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August 28, 2015 / 13 Elul, 5775
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Chronicles Of Crises In Our Communities

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How Not To Behave In A House Of Shiva…

Dear Rachel,

There are certain episodes or happenings that truly set off one’s fuse. Some call it insensitivity while others say it is simply a matter created by the momentary uncertainty and confusion. On the other hand it may be a case of a brain-deformity at birth, an acquired trait or the implosion of sheer stupidity. Be it as it may, something has to be done to retrain and redirect the public.

On Purim we lost my sister, a young, vibrant woman in the midst of her blooming life. She left behind a heart-broken husband and family and a mother for whom the horrors of Auschwitz were a cakewalk in comparison to this pain. And here is where it gets touchy.

The shiva visitors numbered in the hundreds — men, women, friends, rabbonim, roshei yeshiva and any other category you can think of. The emotion and sadness professed by most visitors was palpable and we felt the sincerity in the pain they shared with us. We greatly appreciated their words of encouragement, wise advice and sincere offer of help in our time of pain and loss.

And here comes the insensitive and uncouth behavior I infer above. Namely, the questions and comments made by the ignorant are derogatory, senseless and very hurtful. The prying into the family’s privacy is indescribable; what, how, when, why, who, how come, how long, what was done, why not, why this doctor, why no second/third/fifth/tenth opinion, why didn’t you tell me, why didn’t you do this, go there, try that….

Other than the ugly curiosity inherent in most of these senseless questions, what exactly were the reasons behind such questions? Does it matter? Other than to be able to gossip and create a topic for conversation, how do all of the above questions change the bitter fact? Do they have a solution, an answer or a healing potion designed to prevent future deaths?

Rachel, you would think that I’m referring to the boorish, uneducated, unlearned simple people who have nothing else to do but pester the bereaved with senseless babble. Not so. It is the sad fact that many learned and educated, sophisticated and cultured are the most guilty. We struggled to fend off these inquisitors, at times unable to avoid embarrassing the person asking.

How long was she sick? was a basic question. How does the time period affect the questioner’s life? Long enough to pass away… was the response.

Where did she have it? In Boro Park, where else?

Which doctor? The one with the medical license.

What did she have? An overdose of the Malach HaMaves.

I remember that three years ago on a Sunday… Sorry. Don’t go there because that time she had a sprained ankle, so your calculation is off target.

Why didn’t you get a second opinion? We waited for you to come along and suggest it.

Which hospital? Take your pick.

I can go on and give you a long list of other improbable questions and remarks, but I believe I’ve made my point and I hope some of the readers take this to heart.

Speak about the deceased’s accomplishments. Remark about the great family he/she built. Repeat a d’var Torah appropriate to the occasion. If a question seems inappropriate or will do nothing to ease the pain, leave it unasked. If you can’t find anything to say, stay a few minutes, read the posuk posted on the wall and make place for someone else.

S’yag Le’Chochmo..Shetika

Dear S’yag,

Please accept my heartfelt condolences at this tragic event in your life. Losing a dear family member is always heartbreaking, the pain even more acute when the niftar or nifteres was in the prime of life. And the agony of a parent enduring the loss of a child is unspeakable!

I recall one such parent sadly remarking that a parentless child is rendered an orphan, a bereaved spouse a widow or widower, yet no term has ever been assigned to a parent who loses a child — for such is not the normal nature of things.

The shiva period is fraught with fatigue and churning emotions and callers are there to comfort the mourners, not add to their distress. Truthfully, most individuals hardly look forward to making such a call and frequently find themselves at a loss for the right thing to say.

Another distasteful question mourners can do without: How old was she/he? The inevitable look of relief on the questioner’s face that says, “oh, s/he lived long enough!” when the age of an elderly parent is revealed does nothing to mitigate the gut-wrenching pain of the child sitting shiva for that parent.

Thank you for alerting us to the importance of opting for silence over foolish prattle. May Hashem comfort you and your family and may you know of no more sorrow.

About the Author: We encourage women and men of all ages to send in their personal stories via email to rachel@jewishpress.com or by mail to Rachel/Chronicles, c/o The Jewish Press, 4915 16th Ave., Brooklyn, N.Y. 11204. If you wish to make a contribution and help agunot, your tax-deductible donation should be sent to The Jewish Press Foundation. Please make sure to specify that it is to help agunot, as the foundation supports many worthwhile causes.


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