneself and to the departed soul. As the following two examples demonstrate, he often gave detailed, practical guidance on how to achieve the aim of moving on after a loss.

A couple, utterly broken after the death of their adolescent daughter, came to the Rebbe to seek advice. While they were financially and socially comfortable in their community, remaining in a place that continually reminded them of their daughter meant that they were continually reliving the trauma of her loss. They were contemplating moving their family to a new place, hoping that would allow them to heal.

“Your other children,” the Rebbe asked, “where can you best raise them with love?” The couple, unsure how to respond, listened closely as the Rebbe continued. “If moving will open your hearts to healing and allow your family to flourish as it should, do not fear the challenges a new place will bring. Follow the path that will nourish your other children. They need to live with love.”6

Sometimes, moving on requires leaving the past behind to focus on the love that exists in the present. But sometimes, moving on might require first facing the past head-on.

“I can’t stop living in the past,” a Holocaust survivor once confided in the Rebbe. “A dark shadow constantly hangs over my life, and I can’t help but view life through the prism of my traumatic past.”

“Have you ever spoken about your experiences?” the Rebbe asked gently.

“No, I haven’t,” the gentleman responded, “I find it too painful.”

“Then I suggest you write a memoir,” the Rebbe advised, “but make sure to write it yourself, not through a ghostwriter.”7

There was one occasion on which the Rebbe shared with his followers how the Torah-ordained vehicles for expressing grief and processing loss had become a reality for him in his own personal life.

The occasion was a talk given by the Rebbe in his home on the eve of the 22th of Adar 5748 (March 10, 1988). Those who were present at the talk, and the thousands who listened to it via telephone hookup at numerous locations worldwide, will never forget that evening.

Just thirty days prior, the Rebbe had suffered the loss of his wife, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Schneerson, of blessed memory. Married for fifty-nine years, they had survived Stalin’s Russia, escaped Hitler’s Berlin and Nazi-occupied France, and lived childless together for 47 years in the United States.

Her sudden passing, in the middle of the night, while visiting the hospital due to an ulcer, profoundly affected the Rebbe. During the funeral and initial period of mourning, the Rebbe’s intense grief was apparent. But the first time he spoke publicly about his emotions was thirty days after her passing at a weeknight talk from his home on President Street in Brooklyn.

The Rebbe began his talk by noting the “milestones” which Torah law establishes for the process of mourning a loved one. There is the intense mourning of the first three days following the burial (characterized as a time for “weeping”); the seven-day mourning period (shivah); the mourning practices of the first thirty days (sheloshim); and the practices (including the recitation of kaddish) of the first year. Torah law obligates us to mourn, yet also obligates us to decrease the intensity of our mourning at each of these stages.

The Rebbe then cited an enigmatic Midrash which describes an exchange between G‑d and Moses. G‑d was conveying to Moses the laws governing various states of ritual impurity and how one achieves purification from them. When mention was made of the impurity brought on through physical contact with a dead body, Moses blanched and asked, “G‑d Almighty, but how can one be cleansed of this impurity?”

While the exchange between G‑d and Moses seems strictly legal in nature, a deeper reading reveals the conversation to be deeply philosophical and existential as well. What Moses was really asking was: How can the devastating void created by death ever be filled? How can the numbing and lifeless sensation that such loss brings ever be healed or “purified”?

Now, Moses was a man of deep faith in G‑d and His ways, and he certainly understood what the Torah has to say about the process of purification following contact with death. Why, asked the Rebbe, did he have such a visceral reaction particularly to this law? But Moses’ “question” was not a rational one. Intellectually, he grasped all of the logical and spiritual explanations on the issue of death. But upon perceiving the unbearable sorrow that accompanies death, he cried out to G‑d: But how can one reconcile an understanding mind with a bleeding heart? How can the painful residual effects of death ever be healed by a legal and ritualistic process?

The Rebbe then applied this outcry to his own situation. The mind understands the difference between the first three days and the shivah, between the shivah and the sheloshim, and between the sheloshim and the first year; but the heart does not accept it. As we reach each of these milestones, we know that it is our duty to move on to the next phase of the mourning process, but we find it very difficult to do so. One need not be disheartened by this: the Midrash tells us that Moses himself could not immediately prevail upon his heart to feel what his mind had been given to understand. Even after G‑d revealed the ritualistic process by which one can be cleansed from the taint of death, it remains a chok, a suprarational “decree.” Yet G‑d commands us to make these transitions, and He empowers us to fulfill His command.

Therefore, we must do everything in our power to integrate our knowledge and emotions, both in order to function well in our own lives and for the sake of our work on behalf of others as well. For surely, those who are dependent upon us cannot be made to wait until our minds and hearts have fully integrated what we know to be expected of us! And the power of the divine decree is such that we can ultimately prevail upon ourselves to sublimate the negativities of death.8

It was clear to all present that the Rebbe’s words, spoken with such intensity and emotion, were autobiographical, born out of his own recent encounter with loss.