What to Say on a Shiva Visit

A Shiva visit can be awkward. Should you sit quietly or say something, should you offer to help or just offer a hug? Most people don’t know what to do and devise creative solutions. Some offer the mourner a quiet hug and a grave sigh before retreating to chat with other visitors, some chat with the mourner about the latest gossip and current affairs, and some try to console the mourner with banal clichés.

No matter how you cope with your Shiva visit, at least you show up. There are those who feel so awkward that they don’t even go.

From the perspective of the anxious visitor, not showing up seems like a neutral solution. It is important to know that from the perspective of the mourner, not showing up isn’t neutral. Not showing up, causes pain. You sit there and wonder why your neighbor, friend or family member couldn’t make time in their schedule to see you in your time of need.

So the only solution is to make the Shiva visit. The question is what to say and do during the Shiva visit. This essay is a primer on Shiva etiquette culled from the words of our sages and the feedback that this rabbi received from a wide spectrum of people in mourning.

What Not to Say

I have heard well-intentioned people say, “At least your loved one is in a better place now.” On the face of it, this is a lovely comment. But stop and think about why we sit Shiva. The Talmud teaches that the funeral is for the deceased, and the Shiva is for the mourners. When the grave is filled, our attention shifts from the Mitzvah of accompanying the dead to the Mitzvah of comforting the living.

The living know that their loved one has gone to heaven (if they believe in heaven) but this doesn’t stop them from grieving their loss. They aren’t feeling bad for their loved one, they are feeling bad for themselves; for needing to go on living without their beloved. Their pain isn’t soothed by assurances that their loved one is in a better place. It is the mourners, who need to shift into a better place.

I have heard well intentioned people say at a Shiva visit, “Your loved one had a special soul and that’s why G-d took him from us. G-d takes the best ones first.” Whether this statement is true is up for discussion, but even if it is true, think about whether it is helpful. One of the reasons for Shiva is to help the mourner transition into a place of comfort with G-d.

When our sages asked themselves how long a Jew should mourn a loved one, they turned for guidance to the training session of Aaron and his sons. They reasoned that just as Aaron and his sons trained for seven days to become priests so should we mourn our loved ones for seven days. What is the link between these two subjects?

Aaron needed to make peace with G-d after he took an unwitting part in the sin of the Golden Calf. Initially, he felt uncomfortable accepting the role of High Priest because he had crafted the golden calf, but after he completed seven days of training, he grew more comfortable and accepted the role.

The mourner also needs to make peace with G-d. Mourners often rail against the sad fact that their loved ones were taken from them. Their ill will is often directed against G-d for He alone controls the timing of life and death. The Shiva is designed to help mourners shift into a place of peace with G-d. This is why our sages derived the number of days from Aaron. Just as Aaron grew comfortable with G-d after seven days despite his feelings of guilt, so can the mourner grow comfortable with G-d after seven days despite the feelings of anger.

When you consider this aspect of Shiva, you quickly realize that telling the mourner that G-d takes the special souls first only serves to exacerbate the mourner’s angst with G-d. “If G-d takes the special souls first, why did He give my child such a special soul,” a mourning mother recently asked me. “Couldn’t G-d give me an ordinary child, who might have stayed with me longer?”

Some people look at the mourner and shrug their shoulders as if to say, “What can we do, we can’t control G-d.” The gist of these words is that if you could, you would. In addition to being blasphemous, it is precisely the opposite of what the mourner needs to hear during your Shiva visit.

What to Say

We now know what not to say at a Shiva visit. Don’t say things that address the wrong concerns. Only say things that help the mourner feel comforted. But what are those things?

Our sages provided the perfect guidance. They advised us to say absolutely nothing. Sit quietly. If you would, hold the mourner’s hand, but don’t open the conversation. Let the mourner start the conversation and then pick up on their thread. Let them dictate the subject, tenor and flow of the conversation. If you listen carefully, you will know exactly what to say.

It is also important not to overstay your welcome. Take your cue from the mourners. When they indicate that they are ready for solitude, bid them farewell and depart.

What if the mourner says nothing? Learn to feel comfortable with silence. Silence is a profound source of comfort if you embrace it. It might feel awkward at first, but if you persist, the mourner will quickly catch on to what you are trying to do and embrace it with wholehearted gratitude. After hearing all the banal clichés, the mourner will finally receive deep and meaningful comfort. All you need to do is push past the awkwardness and you will come to appreciate the communication of silence.

Addressing the Fear

Some are afraid that the mourner will ask them awkward questions and they won’t know what to say. What if the mourner asks me why this happened, what if the mourner cries in my arms, what do I do?

Remember that a Shiva visit doesn’t have that you need to come up with a witty reply or a brilliant response. People often stay away from Shiva because they aren’t sure they can respond to the call of the moment, but if you know that all you are expected to do is show up, it becomes easier to go. Don’t worry about not finding the right words or the perfect response. Your presence, and especially your silence, is the perfect response. Just hold the mourner’s hand, hold them in your embrace and let them cry on your shoulder. If that is all you do, you have done the mourner endless good.

In the words of a recent mourner: “The words, ‘I am deeply sorry for your loss, my heart is with you and your family,’ meant a lot to me, but in truth, the visitor’s simple presence spoke louder than words.”

Death is part of the cycle of life, but when Moshiach comes this too will change. May that time come speedily in our days and may we never need to worry about Shiva etiquette again.

About the Author
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, a renowned lecturer, serves as Rabbi to Congregation Beth Tefilah in London Ontario. He is a member of the curriculum development team at Rohr Jewish Learning Institute and is the author of two books and nearly a thousand online essays. You can find his work at www.innerstream.org
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