By Robyn Geller
The other night I took my kids to a shiva house. A man who was walking up to the door with his family at the same time told his kids, “When you go in, find our friend and say you’re sorry she lost her dad.” One by one, the children filed in, shared their condolences, then ran to the dessert table — their uncomfortable moment quickly eased by sugar cookies and rainbow cake.
The incident got me thinking that children aren’t the only ones who might need a little coaching when it comes to what to say to someone who is grieving, especially if it’s not a close friend or relative. While I’m one of those people who usually can make conversation easily, I must admit that I had texted another friend earlier in the day to ask if she was going to the shiva house, so that I would be sure to know someone there.
Here’s the thing: You make a shiva call because you want to express your condolences, but how do you know the appropriate thing to say at that particular time? Rehearsing or overthinking it doesn’t seem to help. There’s probably not much you can say that will make the bereaved feel better, and you certainly don’t want to make them feel worse. You may hope that just showing up shows that you care, but when you first see the mourner, you feel like you want to say something.
As it turns out, shiva is a case where silence can be golden. JCS Grief Clinician, Donna Kane, points out that while shiva etiquette varies, there are some people who won’t speak to the mourner until spoken to. “People will approach it that way because they understand that a loss is something that you can’t fix,” she explains. “And sometimes just a hug or just being there to support the mourner is the most powerful thing you can do.”
It’s important to take your cues from the mourner. If you’re following that person’s lead, you know you are bringing them comfort. Kane also points out that people go to shiva because it’s a community; the concept is integral to Judaism. “People know why you’re there,” she says. “You don’t have to say anything.”
Here are some other shiva tips she recommends:
- Keep your visit brief, less than 30 minutes. If you’re coming for the service, only stay a few minutes before or after prayers.
- When bringing children, don’t stay for more than 15 minutes.
- Be a constant presence. If the mourner is someone who is close to you, try to stop by for about 15 minutes each day. It’s not how long you stay, but how often you come.
- Bring a meal or offer to help with something they might need.
Kane says to keep in mind that grief is exhausting and while people absolutely appreciate your support, they also need time to process. And most importantly, she wants people to make sure to be there after the shiva period has ended, because “once people go home and all the food is in the freezer, that can be an extremely difficult time.”
Robyn Geller is Public Relations Coordinator for JCS.
Through a variety of groups, programs and services, JCS Grief Counselors offer support, guidance, comfort and hope to people of all ages who are bereaved and trying to cope with the death of someone important in their lives. To learn more about JCS Grief Services, visit jcsbalt.org/griefsupport or call 410-466-9200.