By Nachum Mohl
Death is an inevitable part of life. Those who die leave behind loved ones who mourn for them. Comforting those who have just suffered a loss is not just a fine act of kindness, it is a mitzvah and incumbent on all neighbors and relatives to personally extend their sympathy.
I know of many people who feel ill at ease in the house of mourners; they do not know what shall to say or they feel insecure as how to act. Consoling mourners is often an unpleasant experience, but together with the difficulty is the reward for the effort. Unfortunately this may cause many to refrain from this very important mitzvah.
During the week of mourning the mourners sit on a low seat. This week is called shiva, meaning in Hebrew seven after the seven days of the week. This is the time for them to recall the deceased and the feelings and thoughts that they shared with them during their life time.
First, know that there is no strict and formal rule of how to act in the house of the mourner. The one exception is to let the mourners lead. It is the individual situation of the mourners which sets the tone for the visitors. Was the deceased elderly and sick, or young and healthy? Did the death come quickly, or was after a prolonged illness? How close was the relationship between the mourner and the deceased? What is the emotional state of the mourners? The visitor must also consider his or her relationship to the deceased and the mourner. All these variables make each individual visit unique.
There are some things that are the same for all. Mourners find relief in feeling that people care enough to come and comfort them, even if they do not know the visitor very well or even at all. It is at a time of great loss that a kindness even by a stranger can be the most comforting.
When you first enter the room, observe the mourner and assess his state. Some mourners talk about the deceased and recall various incidents about their lives that they shared together. Some mourners speak about other topics and others are just quiet. Remember it is the mourner that sets the tone for the visit, not the visitor. If the mourner is talking when you enter, sit down quietly and listen, wait for the mourner to turn to you before you enter into the conversation. If the mourner is quiet, sit down and wait for him/her to speak. Normally they will say something that you can use as an opening to express your thoughts. Even if the mourner does not turn to you directly, do not feel that the visit was in vain - it is the thought that you have come that matters to many.
Some mourners cry and other may even laugh recalling special incidences about the deceased. Most mourners are in the middle path. Your purpose is to enable them feel their loss and to validate and comfort them in their feelings - not to deny the bitter truth of the loss.
In some cases the room may be packed with visitors and in other cases you may be the only one there. Remember it is always best to come into the room and sit quietly waiting for the mourner to initiate a conversation. Check the mood of the mourner before you speak.
Do not bring children or babies to a house of mourning. It is distracting and takes the peoples minds away from the purpose of the visit.
You can ask if you can do some shopping or prepare a meal if you are capable. Depending on the mourner's situation, it may be a welcome kindness. Even if they are taken care of by others, still, your desire to help is a welcome and warm gesture.
If you do not know the mourners very well or not at all, such as in the case of a coworker who has passed away, make certain that the mourner knows who you are before you leave. You can introduce yourself before you leave and say something like, "I am Joe X. I worked with your father, and I want you to know what a great person he was. We will all miss him." If the mourner shows interest, you can tell him a special anecdote illustrating a good characteristic that the deceased possessed.
If there is a sign on the door saying that hours of visitation are between such and such times, do not disturb them between the hours that they specified. If you are planning to visit a mourner that is a long distance from your home, it is advisable to telephone first to find out the visiting hours.
Even when no hours are posted it is advisable to respect the "normal" visiting hours that are acceptable in your location. Generally, the house of mourning is open in the morning for the morning prayer service and in the evening around twilight time for the afternoon and evening services.
What about bringing food? It is not required, but it can be a very nice gesture. Try to pick out something that you know that the mourner will be able to eat. A small basket of either fresh or dried fruits is always acceptable.
The general custom is that close friends and relatives come the first three days and more distant relations come after that. However, it depends on you and the circumstances. If you will not be able to come later in the week, go during the first three days.
If for some reason you cannot make the shiva call, you can make a short phone call to express your feelings about the deceased and comfort the mourner. This is certainly not the preferred choice but it is better than not coming at all.
What if you miss the shiva period? You can still console the mourner afterwards. Just go to him and extend your consolations about his loss.
from the December 2006 Edition of the Jewish Magazine