Shiva Visits

A friend of mine shared recently that she rarely goes to menachem aveil (comfort a mourner) at a shiva (the 7 day mourning period following burial). It is traditional for family and friends to come and sit with the bereaved, to give them comfort, to listen, to just be there. I asked my friend why she doesn’t go. She told me she feels uncomfortable and out of place. “It’s awkward”. She doesn’t know what to say, what to do.

I explained to her that everyone feels that way. It is a hard thing to do, to try to comfort someone who has had a profound loss, who is bereaved. Nothing you can say or do will bring back their loved one. However, they need to know that their friends and family care about them.

I told her that what she says isn’t so important, that her words are not what the mourners will remember. What they will remember is that she took time out of her day to be there.

What would you tell my friend to help her get over her awkwardness in order to be able to perform this mitzvah? What helps you in this particular situation?

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  1. shorty says:

    I think you said it well, Hadassah.

    Very few people will have the right words to say, and even the wisest of comments may be taken the wrong way by someone in mourning. The fact is, they are hurting. Isn’t there a rule that when one does such a visit, they don’t start the conversation anyway? I thought one should wait for the person sitting Shivah to start the conversation.

  2. Exactly what you just said. And to listen is better than to talk. Our society too often urges the bereaved to “get over it” too quickly. A parent who has lost a child, a spouse who has lost a life partner – they need to talk about their loved one and their loss. People are uncomfortable listening, because they don’t know what to say. And sometimes a loving silence is the best thing you can say.

  3. mrsmelissasg says:

    The important thing to remember in Shiva calls is that there is nothing you can do or say to make their grief any less. You are simply there to show compassion and be a presence of support.

    Shorty is also right in saying the visitor should not start the conversation, and rather should let the mourner direct it in whatever way they feel is meaningful.

    Perhaps your friend would benefit from reading the chapter on shiva in “The Jewish Way in Death and Dying” a most fabulous handbook on the rituals for any person with questions.

  4. anon says:

    long time reader – first time commentor.

    This is such a hard thing to do, and when I go I am never sure that I say the right thing or do the right thing. My advice is to go, sit quietly, let your friend see that you are there. That is what counts. I have gone pretty far out of my way to be manachem aveil to be with a few friends in the last few years who I have lost touch with even. I haven’t had much to say, but post shiva craziness I usually hear back from friends saying that my presence is enough. It is also better to go, be awkward, not say anything then to not go at all. By not going your actions are showing that you are so self involved that you don’t care about your friend going through a hard time. Just tell your friend to put themselves in their friends shoes. Tell her to imagine sitting shiva and not having anyone come to sit with you.

    • batya from NJ says:

      anon, i agree whole-heartedly with your comments & you made all of the points that i was going to make on the topic :)!

  5. Risa says:

    I know people who feel like your friend. We all do in some way. But, for one thing, it is a mitzvah, and sometimes it’s not easy to do a mitzvah but we do it anyway. You should definitely wait for the mourner to speak first. Also, you should try to speak as much as possible about the deceased. I try to ask questions and keep the deceased as the focus. If there’s one thing I don’t like it’s when people try to avoid the subject of the dead person. That’s not what you’re there for.

  6. lady lock and load says:

    It’s the kind of thing that you force yourself to go to and once you go you were glad you went and did the mitzvah. I so appreciated everyone who came when I sat shiva. It also might help if your friend went with someone else, I did that and it made me feel less awkward. We should only know of simchas!!!

  7. In addition to what others said, I clasp hands or give a hug, usually before I leave (in the case of a woman!).

  8. lady lock: Thank you, I never heard that.

  9. zahava says:

    I would say, “It’s okay that you don’t know what to say. I can’t adequately express the gratitude I feel for the folks who came when I sat…. My friends’ presence offered such meaningful comfort. They didn’t have to say a single word. Just seeing their faces gave me strength and reminded me that despite my loss, I was not alone. Even the folks I didn’t know – the folks who came for my father, brother and grandmother – they helped me begin the healing process feeling loved, protected, and cared for.”

