A while ago I had the misfortune of suffering the loss of a family member. Ever since, I’ve been meaning to air my frustration over the Shivah experience. While I do believe that for the most part people mean well, the burden of their ignorance falls on the bereft.
Define it as you will, death is a tragedy. But when it is a young (or relatively young) person, whom we see as leaving his or her best years behind, the heartbreak is compounded. It is perhaps for this reason that our house of mourning was packed beyond capacity every night. Allow me to add that I do have tremendous hakaras ha’tov (appreciation) for all those who took the time to fulfill the mitzvah of paying a Shivah call.
If I may “borrow” some space in your widely-read column, I would like to offer readers some pointers that might help others avoid the discomfort that members of my family (females mostly) endured during a trying period of time:
1. Do try to visit by day, if you can, since nights are generally more hectic and can become overwhelming.
2. Do share any feel-good personal experience or interaction you’ve had with the deceased (but please try not to giggle or laugh loudly in the process).
3. Do express your sympathy (after all, it’s what you’ve come to do), but check your tears at the door before entering.
4. Do allow the mourner to speak of the deceased at his/her discretion and pace, but do not feel free to ask 20 questions out of your insatiable morbid curiosity.
5. Do ask for directions to the restroom facility, if needed, but this is not the time to take a sightseeing tour of the premises.
6. Do stay on (beyond the 20 minutes or so) if you are a close friend or relative, but if the place is filling up to standing room only, graciously give up your seat and return the next day, if you are so inclined.
7. Do not visit daily (unless you are a very close friend or relative and are there to lend a helping hand in some capacity). One visit is all that is required.
8. Do make your visit brief, especially if you are a mere acquaintance and have nothing much to say. (It is totally inappropriate to sit endlessly in front of the mourners and gawk as though they are on display at a freak show.)
9. Do visit during evening hours if it is more convenient for you (as it is for many), but do not arrive at a late hour. (The day is long and tedious enough for the mourners who also need to get some sleep.)
10. Do not linger if the mourners are being served their meals. Convey your condolences and exit graciously (unless specifically entreated by mourner to stay).
11. Do call (in lieu of a personal visit, if you live too far away). This is perfectly acceptable and appropriate – however, endless reminiscences and chitchat are not. The mourner may have in-house visitors waiting to get his or her attention. Make it short and sweet and call to chat at some other time.
12. Some people seem oblivious of the fact that a house of mourning is as hallowed as a house of worship. It is therefore unbefitting to dress in an untznius’dik fashion (immodestly). Out of respect for the family and the departed soul, females should be vigilant about keeping elbows and knees covered, and a married woman should cover her hair.
Thank you, Rachel, for letting me sound off. May we merit hearing only good news.
A weary mourner…
Thank you for your insightful suggestions in how to conduct oneself with dignity in a delicate situation. Like you say, most people have their hearts in the right place, but many are unfortunately intimidated by the nature of the circumstance and are awkwardly ill at ease.
It helps for the visitor to try to understand the bereaved and for the bereaved to try to recognize the discomfort of the visitor who never knows what to expect. Personalities vary, making it difficult to predict the effect a tragedy will have on a mourner.
In addition to your excellent recommendations: Many families in mourning post notices of “non-visiting hours” on their doors (generally during the long summer days) which allow them some respite time – usually a two-to-three-hour afternoon break.
HaMakom Yenachem eschem… May G-d comfort you among the other mourners of Tzion and Yerushalayim. In layman’s terms, you are not alone in your grief. Taking the literal interpretation for HaMakom – the place: HaMakom Yenachem… the “place” should comfort you… the place where your departed loved one now resides – namely Gan Eden.
“Nachamu, Nachamu Ami… Be comforted, be comforted, My people…” [Yeshayahu 40:1-26]
May we know of no more sorrow and merit to witness the fulfillment of the prophet’s reassurance – that our suffering will end soon.
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