I am so sorry for your loss. It is a painful trauma, and I hope you are receiving the kind of communal support you need to make your way through it. For millennia, cultures and communities have mitigated this pain through group rituals. Catholicism and Judaism have such rituals. And they are very valuable. But while your question centered on belief in an afterlife, as a way of reconciling yourself to the hole you are left with, I would recommend a different focus. Allow that person to live on in your search for meaning in this life, not the next. This may allow you to navigate their absence long after the initial pain of loss has begun to fade and the rush of support from friends and family has given way to the banality of daily life.
Maimonides, the 12th century Jewish scholar, lost his younger brother in a shipwreck. After his brother drowned, Maimonides began work on his most famous philosophical tract, the Mishneh Torah. His brother’s death threw him into his work, making him more prolific than he had ever been. In addition to the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides wrote a full commentary on the Mishna, his 13 principles of faith (which is still included in the morning prayers of the Orthodox liturgy) and the Guide to the Perplexed, an attempt to understand the true nature of G-d. It is clear that his brother’s death drove him even harder to understand the nature of the divine and the order of the world, as it would for any of us.
But the piece of writing that has stuck with me the most is a small line in his commentary on the Mishna. In writing about a father’s obligation to his sons, Maimonides wrote that a father must teach his son the study of Torah, the practice of a trade, and how to swim. In setting down guidelines for the generations that would follow, this major philosopher tried to prevent more people from drowning as his brother had.
The loss of someone, as difficult as it can be, can also push us to look harder and deeper at our lives and ourselves, and often this is a good thing. We move forward not by forgetting the people who have meant something to us, but by remembering them, letting the galvanize our own growth. Maimonides let his loss reverberate through his work, from larger philosophical questions to smaller practical ideas. For me, the difference between seeking comfort and wallowing in pain is that kind of forward movement.
I hope this helps you, in some way, to navigate what is in front of you. It is what has helped me in my own moments of mourning. But these are big questions to think about in the long term. In the short term, I wish you comfort and community. As we say to Jewish mourners, “May the Omnipresent comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”
Benjamin Kamine is a New York-based stage director, primarily focused on new works. His recent credits include productions at The Goodman Theatre in Chicago, The Flea Theater in New York, and development work with companies all over the country. He was a 2014-15 Fellow at LABA: A Laboratory for Jewish Culture, and is currently working to expand his knowledge of Jewish texts.