WHAT TO DO OR NOT DO AT A SHIVA home
From Rabbi Kalman Pacouz Aish HaTorah
GOOD MORNING! Death is a very sad part of life. In our tradition, we sit Shiva (“shiva” is the Hebrew word for “seven” referring to the seven days we mourn) for our seven closest relatives: father, mother, brother, sister, spouse, son or daughter.
Visiting a Shiva house can be a comfort to the mourners and a meaningful experience to the comforters — if done right. However, visiting a Shiva home can cause a person to be ill at ease if he doesn’t understand his role in the mourning process and doesn’t know the halacha (Jewish law) governing behavior at a Shiva home.
Mourning is a time to spiritually and psychologically come to terms with one’s loss. For seven days the mourner sits on a low chair or cushion, doesn’t leave the house, withdraws from the world around him. Why? Now is the time to cry, to remember the good times, to feel the loss. If a person doesn’t allow himself — or isn’t allowed — to focus on this, the pain remains longer and stronger and hampers the continuation of his own life.
Jewish law prescribes that when one enters the house of a mourner, he should sit silently until spoken to by the mourner — so that he will not intrude upon the mourner. Just being there is comforting. Sometimes there is no need for words. If the mourner engages you in conversation, it is important that the conversation should focus upon the deceased. It is a great kindness to ask questions which concretize memories and feelings: What was his outstanding character trait? What was one incident which encapsulates his life? What was his greatest impact upon you? This focuses the mourner and helps him to both grieve and integrate the impact the deceased had on his life.
People are uncomfortable at the home of a mourner because they are unclear of what function they should serve. That is why people mistakenly try to change the subject and avoid talking about the deceased. What is intended as a kindness ends up as a disservice. Remember that a Shiva house is not a party.
Recently, I visited a Shiva house and picked up a guide sheet of two pages by L. Muschel of “Do’s and Don’ts.” I think they are helpful, though to some they may seem obvious. Here are excerpts and some of my own (which incorporate some of the points mentioned above):
DO’s at a Shiva Home
1. Do sit quietly until spoken to by the mourner. Your presence is often enough. It is up to the mourner if he or she wishes to talk.
2. Do focus the conversation on the deceased and ask questions about a) the greatest time they had together b) the most important lesson learned from the deceased c) what character traits the mourner admired most about the deceased d) the nicest thing the deceased ever did e) the most meaningful thing the deceased ever did.
3. Share meaningful stories of what the deceased did for you and share what the deceased meant to you.
4. Do respect the time — stay a short time and not too late.
DON’T’s at a Shiva Home
1. Don’t ask how old the deceased was. It really doesn’t matter. If he or she was elderly you imply that it was not painful to the mourners.
2. Do not ask if he knew that he was ill and dying. It’s irrelevant and hurtful.
3. Do not use the Shiva visit as a self-therapy session to discuss your own loss of a relative.
4. Do not socialize with other people in front of the mourners or direct the conversation away from the deceased.
5. Do not say, “He had a long life.” It is never long enough.
6. Do not say, “Is there anything I can do?” If you can do it, just do it. Stay in touch after the mourning period.
If you want to learn more on how to deal with death and help your fellow human being who is grieving, read The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning by Rabbi Maurice Lamm. If you want a book to give the mourner to help him or her, I highly recommend (and give it myself), Remember My Soul by Rabbi Yaakov and Lori Palatnik. Both are available from your local Jewish book store or by calling toll-free 877-758-3242.
Submitted by Jerry Weissman