Dead Words, Death, Dying, Mourning

Dead Language: Onen

There are many words and terms associated with Jewish death and dying. In “Dead Language” I’ll highlight a word associated with Jewish death and dying and explore it in some depth. Feel free to leave your own reflections and thoughts below.

Onen (oh-nen) 
Origin: Hebrew
Noun: The name given to a person who’s loved one has died, but has not yet been buried.

If I was to fill out a dating profile for Judaism and list it’s top three qualities, it might look like: 

  • Into food and community
  • Challah 
  • Remembers all the important life events  
A photograph of two lit candles, photo by Sarah Wolfe

Love of carbs aside, Judaism does a stellar job of identifying and marking transitions with clearly defined moments and associated rituals. An illustrative moment from weekly Jewish life: marking the transition from the mundane to the holy by lighting Shabbat, Sabbath, candles. 

We also mark our own life transitions with rituals and by naming them. For example a 12 or 13 year old transitions into adulthood with ritual celebration and the name B’nai Mitzvah. Another example, and most relevant for this blog, is that Judaism recognizes the transition to death with rituals and by naming the bereaved avel(im), the mourner(s), and the period of mourning aveilut.  

I recently learned that in Jewish tradition when someone’s loved one* dies, the living person doesn’t immediately transition into a “mourner” nor are they permitted to grieve (through Jewish ritual) at this stage. They are instead called an “onen” which is rooted in the Hebrew word for “deep sorrow”. 

A photograph of three empty chairs facing each other by Maria Molinero

Being an onen is to be in an in between time – it is specifically after a loved one has died and before they are interred. Judaism recognizes the pain and shock of the moment and provides a framework with “dos” and “don’ts”, including rules around work, personal grooming, and exemption from most time-bound commandments (like prayer although the observance of Shabbat is still expected). The intention is to allow this person to be in their sorrow and to prepare for the funeral. 

I think this is a beautiful piece of Jewish tradition. I also wonder about extending the concept of being an onen, of being in-between, before a loved one dies. Bear with me here because I’m going to write something but not dive too deep into it just yet: There is one big end of life rule in Judaism which approximates to “you shall not hasten death” and along that with that, it is taught that we should not grieve in front of the dying because it may add to their suffering and/or hasten death (I promise stories and superstitions at a later date). In many respects, Judaism treats a dying person as living, until they are dead. 

The idea of delaying grief is easier in theory than in reality. I recently had a conversation with a young man named Ryan, who reached out through Instagram. Ryan is a cremationist and has worked in various funeral homes. He has served (I loved his use of this word to describe his work) Jewish families and is curious to learn more about the Jewish tradition and I’m excited to learn about, well, everything. 

In our conversation he mentioned a new-to-me term: anticipatory grief. This is used for people who know their own or a loved one’s death is imminent and they’ve already begun to grieve. 

It stuck with me for two reasons. 1. It brought me back to my conversation with Dan Fendel, when he shared that he began his journey as “an anticipating mourner” as his wife was dying and 2. Judaism not only doesn’t have a name for anticipatory grief- it explicitly asks us to hold off on grieving until after the death. 

Judaism identifies two stages of grief: 

  1. Immediately following a loved one’s death: Onen
  2. Once a body is interred: Aveilut 

Knowing now that there are more accurately three stages if we include anticipatory grief, how might we acknowledge that Jewishly? 

I don’t have a word for it but could naming this time help us better understand this transitional period for our neighbors, friends, and family? Would it allow the anticipating mourner to feel more rooted in an uprooted time? 

It reminds me of the “baby on board” pins from the London Transport system – the idea being when a person is pregnant, they can wear the pin so that other people on the tube or bus can offer a seat or extra assistance. While I’m not advocating for an “anticipatory grief” pin, I am thinking about how we share news in our communities. If we know someone is beginning to grieve an imminent death, maybe the meal train can start a few weeks earlier, or we can make sure there are extra hands on deck for helping out where needed. We can be there. 

I don’t have answers, but now I have an understanding of the idea of an onen and a commitment to myself to keep in mind the people in my communities who might be transitioning into aninut, deep sorrow. 

*”Loved one” vs “Family” vs anything else…a few thoughts: In Jewish tradition, the name of “mourner” is only used by immediate family: parents, children, siblings, and spouses. We know having that relationship alone does not mean there was inherent “love” between the mourner and the deceased and so using “loved one” doesn’t feel 100% correct. Also, a dead person might have a family that will mourn their death in a traditional way because of an obligation to do so. This is to say it’s complicated and welcome any thoughts about better language.

For now I’m going to use “loved one” to include those closest to the dying/dead person who will mourn their death in the deepest ways – even if that’s not “halakhically” (following the letter of the law) correct.

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