Our community is blessed with many opportunities – and an exceptional ability – to get together and interact with people. We frequently attend semahot, sebets, fundraisers, kiddushim in shul, and other festive events with an upbeat, energetic atmosphere, where laughter abounds and multiple conversations take place simultaneously.
Understandably, then, we often find ourselves running into some trouble when we bring our “social butterfly” selves into a house of mourning. I have heard both mourners and family members helping at a shiva house observe that although everyone means well, and nobody intends to speak inappropriately or disrespectfully, there seems to be a lack of understanding about the proper way to conduct oneself while paying a shiva call. Let us, then, try to acquaint ourselves with the concept of mourning and the visitor’s role in this process.
The week of shiva is designed to help mourners by providing them with a period of spiritual and emotional healing, which is facilitated through an environment of comfort and community support.
Not surprisingly, modern psychologists have recently come to the same conclusions as our Jewish tradition – that healing from a loss takes time and requires communal support. Psychiatrist Dr. Jorge Casariego explains that “psychologically, it is imperative that a mourner experiences a gradual process of disengagement from the image of the deceased. Producing happy memories about the departed helps the mourner to forget the image of their loved ones in their weakened state and reminds them of a robust, multi-dimensional influence on their life.”
Speaking and hearing about their loved one enables mourners to undergo this critically important psychological process. How can our visit assist the mourner along this difficult, painful road to emotional recovery?
It’s Not About You
First and foremost, we must remember that our visit is about the mourner, and not about us. The Talmud teaches that the funeral is for the deceased and the shiva is for the mourners. When the funeral is over, our attention shifts from the mitzvah of accompanying the dead to the mitzvah of comforting the living – and this must be our point of focus when we visit. Rabbi Aryeh Markman, executive director of Aish Los Angeles, suggests, “When you come to visit, remember that it is for the benefit of the mourner. This is the last place on earth you want to talk about yourself, as interesting as you may be. It takes tremendous psychic energy for the mourner to entertain your ego.”
Contrary to usual interactions, visitors should typically avoid initiating conversations during a shiva call. Visitors should generally listen and offer support only when engaged. It is important to remember that the purpose of the shiva is to comfort mourners and allow the family to grieve. Therefore, visitors making a shiva call should be attentive to the needs of the mourners and to the atmosphere in the shiva house. The fitting topic of conversation for a shiva is the deceased. If you have a story about the deceased, or if the deceased did something meaningful for you, then share it. Those stories are comforting to most mourners. Ask to see pictures of the deceased’s life. Ask the mourner to describe the deceased’s finest hour. Ask what the deceased would want to be remembered for, and how the mourners will remember him.
Another area where we need improvement is with regard to the timing and length of our visits.
Our community is not known for promptness – to put it mildly – and invitation times are often seen as a suggestion. No matter how many times we see the word “promptly” on an invitation, we live by organic time and show up when it’s convenient for us, not when we are requested to arrive. Unfortunately, this spills over into our shiva visits, as well. Virtually every shiva house has a sign posted on the front door, requesting that no visitors come after 9pm or so, and yet mourners have shared that visitors were coming until 10pm. We need to respect the mourners’ wishes and visit only during the times they request. If a visitor realizes upon arriving that this is not one of the visiting hours, then he should leave a note or send a message, rather than enter the home. Remember, visiting a house of mourning is about comforting the mourner, and if the mourner specified visiting hours, then visiting at other times does not provide any comfort at all.
The shiva process is often lengthy and tiring for the mourners; visitors should be mindful not to overstay their welcome. In the past, mourners would nod their heads to indicate when it was time for visitors to leave (Moed Katan 27b). Nowadays, one must be sensitive to the mourner’s state of mind and understand when he wants visitors to leave so he can have rest and privacy (Aruch Hashulhan, Y.D. 376:3). Visits should generally be kept short; 15-20 minutes are sufficient for most shiva calls.
Another consideration is mealtimes. Our community excels at hospitality; when people enter our home, we feel an obligation to greet them and engage with them so they feel comfortable and welcome. I have seen so many instances where mourners did not finish their meal or did not even begin their meal because visitors arrived and were waiting to see them. We as a community have to do better in this regard. The shiva week is a sacred period of healing for the mourners, and this process necessitates their tending to their physical needs, getting enough rest and eating properly. We owe it to them to ensure that our visits do not come at the expense of their comfort or nourishment.
My “Not-Shiva” Story
When my father, Meyer J. Kassin, a”h, passed away on Erev Pesach, 2015 in Florida, my family had to quickly – and frantically – make some very difficult decisions. The combination of the timing (right before Yom Tov), and the logistical challenge of a burial in Israel, made for a complicated situation. My mother, my siblings, and I all wanted to get my father, a”h, to his final resting place as quickly and respectfully as possible. This entailed escorting him to the cargo section of Ft. Lauderdale airport for his trip to NY and then Israel.
Next, one of my sisters, who was returning to New Jersey to spend Pesach with her family, needed to be driven to the commuter side of the airport, and the keriah (tearing of the garment) had to be done before she left. We parked the car and hurried through the airport looking for a spot to perform the keriah for her. At some point, I realized that we could get arrested for running through the airport with a weapon – the pocketknife I had brought along for ripping – and so we went back outside, and I performed the keriah for her on the sidewalk in front of the terminal.
I then drove back to the cargo section to get my husband, who was reluctant to leave my dad alone, and he drove us back to my mom’s apartment which miraculously – thanks to my daughter and her mother-in-law – was set up for shiva. We swallowed down a hard-boiled egg and some egg matza (not recommended), sat for an hour greeting guests (wondering how they had heard about this…), got up, showered, and returned to my mom’s home where – again, miraculously – everything was back in order and set for a Pesach seder (still not sure who did that). Needless to say, we were all a bit shell-shocked. There was no additional formal mourning, because the onset of Yom Tov ends the observance of shiva.
A month later, we flew to Israel for the sheloshim. During our stay in Israel, my consuegra, the one who had set up my mom’s house for shiva, lost her father. I went to pay a shiva call, and I found myself feeling envious, a strange feeling to have in a shiva house. I envied my consuegra’s ability to talk about her father, to embrace his memory and to share the pain of his loss, something my siblings, my mom and I were not able to do.
Eight years later, I still feel the need to tell my “not shiva” story. Anyone I speak to who had the same experience, of a shiva cut short by a holiday, expresses similar feelings. At the same time, however, we all acknowledge how the numerous emails and cards we received, telling us about how special our loved one was and how they had touched the sender, provided a great deal of comfort. Although we didn’t have a steady stream of visitors for a whole week, the opportunity to hear about our loved one was truly meaningful.
I share this to help all of us remember the fundamental purpose of shiva and the proper behavior when visiting. Come at the right time, and don’t stay too long. Sit quietly. Let the mourners initiate, and follow their lead. Let them dictate the subject, tenor and flow of the conversation. If you listen carefully, you will know exactly what to say. Your presence, your silence, and your empathy are enough.
May we always meet at happy occasions.