My friend’s father passed away recently. She is an incredibly outgoing and well-loved person who is approachable and easy to talk to and despite this, some expressed discomfort in reaching out.
Both in my role as Rebbetzin and unfortunately in the cases of when my friends and husband lost a parent, I’ve seen many such situations of people who are uncomfortable to reach out to a mourner. The common concern is that people don’t know what to say. It comes from a place of sensitivity: no one wants to say the wrong thing and therefore, they figure maybe it’s best not to say anything at all. Some assume it’s too painful for the mourner to talk about the person who passed away and no one wants to upset the mourner further. Maybe, they are concerned there will be awkward silence.
I grew up in a home where my parents were always going for shiva calls. It was a chessed that they saw as a responsibility and I suppose that’s why its importance is ingrained in their children. But as much as we always knew it was important to go on shiva calls, I had that same anxiety about saying the wrong thing.
When my grandfather passed away, a friend came to visit my father and then she sat with me. What she did trained me forever in how to do a shiva call: She asked me to share two stories that best exemplified my grandfather. I was not sitting shiva but my grandfather’s death came as a shock and I was hurting. And as I started to share the funny stories about my grandfather that expressed his character, his honesty and his goodness, I realized that this was exactly what I needed. To talk about him.
With her questions and expression of interest, she taught me something very important. We are always looking for the right thing to say. But in these situations, there isn’t anything to say to make the pain go away. A shiva visitor is there to listen.
There are no classes offered to train us to be proper shiva visitors and visiting someone in pain, particularly after a tragic untimely passing can be incredibly difficult. As such, I find that when I visit shiva houses with my husband, many visitors don’t know the way to conduct this most sensitive of visits.
Many shiva houses I’ve seen resemble a get-together, more than a condolence call. Visitors are uncomfortable about what to say and so they make chit chat and use it as an opportunity to catch up. But making chit-chat can become a burden for the mourner when perhaps what they really want, is to talk about the person who is now missing from their lives. I’ve seen shiva homes where people eat the food that’s really meant for the mourners, when in fact, there is a custom for visitors not to eat food that is meant for the mourners. I’ve seen a case where an elderly mourner got up from shiva early because with the hustle and bustle, she nearly fell. So many mourners who are not observant have told me, either during or after shiva, that they really appreciated the concept and framework of shiva and needed this time that the Halacha sets out, to mourn. But the visitors, intending only for the best, did not allow them what they needed.
In its infinite wisdom, Halacha tells us exactly what to do: to let the mourner direct us.
A shiva call, particularly after an untimely and tragic death is always difficult and it is normal and even appropriate to feel a sense of trepidation before entering a room where a mourner sits in pain. And since a shiva call can be difficult, I always try to follow my friend’s advice, which gives me some direction. I ask questions about the person who passed away to learn more about them (which sometimes means redirecting a frivolous conversation started by an uncomfortable visitor.) Unless it’s a topic of interest for the mourner, I don’t ask how the person died or the details of their illness, but ask questions about how they lived (think about it: after we live full lives, would we want to be remembered by our last decaying moments?). How did they meet their spouse? What’s a funny story about them? (This may not be appropriate for an untimely death.) I ask them to tell me a story about the person who passed that can really teach me what the person was about. I find the answers are often touching and enlightening. When they’re done, if I knew the person, I share a story about how the person touched my life. If the person sitting shiva changes the subject, then that’s not the direction they want to go and I try to respect that. Some want the distraction from the pain that the social visits offer and if that brings them comfort, then that’s the right answer. Some don’t want to speak at all. I’ve had friends who wanted to talk nonstop about the person who passed and I’ve had friends who weren’t ready to talk about their parent for months afterward. Support can mean listening to stories, it can mean sitting quietly and it can mean sending a message to a person who doesn’t want to see anyone and understanding when they don’t write back.
Despite the fact that mourning is felt differently by everyone and every situation is different, it seems many find the following to be true: support is healing. To say the wrong thing is not good and I highly recommend Rabbi Zohn’s article on this topic in Jewish Action, which can be found here: How to Pay a Shivah Call. But despite our anxiety of saying the wrong thing, staying away from fear or discomfort is not the safest choice, it can, in fact be, the most hurtful to the mourner.
Everyone needs to feel loved and cared for and at a time when a person is hurting, just being present, offers the one way we can lighten the pain.
If any of our readers who have been through shiva would like to share their advice for what they wanted from visitors and how to overcome shiva call anxiety, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I hope to include many of our readers’ advice and experiences in a future article in the hopes that we can all learn better ways to approach the mitzvah of nichum aveilim (comforting the mourner).
May we all experience only smachot.
Ariela Davis is the Director of Judaics at Addlestone Hebrew Academy and the Rebbetzin of Brith Sholom Beth Israel, the historic shul of downtown Charleston, South Carolina. She writes and speaks about issues related to Israel, the Holocaust and Jewish thought. She can be reached at email@example.com
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.
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