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 


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I very much enjoyed this post. However, as someone who served as a pulpit rabbi for almost the past decade and a half, I must respectfully disagree with two of the points mentioned here, particularly #3. Not infrequently, congregants observed shiva "out of town" or in Israel, and I cannot tell you how deeply hurt and offended families were when they did not receive condolence phone calls from members of the synagogue during that time. If the rabbi could not visit in person, he was absolutely expected to call at least once, if not several times, over the course of the shiva. Also, I have found that mourners often DO wish to focus on the circumstances of the death of their loved ones, the events leading up to the end, etc. Of course, as you mentioned, one must allow the mourner to open and direct the flow of the conversation. However, if they do venture into this territory, I've seen (at least in my experience) that being asked follow-up questions about the details can be cathartic for some.

    1. Thank you, Rabbi Maroof, for your comment. It's impossible to prescribe every aspect of shiva visit behaviour, of course. and i am sure that different 'rules' apply for a communal rabbi. but i personally have been to too many shivahs where the mourners are unable to see or talk to those visiting in person because they were constantly on the phone. Once upon a time, calling a mourner was 'pas nicht'. It seems like that taboo has largely gone, but i stand by my advice to write instead of calling as a general rule. there will always be exceptions.

      Perhaps we've reached a time when we need to make separate visiting times and phone-calling times for those sitting shivah?

    2. And re: talking with the mourner about the circumstances of the death. You're entirely right, it can be cathartic for the mourner to talk about what happened and how. However, that lead should be taken by the mourner and not the visitor.

  3. Two more comments about shiva in general: 1) Do not stay more than 15 or 20 minutes, especially if you're not a close friend. I sat shiva recently and found myself trying to send telepathic messages of "please, just leave!" to people who stayed and stayed and unfortunately didn't get the message. 2) If you are the only visitor, you do not need to stay until the next visitor shows up. It's fine to leave the person who is sitting shiva alone. In fact, he/she will probably appreciate the time to think, eat, drink or go to the bathroom!

  4. Great article. I was thinking about this, just to add 2 more things:
    It may be a cheerful shiva house, don't judge them about that, sometimes even in tragic cases, that's what it is like. People cope with tragedy in different ways. Shiva is quite public, some people don't want to put their grief on show.
    Secondly if you say that you will do something, do it. So many people say that they will be in touch after shiva, or similar and don't. Grief doesn't end after shiva or sheloshim and it's then that people feel the impact and most alone.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. I would add that the halachic prescription not to speak to the mourner unless spoken to should lead us to listen, to try to pick up from context what is appropriate. If you are not tremendously insightful and not graced with the social graces, quietly buttonhole someone "in the know" as to whether X, Y, or Z would be appropriate, but not loudly.


Tell me what you think