Erica Brown

What Not To Say

‘When you’re ready, I have a great guy for you.” I ask you, does any recently bereaved wife need to hear this when sitting shiva? No. The runners up in the Jewish foot-in-mouth prize for shiva awkwardness are those who say that the recently deceased is happier now or that the suffering is finally over. For those in the low chairs, the suffering has just begun. It got so bad that a friend reported that a bereaved woman sitting shiva in her own home silenced the chatter when she challenged a visitor, “Do you think it’s appropriate to say that?”

And please hold back when visiting a sick person. “You look terrible” is not an expression of empathy. “You look great” also doesn’t work well, as a friend in the hospital once told me. “I hope this is not what great looks like.” Speaking of death, restrain the impulse to ask if the illness is fatal.

Some people believe that the ultimate statement of compassion is, “I know exactly what you’re going through.” Wrong. This sounds like you are competing in the Jewish suffering Olympics. There is no competition when it comes to sorrow. We each fail and fall and face crisis uniquely. It’s best not to snatch someone else’s pain but leave it whole and untouched by your personal experience.

Also — never, never wish a woman mazal tov on being pregnant unless you know that she really is pregnant or the head is actually crowning. And even then double-check, possibly with her OBGYN. Women who suffer this insult never forget it and rarely forgive the asker. Pregnant women generally don’t love when you comment on their weight gain. When I was seven months pregnant and competing with Violet Beauregarde for the world’s largest short person, a colleague said loudly across the hall, “Erica, you look so pregnant.” The good Lord helped me reply: “And, you look so single.”

I’ve been thinking about why special events often bring out the worst in people because by the end of this month, my two oldest children will be married. When my first got married this past June — a fact that I shared with relative strangers if we engaged in conversation — I had several people ask me: “Do you like him?” I looked puzzled. You couldn’t have just asked me if I like my son-in-law. I love him, but if I didn’t would I tell you, a person I met only 10 minutes ago? Maybe I’m just weird, but I try not to share challenging family dynamics with people I hardly know.

And then there was the acquaintance from shul who heard my son got engaged and came over to wish me well. “How are you going to pay for two weddings?” he asked in passing. I was so stunned that after I put my eyeballs back in my head, I weakly replied, “That’s a great question” and walked away. When I shared this at home, my husband felt it would be better to just state the truth, “No problem. My husband works for the federal government, and I’m in Jewish education.” My daughter was sharper: “We’re doing that by keeping the numbers low. You’re not invited.”

“You shall not oppress one another, but fear your Lord because I am the Lord your God,” says Leviticus 25:17. The Talmud’s sages unpacked this verse as the biblical prohibition of oppressing someone with words: reminding another of a personal change that may bring them pain, attributing reasons for someone else’s suffering or using language that carries emotional barbs for another. Attaching the prohibition to fear God suggests that no one but God knows the intention you have when you use words to hurt. Only you can know if it’s intentional or a stupid slip. Just remember that a Divine Presence hovers over. There are consequences, even when we think no one will know. We always answer to someone.

New situations can bring out strange responses as everyone adjusts to new realities. For those who struggle with language, the impulse to say something, anything, can come out as an unfiltered sleight or odd incursion into the deepest areas of another’s personal life.

So here’s what people in crisis and happiness want to hear from you: heart-warming stories or any of these expressions. I am here for you. I am sorry. I am so happy for you. I am thinking of you. I care about you. I share your joy. I can’t imagine what you are going through. I love you.

Silence also works really well.

Erica Brown’s column appears the first week of the month.

About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks–Herenstein Center. Her latest book is Ecclesiastes and the Search for Meaning (Maggid Books).