Dos and Don’ts at a Shivah House

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shivahBy Rabbi Benjamin Blech

I just came home from paying my respects at a house of mourning and I’m furious.

How can people be so insensitive and so stupid, I wonder to myself, as I witnessed yet again the unintentional cruelty of those who came to comfort but instead conveyed messages that only added more pain to the grieving.

Thankfully I’ve never heard anything as outrageous as the reported request to the newly widowed mother of three for her deceased husband’s golf clubs so that “his memory will live on in a meaningful way.” But what I’ve seen all too often is almost as appalling.

Making it all the more upsetting is the unique significance of the circumstances. A lapse of proper etiquette in a social setting can readily be forgiven; actions that exacerbate the pain of someone already profoundly suffering are indefensible.

Let me share with you some of my more recent experiences.

We can’t know they feel because every tragedy is different.

Didn’t anyone understand that saying “I know just how you feel” isn’t helpful? It’s minimizing a mourner’s tragedy to imply that those unaffected can really comprehend the severity of another person’s loss. We can’t know — because every tragedy is different.

I was inconsolable after my parents died. But I still wasn’t able to fully comprehend mourning in the same way as one of my dearest friends in Israel when she lost her child in a terrorist attack. She put it succinctly when she wrote to me: “With the death of a husband, you lose your present; with the death of a parent, the past; but with the death of a child you lose your future. None of them can be compared to each other.”

Perhaps Shakespeare best captured the irony: “Everyone can master a grief but he that hath it.” Real comfort can only come from those who don’t exaggerate their empathy.

Far worse, though, were those whose “comforting” counsel was “Try not to think about it.” What they were really suggesting is that departed loved ones deserve to be forgotten. They would prefer that survivors be disloyal to memories in order to avoid being troubled by unpleasant conversation.

The truth, of course, is that mourners need to work through their grief. They have every right to hold on to their recollections for as long as required, even if their reminiscences are stained with tears. “Thinking about it” is the only way they can get through their misery. “When grief is fresh,” Samuel Johnson wrote, “every attempt to divert only irritates. You must wait till grief be digested, and then amusement will dissipate the remains of it.”

That is why Judaism, in its wisdom, teaches that we are forbidden to convey words of consolation “in the presence of the deceased.” It is simply too soon to offer platitudes. Mourners have a right to weep. And even after the burial, during the time of the shiva, the seven days dedicated to remembering everything that the departed meant to us, tears have their place as a vital part of the healing process.

For true chutzpah, I can’t forget the troubadours of joy in a place set aside for bereavement. “Cheer up” is the advice I’ve heard far too many times, a recommendation about as absurd as it is disrespectful. What colossal chutzpah to suggest joyfulness at a time of tragedy. Geoffrey Gorer, in his classic work, Death, Grief, and Mourning put it well: “Giving way to grief is stigmatized as morbid, unhealthy, demoralizing…. Mourning is treated as if it were a weakness, a self- indulgence, a reprehensible bad habit instead of a psychological necessity.” Telling mourners to change their mood is much more than inappropriate. It is extremely harmful to those who require the catharsis of grieving.

But the award for the most hurtful of misplaced attempts to reflect on the death of someone’s loved one must surely be “the gift of guilt” I have witnessed on innumerable occasions. Maybe you should have… is followed by a philosophic exploration of how it might have been possible, had the survivors only done something differently for the deceased to have avoided his appointment with the Angel of Death.

Imagine what comfort it must have been for the grieving widow to hear, “I wish you would have used my doctor — he might have saved him.” Think of how painful it had to be for the father to be told, “Guess you never should have let her take the car.” Yes, I even heard a visitor to the home of the mourners for a 9/11 victim share the brilliant insight that “If he would only have gone to medical school as I suggested instead of becoming a stockbroker, he never would have been in the World Trade Center when it happened”! Why in the world would anyone believe that blaming those who weep for what can no longer be changed can bring them any measure of solace?

All these misguided efforts amply illustrate the powerful truth of a beautiful Jewish proverb: God created us with two ears and only one mouth in order to teach us that it’s far more important for us to listen than it is to speak.

Just Be There

That’s why I’ve come to a personal conclusion about what it is that makes a condolence call best fulfill its function. In three words: just be there. What mourners need most is the gift of you.

What mourners need most is the gift of you. Just be there.

Words often miss their mark. They may hurt as often as they heal. What leaves no room for misunderstanding, however, is a simple hug, a shared tear, the language conveyed by our presence.

It is a truth I came to best realize in one of the most remarkable shiva visits I ever witnessed. The mourner was a young widow, a mother of four, who had suddenly and without warning lost her husband, a brilliant Talmudic scholar and revered teacher of hundreds of devoted students. We came to the shiva house, colleagues, friends and disciples. None of us knew what to say. Nervously, we attempted some conversation. All eyes suddenly turned to the door as we noticed the arrival of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, of blessed memory, one of the greatest rabbinic luminaries of the generation.

