My close friend lost her mother and has started sitting shiva. As her friend and adopted sister, I know my job is to be supportive and show her how much I care. The only problem is: I’m allergic to shiva houses. You know how some people don’t do windows, and others leave the dead bugs on the floor for the guys to sweep out? Well, I let the community attend shiva homes while keeping my distance.
I don’t know if it’s the proximity to death or the intensity of emotions that sets my stomach churning. It’s almost like there’s a sign flashing in neon lights, warning: Steer Clear! Dead End! (Sorry, I couldn’t resist). But Julie needs me near her now, more than ever before. How can I show her I care without coming to her house that is shrouded in gloom and mourning?
The few times I have gone to comfort mourners, my confidence has totally deserted me. Either I’ve sat there tongue-tied, feeling totally witless and that it was a mistake to have come. Or I’ve made a comment that, upon consideration, sounded insensitive or downright stupid.
Please tell me what to do.
Allergic To Grief And Mourning
You’re not alone. So many of us share the fear of approaching mourners. (Others get trembly when visiting hospitals or elder care facilities.) Bereaved individuals have encountered a life altering situation that has put them in a different reality. No wonder we feel like they’re encased in some type of impenetrable bubble, and if we make the wrong move, something may go POP!
But so many of life’s situations are unappealing, yet we handle them because we know we must. Who wants to clean up after a sick child, go to the dentist, or argue with the insurance company? Challenges are presented to us by the Master Planner and are designed to help us strengthen our soul muscles.
And so, you have found your spiritual workout guide. Now, you want to know the best way to embark on your new training program.
Here’s my take. The first step is like jumping into a cold pool. You can either take an hour to immerse, or you can close your eyes and dive in. Surely, as hard as it is to take that dive, the second option will yield more enjoyment and overall benefit.
So, while your heart is screaming and your feet are desperately trying to turn you in another direction, take the plunge and go sit down next to your friend – after you encircle her with a great big hug.
My next question is: Who said you have to say anything? Where does that pressure come from? We know that visitors are supposed to wait for the mourner to initiate conversation. If they are not ready to speak, then silence is appropriate. Once conversation starts, is there protocol for a regular shiva visit? The overriding rule is to follow the mourner as they direct the conversation. We visitors don’t need to fill in empty gaps. It is perfectly fine to sit in silence with someone, conveying caring simply through our presence.
I believe there is one vital ‘Thou Shalt Not’ to keep in mind. We visitors come in hauling our own baggage. Sometimes we forget that we are coming to comfort someone and wind up monopolizing the conversation and sharing our own grief stories. The goal of a shiva visit is to console the mourner. We want the mourner to share his experience and memories as a healthy way of processing grief. The inspiring stories he may tell about the departed can also elevate the person’s soul.
I don’t think comforting mourners will ever be an “easy” mitzvah, but it can definitely get easier. Mourners may appear enveloped by a bubble of grief that seems to say, “Stay Away! You can’t understand what I’ve just been through!” And even if we’ve also dealt with losing loved ones, everyone’s experience is unique and personal, and we will never fully understand what someone else has endured.
That bubble of grief is not impenetrable. It is patient for you to place your hand inside, hold the mourner’s hand, and show, I’m here and I care. And when you’ve done it right, you’ll know.
Good luck, my friend,