KJ Hannah Greenberg

What Not to Say to Families Experiencing War-related Challenges

Hopefully, when progressing through life, one learns what not to say during difficult moments undergone by others, such as what not to say when visiting a shiva house or performing  bikur cholim. These instances are not times to focus on oneself but on the saddened others.

This nature of response applies, too, when one joins in discourse with families whose dear ones are fighting on the front lines or who are being held hostage. It’s not okay to inquire about their mental state, to use talks with them to elevate oneself, or to try to convince them that you grasps how they’re feeling. As well, one mustn’t insist that their precious persons are or will be fine. All in all, it’s morally wrong to bank on these men and women, who are undergoing crises, to help resolve personal weaknesses.

First, as author Tracy Newman reminds, in “11 Things You Shouldn’t Do at a Shiva,” don’t ask these families how they’re feeling.1 Instead, try to find particular ways in which you can assist them, e.g. walking their dog, watching their kids, or processing some of their laundry. Stressed folks often can’t fully cope with, or entirely stop caring about, mundanities. Nonetheless, the little things in their lives still need attention.

Moreover, for these families, it’s helpful to drop off meals, to send notes asserting that you’re united with them against evil, and to let them know that you’re adding prayers or mitzvot on behalf of their beloveds’ well-being. Pursue meaningful, nonintrusive actions that serve their interests.

Second, don’t seek approval from burdened families. Find ways in which you can support them rather than expecting them to boost you. It’s never right to look for solace from persons who are deeply distressed. Rabbi Lazer Gurkow teaches, in “What Not to Say at a Shiva Call,” that when engaging such persons, there’s nothing wrong with saying nothing.2 When, for example, dropping in on friends, family, or strangers who are coping under severe states of affairs, your aim ought to be selfless, that is, ought to be chesed-focused. These connections are not meant for buoying your self-esteem, i.e., are not meant for proving to anyone that you’re a “good” person but for being sympathetic.

Furthermore, don’t mandate that these families have to make time for your visits, phone calls, or social media exchanges. Consider, as is spelled out in’s “A Guide to Bikur Cholim—Visiting the Sick,” that when people are braving extremely taxing situations, “each person is different. Some look for companionship and others prefer time for solitude or just recovery.”3

Our sages advise “that we say absolutely nothing. Sit quietly. Let the [the family in the difficult situation] initiate communication. Let them dictate the subject, tenor and flow of the conversation. If you listen carefully, you will know exactly what to say.”4

It’s accommodating to check, before proceeding, if reaching out is welcomed or not and to accept that overwrought person sometimes need space more than they need company. Whereas in cases of illness, as explained by Rabbi Moishe Dovid Lebovits in “The Mitzvah of Bikur Cholim–Visiting the Sick: Part One,” a choleh’s doctor can be consulted,5 in the case of dire war pressures, one could check with the family’s rabbi. Strained persons

also [need] to make peace with G‑d. [Such families] often rail against the sad fact that their loved ones [are endangered. T]heir ill will [is] often directed at G‑d for He alone controls the timing of life and death. One of the reasons for [visiting aggrieved others] is to help [them] transition into a place of peace with G‑d.6

Simply, follow these families’ lead. The alternative, “steering” them, is unhelpful and often damaging.

Third, don’t comment that you’ve experienced something similar. “Every person is different. Every relationship is different. And you can’t pretend to know what [they are] feeling right now.”7 It’s disrespectful, in the least, excruciatingly painful, at worst, for them to have to feign politeness while you jabber about a circumstance through which you’ve never traveled.

Fourth, don’t prophesize. Only Hashem knows the length of each of our lives and the conditions under which our lives will progress. None of us lives a day more or a day less than HaKodesh Baruch Hu has determined. None of us suffers more or less than He wills. It’s far past annoying to have to listen to individuals who babble about fate because their own psychological limitations cause them uneasiness. Provide strength or be quiet!

In other words, if you telephone, have face-to-face encounters, or engage in electronic give-and-takes with people enduring combat’s uncertainties, let them guide the discussions. Not only is it bad for national security to request details about their family members, but it’s beyond insensitive.  As Rabbi Gurkow recommends,“[t]ake your cue from the[m].8

As for me, Both my older son and my son-in-law have been mobilized as reservists. Consequently, as weeks pass, I’ve grown  increasingly tired of pals contacting me to “check on” these family members. I’ve become even more wearied by my associates demanding that I affirm that they’re “good souls” for getting in touch with me.

So, I let most calls go to voice mail. Additionally, I’ve told the limited number of colleagues, with whom I’ve agreed to speak, that I won’t tolerate any topics pertaining to the ongoing battle. I’ve ended many conversations in order to retain any measure of resilience.

Remember, to provide comfort to troubled families, uplift them through actions rather than probe them about their lives. Don’t strive for their endorsements; instead, brace them. Don’t tender that your life is akin to theirs. Don’t try to foretell their future, either. Use a little bit of consideration when interconnecting with these frazzled families—such mindfulness is much needed.

  1. Tracy Newman. “11 Things You Shouldn’t Do at a Shiva.” 22 Feb. 2017. 11 Things You Shouldn’t Do at a Shiva – Kveller. Accessed 3 Nov. 2023.

2. Rabbi Lazer Gurkow. “What Not to Say at a Shiva Call.” Corg. Accessed 3 Nov. 2023.

3. “A Guide to Bikur Cholim—Visiting the Sick.” A_Guide_To_Bikur_Cholim.pdf ( Accessed 3 Nov. 2023.

4. Rabbi Lazer Gurkow. “What Not to Say at a Shiva Call.”

5. Rabbi Moishe Dovid Lebovits. “The Mitzvah of Bikur Cholim–Visiting the Sick: Part One.” Torah Musings. 27 Oct. 2014. The Mitzvah of Bikur Cholim – Visiting the Sick Part 1 – Torah Musings. Accessed 3 Nov. 2023.

6. Rabbi Lazer Gurkow. “What Not to Say at a Shiva Call.”

7. Tracy Newman. “11 Things You Shouldn’t Do at a Shiva Call.”

8. Rabbi Lazer Gurkow. “What Not to Say at a Shiva Call.”

About the Author
KJ Hannah Greenberg has been playing with words for an awfully long time. Initially a rhetoric professor and a National Endowment for the Humanities Scholar, she shed her academic laurels to romp around with a prickle of imaginary hedgehogs. Thereafter, her writing has been nominated once for The Best of the Net in poetry, three times for the Pushcart Prize in Literature for poetry, once for the Pushcart Prize in Literature for fiction, once for the Million Writers Award for fiction, and once for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. To boot, Hannah’s had more than forty books published and has served as an editor for several literary journals.