What Not to Say

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Content warning: This article does not contain jokes or pop culture references. Rather, it discusses death, bereavement and, in particular, when a person takes his or her own life. (As discussed in a previous article, I will endeavor to minimize the number of occurrences of the word “suicide.”)

Time magazine reported this week that the mother of a Michigan teen who took his own life last December is suing the Archdiocese of Detroit for the harm she suffered when, as part of her son’s eulogy, the officiating priest questioned whether the deceased would go to Heaven. (Out of respect for all parties involved, I am omitting everyone’s names.)

The deceased’s parents report that they met with the priest to plan funeral services for their son, making it clear that they wanted the clergyman to deliver a positive and uplifting message celebrating the boy’s life. Instead, the Toledo Blade reports, the priest delivered a sermon about suicide. According to the lawsuit, the family had not disclosed the manner of their son’s death to the priest.

As part of the service, the priest said, in part, “[W]e must not call what is bad good, what is wrong right. Because we are Christians, we must say what we know is the truth — that taking your own life is against God who made us and against everyone who loves us. … The finality of suicide makes [things] all the worse. You cannot make things right again. Neither can [the deceased].”

Like Catholicism, Judaism also has some teachings on taking one’s own life. The prohibition against taking one’s own life is one of the first things that God commanded Noah when he exited the ark (Genesis 9:5). God revealed through the prophet Amos that killing a brother is worse than killing a stranger (Amos 1:11), from which the Chovos HaLevavos (4:4) infers that killing one’s own self is even more serious. These are important lessons but there’s a time and a place to share them. Foremost among the places not to share them is at the funeral of a teen who, for whatever reason, felt that such a course of action was his only recourse.

I’m not trying to pick on the priest – who, admittedly, did a dumb thing – because his faux pas is not due to his religion; it’s because he’s human and humans make mistakes. Rabbis have no doubt made similar gaffes on occasion as part of their drashos. And many, if not most, of us worry about accidentally saying something stupid when we visit a shiva house.

Why was the first Beis HaMikdash destroyed? Because of the three cardinal sins – murder, idolatry and sexual offenses. Why was the second Beis HaMikdash destroyed? Because of sinas chinam – baseless hatred. Why did the Holocaust happen? If you have any theological thoughts on the matter, it would be wise to keep them to yourself. It happened because evil people did an evil thing. To suggest that we did anything to “deserve” it is literally blaming the victim. We’re still too close to the event for any kind of detached philosophical discussion.

Similarly, if one wishes to opine as to why a certain city was struck by a natural disaster, or why a certain institution was the target of a terror attack, it would be advisable for one to suppress that urge. We lack the prophetic ability to know such things and speculation is as insensitive as it is inaccurate. (In 2017, a Twitter user famously tweeted that he had “no sympathy for any lives lost as a result of Hurricane Harvey” because Texas was responsible for “38 red electoral votes” and this was “karma.” Exactly ten days later, the same user tweeted, “I hope my house remains intact after Hurricane Irma hits us in Florida.” This escaped neither notice nor derision.)

As important as it is to be sensitive about such things in the macro, it’s all the more true in the micro. Obviously, we believe that our deeds contribute to our fates but it’s wholly inappropriate to speculate as to what in someone’s actions warranted his death – and I can’t begin to imagine speculating as to the state of another person’s afterlife! Yes, we say kaddish for 11 months to elevate a deceased person’s soul while it’s being purged for up to a year but I’ve never heard anyone say, “I guess he’s still in Hell for now.” We’re not privy to such information, it serves no useful purpose and it would just be insensitive to the bereaved.

Hopefully, most of us would be self-aware enough not to say anything so monumentally unsympathetic to a mourner but people do say things that are a lesser degree of clueless. Things not to say to a mourner include, “He lived a long life,” “At least he’s not suffering,” “You’ll meet someone else,” “You can have more kids,” “I know exactly how you feel” and “If you think that’s bad….” Such statements aren’t meanspirited – they’re actually well-meaning – but they don’t do anything to comfort a mourner, which should be our one and only goal.

A visitor to a shiva house is not supposed initiate conversation. Rather, he should wait for the mourner to address him first (Yoreh Deah 376:1). The Talmud (Moed Katan 28b) learns this behavior from Iyov (Job). Job 2:13 describes how Iyov’s friends visited him when he was in mourning. They sat there silently for a very long time, none of them speaking “because they saw that his grief was very intense.” None of Iyov’s friends addressed him until he spoke first, in verse 3:1.

The case of the Detroit parents whose child took his own life is obviously terrible but mourning isn’t a competition. A child, a parent, a sibling, a spouse, even a friend – they’re all difficult to lose regardless of the circumstances. When it happens to someone, it’s not a time for others to make theological ponderings. It’s time to provide comfort. If one can’t manage that, it’s best to make like Iyov’s friends and to just remain silent.

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of six books, including The Tzniyus Book and The Taryag Companion. His latest work, The God Book, is available from OU Press as well as on Amazon.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.