Dear B’nai Shalom members, friends, and families:

As we all know, it is a universal truth that life is meant to have a start and a finish, a beginning that we all celebrate and an ending which we typically mourn. Hashem intended our lives to be abbreviated – hopefully longer than shorter – and even then, G-d-willing, blessed with good health, comfort, and peacefulness.

Recognizing that every life has its end time, we often find ourselves as sources of potential support in shiva houses where a loss of life has been experienced.

When in a shiva house, there are a number of behaviors we can employ which can bring possible healing to the mourners.

We are directed by Chazal (the rabbis of the Mishna and Gemorah) to take a seat near the mourners and remain silent until the mourners themselves initiate conversation. It is possible that the mourners (because of the nature of the pain of the loss) do not feel like engaging in shared discussion, ANY type of conversation whatsoever. Or the mourners may already be “talked out,” having shared information about the nature of the death of their loved one with previous visitors.

No matter the reason for silence on the part of the mourners, our obligation is to take our seats and wait for our cues from the mourners in terms of the direction and extent of the verbalizations with which they may be comfortable.

If the mourners are comfortable speaking about their deceased loved ones, appropriate, intelligent, sensitive questions from visitors which appear to be in consonance with the tone of the mourner’s sharings are not out of the question.

However even when it appears the mourner is open to mutual dialogue, there are a number of expressions from the visitors which may prove NOT TO BE HELPFUL, especially depending on the nature of the death of their loved one.

In cases when the passing of the deceased was unexpected, sudden, or at a young, unanticipated age, or as a result of an accident, often there can be NO comfort, no healing. It is especially in these types of situations that the shiva house visitors utilize extraordinary sensitivity and an awareness of the often, unspoken signs the mourners are transmitting in terms of their willingness to speak OR hear the intended statements of healing from those visiting.

In all cases, there is no upside to “matching” the details of the death of the deceased with one’s own stories of similar circumstances in one’s own family. In the shiva house, the mourner is dealing with his/her own sadness, loss, and pain and often do not need to hear the narratives of the losses from others. Sharing one’s own tales, while well-intentioned (with the visitor mistakenly thinking the mourner will gain some kind of comfort through hearing similar particulars of others’ losses), often just “hijacks” the dialogue and renders the conversation about someone else’s loss and THAT person’s episode of sadness and loss, redirecting the talk AWAY from a focus on the deceased of that shiva house.

And certainly when the deceased is a young person, a child of the parents sitting shiva, or in a sudden, tragic or completely unexpected death, suggesting one of the following is almost certainly NOT going to be helpful and even detrimental or further hurting or painful.

It is NOT advised to suggest that: a.) “I guess G-d needed (insert the deceased’s name here) up there in heaven more than HE needed him/her here in this world.”

b.) “You know, he/she is really better off being up there with G-d” (and/or with other family members who have previously died.)

And in the case of a child especially: c.) “It’s good you have other children.” THIS will NEVER bring grieving parents ANY KIND of comfort, support, or healing.

Similarly in the case of a loss of a child: d.) “It’s good that you (and spouse) are young. You can still have other children.”

In almost ALL situations, silence is certainly superior to saying something awkward, hurtful, or clumsy even if the visitor had the very best of intentions.

There is great wisdom in giving the mourners clear, direct, eye contact when they are speaking, nodding one’s head in affirmation and understanding and not necessarily verbalizing audibly even a single word. The visitor’s vocalization will NOT BE missed.

A simple statement of one’s expression of condolence can be as brief and uncomplicated as: “I was so sorry to hear about your loss” or “I was very fond of (the deceased).” “We all thought so highly of (the deceased).” “I wish you well.” “I wish you much comfort,” if that’s possible.

At a shiva house, as with so many situations in life, shorter, briefer, and the least complicated is almost always better.

Hoping you do not need to employ these strategies too often, I wish everyone well with many joys in your lives and always with good health.

With Torah blessings,
Rabbi Dr. Yaacov Dvorin