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Helen Gottstein
Corporate public speaking skills for people of ambition
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How to shiva

Their mourning is not about you. It's their pain. If they want to tell stories, listen. If they want to be silent, let them. If they weep, pass a tissue. It's not about you
The Mourners (Sitting Shiva), by Emmanuel Levy, 1928.
The Mourners (Sitting Shiva), by Emmanuel Levy, 1928.

Last Tuesday, I attended another utterly devastating funeral for a young man who took his life. I heard of yet another this morning.

In this month of mental health awareness, I invite you to learn from the mourning rituals of the Jewish tradition.

I’m proudly, loudly Jewish. While there are things in my religion with which I don’t identify, the rituals around mourning are profoundly emotionally intelligent.

Basically, the family does nothing for seven days, except sit together, pray if they want to, and get taken care of.

As for everyone else, our tradition says going to comfort the bereaved is a good thing to do. Here’s how to offer that comfort well.

First, avoid these emotional faux pas

The piggyback:

“Your grandfather died of a heart attack? So did mine! This is what happened….”

“They died at X Hospital? I was there last year. This is what happened to me…..”

No, no, no. Stop. Just be quiet. This is not about your grandfather or your hospital experience. This is about them alone. Multiply this by 100.

The curious:

Questions that begin with when, where, how are merely about facts. Facts are secondary to their shock, pain, grief and loss over the loss of their whole person — the way they danced, cooked, joked and celebrated. And especially in the case of a suicide, for goodness sake, do not ask why.

If this is not clear to you, ask yourself how healing it would be to answer these questions and then just stop.

Then there’s the absurdly insensitive.

HaShem takes the best

I know how you feel

You should (insert anything)

God only gives us what we can handle  (This one makes me want to break things.)

Tell them to “Be strong.”

Why on earth would you say this? It is not their job to be strong. It is your job to be strong for them – when they collapse, weep, break and just can’t. Your job is to bear witness, listen and hold.

And one level beyond “Be strong” is this little jewel: You are so strong, I could never handle it if it happened to me.

Hell. Paved. Good intentions.

What’s good.

  • Bring food. Food is good.
  • Go to their house and sit with them.
  • And now the talking part:

Our tradition holds that you should let the mourner guide you. If they want to share stories of the deceased, listen and ask about them. If they want to sit in silence, do that. If they want to weep, pass the tissues. If they want to laugh, do that. There is no judgment. Only their pain. Give their pain its place. It’s the only thing that can begin the long, long, long journey of healing.

Good questions/comments could be:

  • What would you like us to know about them?
  • How’s the shiva going for you?
  • Can I see some pictures?
  • Would you like tea?
  • If you have a kind memory to share of their loved one, share it. It’s an act of love. Add to the sudden terrible limit of their memory bank.

And if you have overwhelm, depression and suicidal ideation, in the name of all that is holy, please get help. Please. Please.

About the Author
Helen Gottstein, Loud and Clear Training, boosts public speaking skills for people of ambition so they get attention and reach their speaking goals. A TEDX mentor and corporate trainer, Helen brings a long-standing commitment to diversity and inclusion so that all can access the skills and confidence to speak up and be heard. She also laughs loudly and is tired of walking her dog.
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