Make a shiva call to a traditional home, and you’re likely to see a copy of Rabbi Maurice Lamm’s “The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning” in an accessible place. That book, published in 1969, has sold more than 350,000 copies.
But less known is the sequel volume, “Consolation: The Spiritual Journey Beyond Grief,” published in 2004.
Rabbi Lamm, who passed away earlier this month at the age of 86, told me when we spoke just after the book was published that this was the most important book he had written. And he did something that took a lot of courage: He admitted that he had been wrong in his earlier thinking, that when he wrote “The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning,” he didn’t fully appreciate Jewish wisdom about mourning, beyond the legalistic approach.
He writes, “I now know the difference between comforting and consoling, and I have come to a disturbing realization: I have not satisfactorily consoled a single mourner during my entire rabbinic career.”
What he meant was that true consolation is beyond the capabilities of humans. “To comfort is human, to console divine.” In “Consolation,” he leads mourners to find their own paths to authentic consolation, to understand and experience their grief, and to grow because of the experience.
He suggested that at a shiva, “the primary agenda is narrative. By that I mean the goal of the shiva visit is to have the mourner speak about this grief. The goal of the visitor is to keep quiet, to allow the mourner to break his silence.”
In a chapter called “Words for a Loss, When at a loss for Words,” he makes suggestions that go beyond the platitudes that are often offered, which sometimes can be even unintentionally hurtful. “Perhaps the most consoling words I have ever heard are these: ‘Tell me what your loved one was really like.’”
“Consolation” is a wise, compassionate and powerful book, both practical and spiritual, and, for all its focus on loss, is life-affirming. May Rabbi Lamm’s memory be for a blessing.