‘After the death of Avraham, G-d blessed his son Yitzhak.’ (Gen. 25:11) After Avraham passes away, G-d models for us the mitzvah of nihum avelim, comforting the mourner. The Talmud states that consoling mourners is one way for humans to fulfill the principle of “walking in G-d’s ways,” (BT Sotah 14a) While we can easily see the tremendous value and the act of kindness that this mitzvah is, we can sometimes feel uncomfortable, not knowing how to enter a shiva home, approach the mourners or what to say.
Traditionally, the shiva home is unlocked during hours of visitation and prayer, so we should simply enter quietly, without ringing the doorbell. Once inside, it is important to remember that the basic purpose of the visit is to be there for the mourner, to help alleviate the loneliness felt due to their recent loss. As such, we are not supposed to take the initiative in conversing with the mourners, but to let the mere fact of our presence provide the comfort of human companionship and compassion. The paradigm for this is when Job’s friends came to console him ’they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights. None spoke a word to him for they saw how very great was his suffering.’ (Job 2:13) We should not initiate any greeting, but follow the mourner’s lead. The shiva visit does not call for our attempting to “cheer up” the mourners, or distract them from their grief. Instead, it is appropriate to talk and hear stories about the deceased and the deceased’s influence on those present.
When prayer services are being held at the shiva house, attending those services is a good way for us to show concern for the mourners and it helps ensure there is a minyan present for the recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish. Another way of showing concern is bringing food to the shiva house. This ensures that the mourners do not have to cook meals for themselves.
When leaving the home, we should offer our traditional words of comfort, ‘HaMakon yenakhem et’khem b’tokh sha’ar aveyley Tzion v’Yerushalayim,’ ‘May G-d comfort you together with all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.’
Hopefully these tips will help us in our efforts to comfort mourners respectfully and thoughtfully as we try our best to be there for our friends and loved ones in their time of need.
What to Say
Zane Belyea, Chief Operating Officer of Dallas Jewish Funerals, says it is understandable that visitors may be at a loss for comforting words. He has these suggestions for what to say to mourners:
- “I am very sorry for your loss.” (Simple is sometimes the best)
- “May his memory be a blessing.”
- “We loved her and she will be missed.”
- “I am here for you if you need someone to listen.”
- “He was very important to me.”
- “I learned so much from her.”
- “Our whole community has suffered a loss.”
“Don’t be afraid to share a short story of a memory of the deceased. Something heartwarming or even funny will show the mourner the impact their loved one had on others,” Belyea suggests.
Remember that speaking about the loved one they lost is comforting. It’s alright if they cry; they are in mourning. It is all part of the important process of coming to grips with such a loss.
What Not to Say
Author Lori Palatnik, Founding Director of the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project,offers these tips on what NOT to say in a house of mourning:
A shiva call can sometimes be completely silent. If the mourner does not feel like talking at that time, so be it. Your goal is not to get them to talk; it is to comfort them. Your presence alone is doing that. By sitting there silently, you are saying more than words can. You are saying: “I am here for you. I feel your pain. There are no words.”
And sometimes there aren’t any. Here are examples of things not to say:
- “How are you?” (They’re not so good.)
- “I know how you feel.” (No you don’t. Each person feels a unique loss.)
- “At least she lived a long life.” (Longer would have been better.)
- “It’s good that you have other children,” or, “Don’t worry, you’ll have more.” (The loss of a child, no matter what age, is completely devastating.)
- “Cheer up – in a few months you’ll meet someone new.” (He/she has just lost the other half of their soul!)
- “Let’s talk about happy things.” (Maybe later.)
When and How to Leave
You should not overstay your visit. Twenty minutes will suffice. When other visitors arrive and space is a concern, it is certainly time to leave.
Upon leaving the house of the mourner, it is customary to give charity in memory of the one who passed away, may his or her soul be elevated.
המקום ינחם אתכם בתוך שאר אבלי ציון וירושלים
HaMakom yenakhem et’khem b’tokh sha’ar aveyley Tzion v’Yerushalayim – May G-d comfort you together with all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
If you are Sephardi, instead of the HaMakom blessing, it may be your family’s custom to say to the mourner: Tenaḥamu Min HaShamayim – May you be comforted from the heavens
One can say these phrases in English or Hebrew (or whatever language you and the mourner are most comfortable with) and it is perfectly acceptable to read from a sheet of paper.
For more than 15 years, the Dallas and Houston Jewish Funerals staff have had the privilege of providing Jewish funeral care to more than 2,500 families. The Dallas and Houston Jewish Funerals team has more than a half-century of combined funeral experience and we are ready to put our expertise to work. Dallas Jewish Funerals was established to provide the North Texas Jewish community an alternative to the growing number of funeral homes owned by large corporations. We are family owned and operated and our compassionate staff will answer your call 24/7/365. You will never speak to an answering service or outsourcing agency. We will work closely with your rabbi to guide you and your family through a proper Jewish funeral built on Halakha. For more information, please call (972) 424-1141 in Dallas or (713) 666-0257 in Houston or visit http://jewishfuneralstx.com.
*Originally published by Dallas Jewish Monthly