By Ann Green
During the shiva for my mother three and a half years ago I found my husband and daughter hiding in our bedroom. Grateful as all of us were for the outpouring of concern and kindness from friends, family and fellow congregants, they were overwhelmed by the loud conversations and laughing going on in the rest of the house. They needed a time out. The noise bothered me, too, but I was so thankful for this wonderful community that I just didn’t want to think about it.
My father passed away a few months ago, and once again our home became a shiva house. One evening I found myself sitting in a corner with my rabbi talking about shiva decorum. I was grateful for our warm and caring community but concerned that sometimes the shiva felt like a cocktail party. My rabbi, Daniel Liben, said he’d thought on occasion of writing about appropriate conduct at shiva as well as during graveside services.
I’m a bit uncomfortable even discussing this because I am so appreciative of everything people have done for my family during these difficult times. Aside from visiting and showering us with compassion, people set up the house before we got home from the cemetery, brought food for shiva and prepared meals for my family, just as they had done three years before. Many also made generous contributions to worthy causes in my parents’ memories.
I know I’ve been guilty of participating in the gabfests at shivas; if I make suggestions here, they are for me as well.
So, it’s with some hesitation that I bring up the subject of shiva decorum. Rabbi Liben, as usual, says it well. “People are afraid of stillness, and feel the need to fill the space with action or speech,” he said. “At a Shiva, we do not have to rush to fill the silence with words; sometimes simple presence is more powerful. Not having the right words is okay. Trust in the power of simple presence to give comfort.”
He continued, “I would also remind people at a graveside that silence is a powerful container that we can create and hold for each other, like silent prayer. It is a gift that a community of mourners can give one another. As the mourners slowly fill the grave of their loved one, there is no need to fear the stillness. We come to understand that silence reveals what is otherwise hidden by chatter. It is possible to hold the stillness, pay attention to it, and allow oneself to feel what needs to be felt in that moment.”
So here are a few suggestions, which I address to myself as well as the reader: Try to speak in a subdued manner. Refrain from joking. Ask the grieving family if they will need help cleaning up. Please, please don’t say, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.” Mourner’s thoughts are scattered; they are depressed and confused. Be specific: “I’ll take the kids for an afternoon so you can rest.” “Are there any groceries you need? I’ll be shopping tomorrow.” and so forth. Engage the family in conversation about the person they’ve lost. Years ago I told a friend that a beloved uncle had just died. Her response was, “Tell me about him.” While there’s nothing wrong with “I’m sorry for your loss,” my friend’s suggestion hit just the right note. She acknowledged what this uncle meant to me and gave me the chance to bring up good memories.
Also, no matter how much social media have changed our lives, some things are just not appropriate. To be specific: do not e-mail (or Facebook) your condolences. Perhaps you can’t make it to the shiva, but if you can’t pick up a phone, then you’re not really offering comfort.
To be a true comfort, call the mourner after the shiva. After the crowds have left, he or she is drifting into an unsettling new normal, and that’s when a kind word and a willingness to listen make a big difference.