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October 13, 2015 / 30 Tishri, 5776
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Death Of A Spouse: Part Five – Shiva

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The tradition of sitting shiva is a great help with grieving. For many people shiva is a buffer that helps you cope immediately with your tremendous grief. For seven days, with your house full of caring people, you feel less alone. You are overwhelmed with a cacophony of emotions. Discussing positive memories that you and other’s have of the deceased can help with the pain of loss. Sharing these stories will help the mourners remember more clearly the positive impact their loved one may have had on so many. Sometimes, people are at a loss for what to say when coming to pay their respects. It is often at that time that inappropriate and bizarre comments are said.


When and if the speakers realize what they have said, they will wish to “press rewind” and take back their words. This can be more so for well spouses who are sitting shiva. Because the deceased spouse is no longer suffering for the first time in years, people tend to see the death as less painful to the surviving spouse than if the deceased had died suddenly (and not from many years of illness and disability). This is simply not so.


Also, in many cases, the illness has brought different experiences to the family, and it is more than possible that a child of the deceased may be off the derech and exceedingly uncomfortable in the shiva house. Lastly, the well spouse may look better then he or she has for years, simply because he or she is no longer spending nights caring for the ill spouse. Below are just two of the hundreds of similar stories I’ve collected.


When Mazal was sitting shiva for her husband of 40 years (27 of them with multiple sclerosis – as the “third partner” to the marriage), she was worried about her son, Eytan. Eytan lived far away. He was not married and had had a very hard time growing up in a house filled with illness. Eytan stopped being observant years before, but he was always respectful. Mazal and Eytan had talked about what Eytan would take on during his year of mourning for his father. Mazal was very impressed that Eytan had, on his own, agreed to do learning in his father’s memory and say Kaddish at least once a day when he could get away from work. Meanwhile, Mazal quietly arranged to pay someone to say Kaddish to ensure that it would be said three times a day every day. She did not want Eytan to know about the paid Kaddish. She felt it would diminish, in his own eyes, what he was doing – and worse, give him an out whenever it was too difficult to catch a minyan.


One evening while Eytan was sitting next to his mother, a shiva visitor whom Mazal didn’t know, introduced herself to both of them. “Don’t you worry,” she said to Mazal within Eytan’s hearing. “My husband will be the one you’re paying to say Kaddish for your husband and he’s very reliable. He’ll never miss a minyan.” Mazal looked over at her son. Betrayal, anger, resignation and hurt all flashed across his face. Mazal wondered how this woman could say this, right in front of her son, the only one who is responsible for saying Kaddish for his father.


Mazal told me that she lived in a lovely, supportive community and a minyan was arranged to be at the house so her son could say Kaddish during shiva. There was never trouble getting a minyan and Eytan was impressed with the support. One Ma’ariv, someone relatively new to the community, came to be part of the minyan. He had met Mazal but never met Eytan. The minyan had just started, when this man came, and he immediately joined in.


When Eytan started to say Kaddish the man blurted out, “This is Mazal’s son?” With the emphasis placed on the word “this”. His disapproval came across loud and clear both to Eytan, and, for that matter, anyone within hearing. Eytan quickly went to his room the moment minyan was finished. Mazal was hurt and embarrassed for him and angry and pained for herself. The man was asked not to return to the shiva house, but he didn’t understand why.


Many people are at a loss at what to say when making a shiva call. It is often better, as Halachah teaches us, to say nothing and wait for the mourner to initiate conversation. Doing this keeps the mourner in charge of how they want the visit to go. It also prevents inappropriate comments that come out when no one is speaking for a while, and we’re just trying to fill the silence. Never underestimate the power of just sitting with a friend in mourning, without saying a word. The only message that will come across clearly is that you care and are there for him. Silence may be the best thing, to avoid saying something inappropriate.


Ann Novick can be contacted at annnovick@hotmail.com

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