We held our breaths in anticipation. What would this great scholar have to say to the widow? What wisdom would he be able to impart to ease her suffering? What could we learn from the way he handled the situation?

Rabbi Feinstein started to tell the mourners what a great man the deceased was, how learned, how pious, how righteous. But after no more than two sentences the rabbi choked up and could say no more. He wept, tried again — and then remained silent. He sat for about 20 minutes all the while making clear his grief. He then rose and offered the traditional words recited for the occasion: “May the Lord comfort you amongst the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”

And after he was gone and for many days thereafter the widow would tell everyone how much she had gained from that visit.

No, it was not the words that mattered. None of us will ever find words comforting enough, wise enough, profound enough to undo the tragedy or to minimize it. It was simply fulfilling what Jewish law teaches us to do at a time such as this. We are to show by our presence that we too are affected by the loss. We are to demonstrate by our sorrow that we share in some measure the pain of the mourners. We are to illustrate by recounting our memories of the departed that the life that is no more will continue in our minds and in our hearts, offering a measure of immortality to the deceased. We are to make clear to those who suffer that we will always continue to be there for them because we are part of a greater community that understands that all of us are responsible one for another.

This is why shiva, when properly observed, has the power to console and to comfort countless generations.

Click here for a one page practical guide on how to pay a shiva call.


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  1. well put
    people forget the mitzvah of nichum aveilim is to be a listener and not a talker, as you are not allowed to innitiate conversation!

  2. I was present at a Shiva house, where the parents were sitting Shiva for a son who was driving and had been tragically killed in a car crash; a women sidled up to the mother and said, “So, was your son a good driver?”

  3. I could not have said it better. Kudos to you for stating the obvious which is unfortunately to many people, not always obvious. The worst story I know of was the woman who was unable to make it to the shiva house during the shiva week where her friend was sitting shiva for her father. She happened to meet the woman who was sitting shiva, a few days after the shiva in the street and rather than offering belated condolences, proceeds to apologize profusely for not being able to make it to the shiva house and then says- ready for this?-…”I’m so sorry, hope to make it next time”!! Similar to the story mentioned above about R’ Moshe Feinstein, I once accompanied Harav Aharon Schechter, Shlit”a to a shiva house where a woman with children had lost her young husband after a long illness. The Rosh Yeshiva literally just sat down, looked at her and after a long silence said “Es is nit duh vos tzu zogen” and he began to weep. After a few minutes, he got up, said “Hamokem yenachem…” and left. The simple things we can learn from a Gadol.

  4. When my mother in law was sitting shiva, I recall a cousin stopping by to pay his respects. He obviously did not have much to say. After some awkward silence he broke it by asking” so how much yerusha di you get”

  5. Sg, I was checking Matzav during my machsom time!
    Rabbi Blech is a talmid chacham and a zakein (I believe old enough to qualify halachically).

  6. After losing my Father, I found that kaddish is for the living as much as for the nifter. It also gives more meaning to your learning l’ilui neshmas. The sefer A Consoling Thought was also very good.

  7. I was once privileged to ride in the car that was taking Maran Rav Avroham Pam, ZT’L, and a few Talmidim to be Menachem Avel. The family’s father, a middle aged man who had been in fully good health, had been at a Chasuna/wedding and had suddenly collapsed dead onto the wedding hall floor! Yibodel L’Chaiyim Tovim V’Aruchim/may they be separated for good long life, the sons are all fine Bnei Torah.

    When we arrived at the home, an elderly woman (I do not know how she was related), the Almona/the widow — and you could really see on her face the completely expected horrific flushed out look, and one of the sons were there.

    Of what was spoken, I remember the following.

    The elderly lady expressed great praise of their particular Kehila/community for being so extremely helpful to them in this tragedy: “IT’S JUST LIKE THE ‘OLD COUNTRY’!”

    At one point, the son exclaimed to Rav Pam: “REBBE! I HAD A DREAM, AND I DON’T KNOW WHAT IT MEANS!!”

    Rav Pam, in a quiet, calm, and reassuring tone, explained to him that his father, Z’L, was watching him and was able to see everything he was doing and was going to be present at his coming Chasuna.

  8. BRAVO BRAVO to see a article like family sat shiva a few years back for my sister and we had a few thousand people come to the shiva.most people need all the the details of the death or say she was a korben for klal yisroel IT JUST MAKE THE PEOPLE FEEL WORSE.the right thing i feel is to say a nice story of the nifta and sit quietly.DONT OFFER YOUR ADVISE NOBODY INTERESTED IN MONDAY MORNING QUARTERBACKS ADVICE.MAY KLAL YISROEL ONLY KNOW OF SIMCHAS

  9. I knew someone who lost a child and would you believe an idiot told the mother at least you have 5 other children.

    As if to say who cares and go on with life.

