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Fixing Shiva

About six weeks ago, I had the unfortunate experience of being intimately involved in a unique shiva. A member of our community suddenly lost a 4 month old grandson. The father of the child is a friend and peer of mine. Shiva was observed in our neighborhood as opposed to the home of the parents sitting shiva. All of these factors made the entire ordeal quite difficult and horrific but also provided a learning experience for me and an interesting study of human nature and character.

It was only a few days after the shiva that I received an email from a reader who was disenchanted with the shiva process. He had several complaints that rang true in the immediate wake of the recently completed shiva I had seen first hand.

I believe that people want to do the right thing when they go to shiva. They just don’t really know what they should be doing at shiva. Mourners are going to be sensitive and mistakes are going to hurt them more than typical faux pas. Some of these faux pas were gloriously lampooned in this great video: Shtick Yeshivish People Say At Shivas I had a lot of time to think about shiva and people’s needs during this time. Here are some of the ideas that have been swirling around my head.

When I was 15, a very close friend lost his sister. Over the next few years we talked a lot about death, his feelings, and dealing with it all. I’ll never forget what he told me about what he considered the most meaningful and comfortable shiva visit. As 10th graders at Ner Israel, we were deathly afraid of out Menahel, Rabbi Yosef Tendler. He was the law and we were not the most law abiding of students. The way we felt about Rabbi Tendler reflected his reputation. He was tough, blunt, and scary. Rabbi Tendler came to the first day of shiva and my friend was not really in the mood to see a scary rabbi while he was mired in his own pain. Rabbi Tendler walked over to my friend so my friend rose from his seat out of respect. Rabbi Tendler moved closer and embraced my friend. They just stood there for a few minutes, wrapped in a warm hug. He didn’t say a word. They just hugged. My friend started to cry and they hugged some more. Eventually, the embrace ended. Rabbi Tendler sat down and just listened to the mourners for a while. My friend does not recall Rabbi Tendler saying a single word. Years later, my friend related to me that Rabbi Tendler paid him the most comforting shiva visit of anyone. (Knowing Rabbi Tendler the way I do now, this was to be expected.)yahrzeit

This is really the key to shiva. Whether it is a figurative or literal hug, shiva visits are an opportunity for embrace. That’s really what our role is in these moments.

Embrace means more than just what we should do, it also informs us about what we should not do.

People have a tendency to want to fix things. Problems bother us. Disunity and ambiguity make us uncomfortable. When people die, especially people who die under non-ordinary circumstances, it makes us uncomfortable. Rabbi Tendler also used to say that when someone dies, people have a tendency to ask “was he sick?” as if that makes it all better. We have a need to come to terms with things in our own way. We don’t like just letting things be what they are, that is, confusing.

People want the mourners to tell the story of the deceased. They want to know how they died. They want to know the circumstances. They want to feel better about the confusing parts of existence. If they have an answer it makes them feel better.

Bu we don’t go to shiva to feel better. That would be a mistake. We go to shiva to comfort our brothers and sisters who are in pain. Alleviating your personal curiosity does not help the mourner one bit. That’s not an embrace. It’s closer to the treacherous embrace of Laban as described by the Midrash. Laban hugged and kissed Jacob to see if Jacob was carrying jewelry. That’s what it’s like when probe for details about the life or death of the deceased.

Sometimes visitors will even get into debates with the mourners. Whether it’s philosophy, arguments about facts, questions about medical treatment administered to the deceased. or just side things that are really irrelevant. Shiva is not a time for intellectualism or debate. It’s a time for emotion. It is a time for embrace. Shiva is a time for unconditional love. Discussions and Socratic questioning do not have a place at a shiva home. Practice listening. That’s what mourners need. They don’t need your personal opinions on anything. If they want your opinion, they will ask for it.

I’ve seen many people come to a shiva house and try to fix the mourners. They try to make the mourner feel better. They are being genuine. They try to tell a story or vort that will put everything in perspective and make sense out of it all. They imagine that the mourner will be comforted by their efforts. They think that they know what the mourner needs to hear in order to make their pain go away. It takes a special kind of self-confidence with a dash of narcissism to think that your pithy thought will fix everything.

This is not an embrace. This is fixing things. We can’t fix it. Don’t try.

Making matters worse is that the mourner does not actually want to be fixed. We have a misconception about the pain of mourning. We think it’s best for the mourner to avoid the pain. We think that is the right path for them. It’s true, the mourner is in pain. But the mourner needs to experience that pain. Shiva is their opportunity to be mired in the struggle of dealing with mortality. When we try to fix it, we are really telling them that they should not be experiencing that pain. We are telling them that they need to be fixed. They do not need to be fixed. They need to be embraced. They need to be acknowledged. What we really say when we try to fix them, is that their feelings of pain are misplaced. They hear us saying that their pain is not important. They hear us not acknowledging their feelings. That’s cold and more importantly, wrong.

The unspoken truth of these ideas is that mourners need one thing: Empathy. It’s not easy to be empathetic. It’s especially difficult when our own hearts are torn into pieces by devastating news. It gets even harder when we see the people we care about in such visceral pain. But that is the job of a shiva visitor. Put everything on hold and practice a few minutes, or more, of pure empathy.

Attempt to feel the pain of your friend. See if you can hear what they are saying. Elicit their feelings instead of facts. Show that you are genuinely concerned about them. Acknowledge their pain. Be liberal with hugs and expressions of love. That is what shiva is supposed to be about. An outpouring of love and support. It is not your chance to play armchair therapist to fix the mourner or amateur journalist to elicit all the facts and figures surrounding the death. Provide unbridled love and support. Be a listener. Be empathetic. Be what they need you to be. You might even find that this is helpful in other areas of your life.

