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How to Comfort a Mourner

Learn how to pay a shiva call and behave in a house of mourning.

By Rahel Musleah
Spring 2011

How can I step in to help during shiva?
“One of my friends volunteered to be the `point person’ to field calls and help with logistics during shiva,” says Sherry Husney. “She ordered food and answered questions about when the minyan was. Now that I’ve been a mourner, I try to step back and see what the mourner seems to need rather than impose my own needs.”

Should I send flowers?
The rabbis of the Talmud discouraged the use of flowers at Jewish funerals and this custom is followed at most, but not all, Jewish funerals. “Don’t send flowers,” advises Rabbi Tamara Miller. “Flowers represent beauty at a time of sadness, and they also wither and die. Make a donation to a charitable organization. By doing acts of tzedakah we allow the memory of the person to live on.” In Israel, however it is not uncommon to see flowers placed on graves, especially for soldiers, reflecting an alternative Talmudic interpretation.
Should I pay a shiva call?
“Paying a shiva visit is never easy and people are always worried about saying or doing the wrong thing,” writes Anita Diamant in her book, Saying Kaddish: How to Comfort the Dying, Bury the Dead & Mourn as a Jew (Schocken) “But the overriding mandate is simply to be there. Showing your face in a house of mourning is, in itself, the most powerful statement of concern, respect and condolence anyone can make.” According to Diamant, any friend or acquaintance, Jewish or non-Jewish can call on a bereaved family when they are receiving visitors during shiva.

Should I send food to the shiva house?
It is a mitzvah—good deed—to bring food to a house of mourning. At the meal following the cemetery, mourners are forbidden to eat their own food.  It’s always good to check in with someone to see the level of Jewish dietary laws to which the family adheres and then plan accordingly either by bringing something homemade or by using a kosher caterer in the area. Also ask when is the best time to bring food—when someone will be there to receive it before the funeral or if it would be better to bring it a day or two later when the family will need additional meals. Usually wine, liquor and candy are not suitable since they are considered festive gifts.

Should I ring the doorbell at the shiva house?
No, the door is usually left unlocked and you should walk in. The ringing doorbell is considered a distraction for the mourners and would impel them to act like a host.

How does one behave when visiting a house of mourning?
“Following the lead of the mourner is critical,” says Juliet Spitzer. “Come in quietly. Try not to stay too long. It’s not a party. Let the mourner initiate conversation. Give them what they need. If they want to tell jokes, go with it. If they want utter silence, go with it, even if it makes you uncomfortable. Bring food if you want, but the real mitzvah is to sit with the mourner.”

Where do I sit in the shiva house?
Sit in one of the regular chairs. Mourners often sit in low chairs or cushions on the floor. Sitting low to the ground “is an outward sign of being struck down by grief,” writes Diamant.

I’d like to write a condolence note, but what should I say?
“Acknowledge those characteristics that you cherished the most about the person who died,” writes Dr. Ron Wolfson in his book, A Time to Mourn, a Time to Comfort—A Guide to Jewish Bereavement (Jewish Lights). He also suggests sharing a story or anecdote about the deceased.

Muriel Jorgenson was touched by the letters she received from all over the country after her husband’s death. “I remember running to the mailbox to see who wrote to me. It made me realize even more what a wonderful person my husband was and how many people knew it. I saved the letters.”

Even the simplest messages have an impact. “Every person who writes a note or makes a charitable contribution makes a difference,” says Susan Jerison.

Related articles:
You Are Not Alone
Books to Help Mourners and Comforters
Jewish Women Mourning: A Book in Progress

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