Wednesday, 3 June 2015

How To Make A Tragic Shiva Visit Without Making Things Worse

Every shiva is hard, but some are harder than others.
Recently, I went to the second kind of shiva: the shiva for our friend who was tragically, oh-my-God-shockingly, killed in a cycling accident at the age of 36. He was healthy and happy; he had a wife whom he adored and four small children whom he loved. He was an excellent specialist paediatric ophthalmologist who helped children on a daily basis. He had a long, productive, joyous life ahead of him. Except that now, he didn’t.
It was hard to believe that he was gone. Hard to believe that life could be ended so suddenly and so finally. Harder, far harder to attend his funeral, to pay a shiva visit to his widowed wife, his fatherless children, his siblings, his parents left broken with the loss of their beloved first-born.
These shivas are scary. We are scared to go to visit those mourning the sudden, too-early, tragic loss of a loved one. We are scared that we’ll make it worse. We’re scared that we’ll catch their pain and won’t be able to cope with it. We’re scared that we won’t know what to say. Sometimes these fears overwhelm us, and we decide not to go.
Because sometimes, people really do say things that make it worse. I have sat silently fuming at a shiva where a woman walked in, interrupted the mourners who were in a fine flow of reminiscence about their mother, and sat down to tell them all about the holiday she had just returned from.
I didn’t want to think of anyone making it worse for our friend’s family. I didn’t want anyone to choose not to visit them during the shiva, either, because he deserves to be mourned enmasse. So here is my list of points for How to behave at a shiva:
1. Don’t be scared of silence. If I could write up one golden rule for shiva-visiting, it would be this. Don’t be scared of silence. I don’t have any kind of statistics, but I suspect that 99% of all hurtful comments were made by someone trying to fill a lull. If the mourners are not talking to you, it’s OK to sit quietly until they do. They may be struggling to hold back tears, or remembering a particular memory, or just feeling tired of conversation.
It is the halachah (Jewish law) that when you pay a shiva visit, you may not open the conversation. The mourner has to talk to you first.
2. Don’t try to cheer anyone up. This battles number 1 for my golden rule spot. Too many people think that when visiting someone who is sitting shiva, their job is to cheer them up. Which leads them to tell inappropriate stories about something funny their child said yesterday. So let me tell you: That is not your job. Your job is to be with them in their grief. The man or woman who passed away is special enough that he/she deserves to have people cry for them.
Allow the mourners to cry; allow them to be sad; allow them to mourn. Don’t try to distract them from their grief or cheer them up out of their pain. If you really feel the need to do something, you can silently hand them the tissues while patting their shoulder, or nod sympathetically and murmur how special so-and-so was. But don’t try to cheer them up.

If this article helps anyone to do the mitzvah of nichum aveilim (comforting mourners), may that be for the merit of Henri Sueke z"l, Moshe ben Yaakov, who died far too young and whose shivah is far too painful. May we all be comforted for this loss, and spared any future pain