    Rabbi Reisman once spoke about these issues at his navi shiur and said very eloquently that most people say stupid things and think they must say something in order to comfort someone. Rabbi Reisman went on to say that sometimes just being menachem ovel without saying a word is good enough. Halcha wise a person being menachem ovel is not the one that is suppoed to speak but the person sitting shiva is supposed to say something about their lost one if they choose.

    And never ask how was she/he or how long was the patient suffering. And don’t ask how many others in the family died of the same thing.

    there are more stupid questions asked in a mourners home than any other place!

    Maybe someone reading this post can come out with a book called paying respect and what not to say for dummies?

  10. The story you brought regarding “hope to make it next time” is about foot in mouth syndrom, not insensitivity. Huge difference. When in an uncomfortable position, sometimes people say things that are so absurd, not out of insensitivity, but because it popped out of her mouth before she gave herself time to think of what to properly say.

    I know, you will shrei that she should have “thought before she spoke”, and of course that is true, but didn’t you ever say something silly before your thought? Haven’t you ever put your foot into your mouth? I’m sure this lady still blushes every time she remembers her mistake.

    Dan L’kaf Zechus, and a little understanding for others’ blunders is part of interpersonal relationships and sensitivity…

  11. I will never forget the call I got while I was sitting shiva from a friend who decided to tell me he was expecting a new child.
    I was thrilled for him, of course, and even happier when he hung up.
    But this article’s message, which really is in the talmud in just a few words, the reward for the house of the mourner is silence. (berachos)
    and this story, raise the issue, should we really be calling them on the phone.
    If silence is etiquette then how do you call someone on the phone which will by definition be solely talking.

  12. I think that it has to do with the prevalent mindset of our generation today, that they feel they must get something done, to feel accomplished – for example, people daven without thinking, or read many perakim in Tehillim without Kavanah, and feel good about themselves, because they ‘said’ all those chapters. Or do mitzvos, and worry about the halachik chumros, but don’t give a thought to the pnimiyus of the mitzvah – as long as they ‘did’ the Mitzvah. Basicaly we are in a dor where people are focused on chitzoniyus. So when going for a shiva call, they want to ‘do’ the Mitzvah, so they have to ‘say’ something, otherwise they didn’t ‘do’ anything.

  13. #11 Rebecca Feldbaum already HAS written a book. It’s entitled “If There’s Anything I Can Do” (Feldheim). In it, she discusses these very issues which she knows of from personal experience as she became an almanah at a young age. This book should be required reading for anyone visiting a shiva house or helping a friend who has suffered a loss(which is just about all of us).

  14. #12 well said. I think everybody takes every statement too seriously. Many people develop foot in mouth syndrome when they are in an uncomfortable situation. Some people are thoughtless and stupid things come out of their mouths. Laugh it off and be glad you know better. It provides a little comic relief.

  15. sometimes a shiva calls i laugh and laugh inside. people say the dumbest things. however no one is trying to make it worse for the aveil. its only because they are uncomfortable with the aakwarad situation. the aveil should realize this and take it into consideration.

  16. Excellent article. It should be mandatory
    reading. The main theme, which some opine
    should be elementary, is sadly not so

    Pardon me as I get something off my chest:
    After my father passed away, I began
    reciting kaddish in my local synagogue. It was not easy. (Not because of the language; I actually read and understand Hebrew and Aramaic.) The problem was due to
    cold and coarse ritualism among some members of the congregation. The officiating cantor and rabbi were not helpful as they had very
    exacting demands and expectations regarding the “correct” pace and manner in which the mourner’s recitation should be executed.

    At times, I was told I was reciting kaddish too fast; on other occasions, I was told that I was too slow.

    It was a cold attitude which, to say the least, I found to be repulsive—far
    from comforting, to put it mildly. (I’m no longer an “uh-vel”; this negative experience occurred some time in the past.)

    I’ve taken the liberty to make these remarks, having read Rabbi Blech’s
    article, which is all about a lack of sensitivity. It is a timely subject and it reminded me of the negative experience to which
    I was subjected. (I canceled my membership in that synagogue.)

  17. During one of the weekly Erev Shabbos Shiurim that Rav Pam, ZT’L, gave in Torah Vodaas, he discussed a little about what is proper at a Shiva.

    He strongly condemned what some people do of making conversation with laughter and joking around, explaining that it is an extremely serious time at which we have to be very sad over what happened.

    He was also strongly against what people do of stating: “Oh! I should have done this!” “Oh! I should have done that!” “Oh! If I would have only done this!” “Oh! If I would have only done that!” for we have to realize that a person dies/a person is Niftar at a certain time BECAUSE THAT IS THE TIME THAT HASHEM WANTS FOR THE PETIRA!!

  18. There is a hilarious YouTube video called “what not to say at a shiva house”
    It clearly demonstrates the stupid things that people actually say,
    There is also one about what no to say when doing bikkur cholem


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