What Not To Say at Shiva
The Shiva house can be an anxious place for visitors, even more than for the mourners, who sit for seven days (shiva means seven). And the nature of the death is palpable. When someone has died at the end of their years, the gathering might near celebration, as in the Sufi culture, where death is revered as the wedding and reunion of soul and source. But when a soul departs swiftly, in an accident or a malfunction of the body, we feel, or project, the unspeakable pain of the mourners even from the walkway that twists to their door. And yet, it’s a mitzvah to visit that place and be with them in the immediacy of their uncontainable feelings and find words to say.
First, what not to say. If you didn’t know the one who is gone, don’t make things up. Don’t exaggerate your relationship in search of insignificant generalities, “she was always so kind,” or “she was such a good person.” Don’t tell the mourner how to feel, “you’ll miss her so much,” or “it’s ok to be distraught.” And don’t tell them what to do, “you have time to think about what’s next,” or “eventually you’ll get back to work.” Our discomfort spits obscenities off our lips – be swift to intervene before half-thoughts become sounds.
There is a phrase offered by the tradition, and in the right context, the ancient words might comfort. Hamakom Yenachem Etchem. May you be comforted among all the mourners of our people. The gift of the phrase is a gentle reminder to the mourner that they reside within a community of mourners, who have been with unspeakable loss before them, who are with them now. That image, passed from the lips is a wide bridge across their sense of isolation.
Also excellent is silence. But not a silence that shouts, or a silence that asks, or a silence that pities. A silence that is content in its quietude, one that they are familiar with like the mountain that lives in their backyard. Like the silence of the stars. This silence is an open arch and the mourner comes and goes through it as they please.
The very best is a story, a story of their beloved the mourner has never heard before. A story of when she ran over an animal, worried that she killed someone’s cat, was not comforted to learn it was a possum, and proceeded to give it full funeral rites with burial and kaddish. This gives them a sense that even they didn’t know all of the life their beloved lived. And that unknown expanse is joyful.
It can be a great gift, just to show up. They’ll smile knowing that if you were with them through that, you’ll be with them through anything. In that place, having their people beside them means everything.
Rabbi Zach Fredman
PS - File this email away, and if you’re nervous to visit it a mourner, give it a quick once over.