I think shiva has great potential to help mourners. It also has great opportunities for us to practice empathy and love. We need to calibrate ourselves to meet these challenges. If make our shiva visits mindful of these ideas, I think we have a better chance of emerging from these tragedies and difficult times better than we were when we entered them.

PDF of this article for printing: Fixing Shiva


20 Comments
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  • Benignuman

    When I sat shiva for my mother a”h I appreciated everyone who came. I don’t remember anything anyone said (it didn’t really matter), but I remember who came and I have tremendous gratitude for each and every one.

  • Moe Ginsburg

    Eliyahu,

    This is one of those rare articles you wrote that you are actually correct about.

    Thank you!

    • John

      Why do you think you are the judge if an article is correct or not? Why when expressing gratitude do you feel it necessary to insult?

    • ksil

      you dont mean correct, you mean it agrees with your view, right? lol

  • Yerachmiel Lopin

    Good post. I would add on, don’t ask how old was he as if it can create some template for a normal vs abnormal death. Most of all, visitors have to learn to live with the discomfort of death and mourning. If they can accept it, the mourners will have space to express themselves wether with words, non-verbal communication, or just silence. Everyone says BDE, but if they really meant it, they would not be diagnosing the death (and the life).

  • http://2nd-son.blogspot.com/ G*3

    > people have a tendency to ask “was he sick?” as if that makes it all better.

    People don’t ask questions like that to “make it all better.” They ask questions like that because death brings us face to face with our mortality, and finding out that the person was sick is a way to reassure themselves that they’re safe. After all, they’re not sick.

    • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

      What I wrote was shorthand for what you wrote. That’s what I mean. If we have an explanation all is good in the world. We are safe.

    • JimChaplin

      When my father passed in his mid-50s, that was a common question and it drove me crazy. Did it really matter how he died? Not at all, just that we had lost the rock of our family.

      I couldn’t stand people who asked questions at the shiva house. The best were people who knew my father a”h and told me stories that allowed me to learn more about my father.

    • tesyaa

      I have heard people as “was he sick” and I always assumed it was a shorthand way of asking was the death somewhat expected, vs. completely unexpected. While there’s no way to mitigate the loss, there is a world of difference in terms of expectation when someone has been suffering with cancer for months or years, compared to someone who walked out of the house perfectly healthy one morning and got hit by a bus. I don’t think it’s a rude question, but having heard other thoughts, I think I’ll be careful not to ask it.

      • http://2nd-son.blogspot.com/ G*3

        It’s better for the family if the person is sick for a while, to give them time to prepare, but personally, I’d rather be hit by a bus – or really, just not wake up one morning.

        • tesyaa

          Definitely. And I don’t think an illness is easier on the family, just different. Coping with a long, drawn-out illness is incredibly tough on the family , but the shock has already been dealt with by the time of the shiva. I do remember a shiva for someone whose mother died in a car accident, and the family was completely shell-shocked. When the niftar has been ill for a while, the family is drained and exhausted – but not shocked.

  • vladimir

    “You might even find that this is helpful in other areas of your life.” Yes, a silent empathy should be used not only during Shiva. Excruciating mental pain needs no words.

  • Malka Hellinger Forshner

    Straight on advice for those going to pay a shiva call, really gets to the essence of the mitzvah, and is quite clear on what NOT to do……we should have Moshiah already, no more shivah!!!

  • josh

    I guess it is one way of seeing it, but definitely not the only way, and IMO not accurate in my personal experience, because there is no one cookie cutter way to handle shivas. The part about Empathy is true, mostly, but not all for Jewish cultures. I think any piece advising shiva visitors should mention that people say ‘shtuyos’ but who cares, and just mainly, DO NOT talk about shtuyos like sports, movies, and stuff. Sure, many people are uncomfortable, mostly because I find that there is no real education about his mitzvah, so people naturally like to find a comfort zone But not sure if talking about TV shows is the way to go to waste a mourners time. And if a mourner themselves does go in that direction, certainly, better to talk about things the author says not to like ‘how did he die’. I found that at my father’s shiva, indeed, I was able to console visitors, many whom had not yet gone through that themselves and that certainly helped me.

  • Zevy R.

    So what SHOULD be done/said. Should we just sit there waiting for signs? I’ve done that before and I felt I was just making the mourner uncomfortable with my silence. Any advice would be appreciated!

    • Shlomo1357

      I second this.

    • Susan Barnes

      Actually, our tradition says that when we enter a house of mourning, we should not say anything. We should let the mourner speak first, and follow the mourner’s lead. If the mourner feels uncomfortable with the silence, the mourner can break it. You don’t know what’s going on in the mourner’s head and heart. Perhaps silence is exactly what they want at that moment.

      • ksil

        this makes the mourner feel uncomfortable! and we are there to comfort him/her. makes no sense. we need to come up with a better way. the mourners end up feeling a huge burden to talk and discuss, when often they dont want to

  • Moshe Y. Gluck

    Berachos 6b “igra d’bei tamya shtikusa” is relevant here.

  • http://www.starofdavida.blogspot.com/ Talia bat Pessi

    I sat shiva for my dad about two years ago at this point, when I was a senior in high school, and I mostly had a positive experience. Yeah, there were a bunch of people who made comments that were ridiculously inappropriate, but I found the humor in them. Laugh or cry, laugh or cry.