Losing a loved one can be a shattering experience, and for many people, it can be the darkest period in their lives. For this reason, Jewish tradition recognizes the time following a funeral as a time when everyone in the community must support the family members who suffered the loss. Comforting mourners does not mean cheering them up. They will likely carry their grief with them for a very long time, and nothing we do or say will make them forget their loss. Instead, our tradition directs us to comfort mourners by demonstrating that they are not alone with their grief, and that we stand by them at this very difficult time.
Shiva is a mourning period of seven days observed by the immediate family. The name shiva is Hebrew for seven, and during this time, the community supports the mourners by visiting and providing their meals. To show that they are in mourning, people observing shiva traditionally sit on low seats or on the floor, wear a garment with a piece ripped, light a yahrtzeit candle, and cover the mirrors in the house. The shiva period serves as a time when mourners must focus on and talk about their loss.
The purpose of a shiva call is to let the mourners know that they are not alone. This experience can be a bit strange the first time, but it is an important mitzvah. Here are some tips to help you when you visit mourners during this time:
When you are ready to leave, stand up and say a traditional statement of comfort in Hebrew or English:
- Hamakom y'nahem etkhem b'tokh shar avalei Tzion ViYerushalayim.
- May God comfort you with all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
Writing Condolence Cards
It may be tempting to send an e-mail or text message, but sending a card or note can go a long way towards helping a mourner's healing process. Don't feel it has to be a long note;' something simple and sincere will have a great impact.
- Acknowledge the loss and the name of the person who died
- Express your sympathy
- Bring in a memory or special attribute of the deceased, if possible
- Offer help if you can
End with a traditional statement of comfort
- Yehi zikhro/zikhrah barukh.
- May his or her memory be a blessing.
Giving tzedakah in memory of someone who has died is an appropriate and beautiful gesture. Jewish tradition notes that giving tzedakah is a special merit for the soul of the departed. On another level, it also demonstrates to the family that the name of the departed lives on and is remembered for good deeds. Try to find out if the family has designated a special cause towards which to contribute; if not, any worthwhile cause will be appropriate. Do not expect to receive a thank-you card. Although many bereaved families do acknowledge sympathy cards and contributions, others are simply too overwhelmed with the loss to be able to write cards. Your gesture will be appreciated nevertheless.
Ways To Help
A family in mourning is likely in need of many things. Find out if you can shovel snow off their driveway or mow their yard. Do they need a babysitter for younger family members? Maybe you could take over a batch of your famous chocolate chip cookies or water their plants. Whatever you decide to offer, it will make a huge difference in their mourning period.
Offering to help should not be limited to the shiva period. Often it is after shiva has ended and people have stopped visiting that mourners start to feel the loss most acutely. Continue to retain ties with the family and let them know that you care. They are very likely hurting from their loss, so when you meet them, do not say, 'How are you?' But you can say, 'I have been thinking about you. I know this is a rough time for you. I'm here if you need me.'
Mourners mark the time following the death with several milestones on the calendar, including shloshim, 30 days after the burial; and yahrtzeit, the annual anniversary of the death. In addition, holidays can be extremely painful for families who have experienced a loss, because this is when a loved one's absence is felt so keenly. During all of these difficult days, your sympathy and support are very appropriate and appreciated. Do not be afraid to mention the name of the person who has died to the family. Saying, 'I just want you to know that I really miss seeing him or her' will be very comforting to the family because it will show them that their loved one is not forgotten. Do not think that mentioning the departed's name will upset the family; they will be thinking about that person for a very long time.