Dear Dr. Respler,
I recently got up from sitting shiva for my sister. I am writing because it was a difficult week for me and for my nieces and nephews – mostly because of a lack of sensitivity shown by many of the people who came to be menachem avel.
First, there were the comments and questions about my sister’s illness. Then there were the people who found it necessary to share their problems with me. Dr. Respler, why would people think I would have the mental energy to focus on their problems when I am struggling through such a difficult time myself? Instead of trying to comfort me and my nieces and nephews they expected us to help them with their troubles. Believe it or not, there were even people who it seemed expected to be entertained.
Then there were the times: people came very late at night, which wasn’t fair to us as we were exhausted! Eventually, my husband put up a notice with visiting hours and told people to spread the word that the doors will close at 10 pm. I know people mean well and I appreciated everyone who came to visit me and my family, but… I wish people would think beforehand.
I felt like I wasn’t able to properly mourn because of everyone’s expectations. This isn’t the way to comfort someone and I don’t think this is what Hashem had in mind when He set the halachos of nichum avielim.
Please ask people to be more considerate.
I am sorry to hear about the loss of your sister.
This is a topic we have covered a number of times before, but it seems that every once in a while we need to remind people of shiva etiquette.
Sometimes when people are uncomfortable, they say things they shouldn’t. Please do not say things like, “Oh, don’t feel bad that she died, she’s in a better place now” or “It’s bashert…don’t worry about it.” We all know that what Hashem does is for the good, but people have a right to be upset when they lose a loved one.
A better idea is to share a story that speaks well of the deceased. Some people avoid doing so because they are scared it will make the person who is sitting shiva cry. That’s okay; it’s actually beneficial for them to cry. Psychologically, crying in moderation helps to relieve the pain and stress.
Here are some general halachos: When going to a mourner’s house, one is not supposed to initiate the conversation. In fact, one should be careful to sit quietly and wait for the person who is sitting shiva to begin the conversation. Only positive stories about the person who was niftar should be brought up in the mourner’s presence.
It should not be a social event where people talk about other inappropriate things.
The best thing to do in a shiva house is to be silent. If the mourner wants to speak, he or she will do so. Bear in mind that the person who is sitting shiva is in a lot of pain. Sometimes people complain about their own problems thinking this will make the person sitting shiva feel better, but, as you noted, this is not helpful and can actually be hurtful to the mourners.
In Parsha Shemot, the Torah says that when Moshe went out amongst the people he tried to feel their pain and imagine what it would be like if he were a slave. He painted such a vivid picture in his mind that he was actually able to do so. Listening and being sensitive are key issues when going to visit a person who is sitting shiva. It helps to try and imagine the pain the person is going through as that will lead to you become more sensitive to those in mourning.