  10. YC says:

    All great comments
    Do you know having guests over is awkward, going the the mikvah is awkward, asking for Kosher when on a plane is awkward, hair covering is awkward, prayer is awkward if you think about it…. bottom line being nice and being Jewish could be awkward

    Am I suggested you slap your friend, if it will help

  11. Nora says:

    No one likes paying shiva calls. It’s not a fun party. That said, when my mother-in-law passed away the best thing was to have people there who knew and loved her and us and to simply know that they cared. A simple, “I’m so sorry for your loss.” Works wonders as a conversation starter. Then the mourner can direct the conversation in whatever way they want.

  12. Ilana says:

    Yes, paying a shiva call is awkward. No one likes it, most people want to avoid it, and many/most do it anyway. It’s a Mitzvah and it’s important.

    The really good thing about forcing yourself to go is that afterwards, when you see the person, it’s *not* awkward. Because you paid the shiva call. They know you care. But if you didn’t go, then when you run into the person it’s so awkward. You want to avoid them or make up excuses for not coming. In the long run it is easier to just go when you’re supposed to.

    Going with a friend (especially an experienced friend) can be helpful. Or, you can try to time your visit at a low-traffic time so you can really be with the person. And even though you’re supposed to let the mourner speak first, you may want to rehearse a few respectful questions anyway, “how is the shiva going for you?” or “Do you want to tell us about your family member?” , etc.

    • lady lock and load says:

      Many people are thank G-d ignorant of the laws of mourning and have never been in a shiva house so they don’t know what to do, what to say, are afraid of making a mistake. There must be some sort of book out there on what to do (or what NOT to do) in a shiva house. I know some people have a hard time saying hamakom yinachaim because they don’t know hebrew that well so they are embarressed to say it in front of others (even if there is a sign in Hebrew and English up on the wall to help).
      Also, in our society, death is a very spooky topic, so people feel scared to go to a shiva house. maybe.

  13. batya from NJ says:

    Ilana, I agree that the awkwardness H’s friend would feel when bumping into the grieving friend after the shiva would be far worse than any awkwardness she may feel regarding the shiva visit.

    Personally, it seems rather selfish of the friend to not want to be there for her grieving friend at a time when she is needed most. It’s really just a matter of mentschlichkeit & doing the “right thing” to go a pay a shiva call to a friend that is in mourning. I really think she needs to grow up & get over it. Seriously.

    I will also add that I heard that visitors should refrain from trying to find out the “juicy details” of how the person passed away & how long they were ill etc but rather they should try to inquire about what the deceased accomplished in their lifetime etc. It’s obviously very tricky to know what to & what not to say & when in doubt say nothing but one’s very presence will be most appreciated at this sad time in a grieving friend’s life.

  14. T says:

    I try to remember that this isn’t about me, about my comfort or discomfort. It’s about the person/people who have lost that special someone in their life. Just knowing that this is truly the only way to help be there for my friend/family, makes this mitzvah more bearable. It really does make things easier for the bereaved.

  15. I also like to ask where the deceased was born, etc. If the person was older, you almost always get to hear some great stories. I recently went to a shiva for the brother of a woman who was in the kindertransport. She went to England with her siblings. She and her husband wanted to start dating, but the older sister, who took over for the parents, insisted that they be chaperoned for a while.
    If you feel awkward you might davka want to go when there is likely to be a crowd, so you won’t have to say as much.

  16. Ruthie says:

    This is a really important and sensitive issue. From personal experience, I know that I noticed who didn’t come to see me when I was sitting shiva. What bothered me most perhaps was the fact that people didn’t acknowledge my loss when I met them afterwards, as they would have done if I’d had a simcha. I was aware that some people may not have known about it but I had to bring it up to a friend (who did know) and say, “Did you know…?”

    I would tell your friend that if she would be embarrassed meeting her bereaved friend after, then she should definitely show her face at the shivah, even if just for a few minutes. Alternatively, presuming it’s not a close friend, she should write a letter. I found a personal letter to be just as meaningful. It meant that someone had taken the time to acknowledge my life-changing event. On the other hand, if the bereaved is someone she would just smile at or say a quick hello to in passing, then I don’t think it absolutely necessary for her to go to the shiva but she might say, “I’m sorry for your loss” when she sees her afterwads.

  17. Rifki says:

    Although I agree with the concept of paying shiva calls, it is NOT for everyone. If someone feels truly uncomfortable with going, THERE IS an alternative that shows you care about the bereaved. Send them a letter that lets them know they are in your thoughts AND try and include a short anecdote of the deceased.

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