Dear Dr. Haimoff,
I’m not good at paying shivah calls. I never know what to say or how to help the person feel better. I usually just sit there awkwardly and make small talk. I’m afraid of saying the wrong thing or asking a stupid question. It is especially difficult when it is a tragic or unexpected loss for the person. The family is understandably very emotional and sad and I feel like it’s weird for them to have to entertain so many people in their home.
I have some social anxiety that is probably contributing to this, but any advice you can give would be really helpful. Thank you!
This is such an important topic. Comforting mourners is a big mitzvah in the Torah, and many people struggle with doing it correctly. I’ve heard countless horror stories from people who have sat shivah and had to manage intrusive questions and self-centered visitors who only want to talk about themselves. It is important to remember that just your presence alone, the mere act of visiting and sitting there, even in silence, is a major part of the comforting process. People sitting shivah don’t always need to talk but appreciate those who are thinking of them and come to show their support.
One piece of advice that it is helpful for everyone to know is that when someone loses a loved one, they want to remember all the good memories they have of them. For instance, when someone loses a parent who lived a long life but had medical complications towards the end, the mourner often wants to speak about earlier parts of the parent’s life, not the last few days. However, many visitors ask questions about the end of the life of the deceased, and then the conversation focuses on trivial details such as what hospital the patient was in, or where he or she was buried. Although this information may seem relevant at the time since it is related to recent events, the mourner may not get as much comfort from discussing these topics. Think about it: a child doesn’t want to remember their parent in their weak and feeble moments; they want to remember the parent’s vitality and life legacies!
A question I like to ask at a shivah house is: “Tell me about your mother/father,” or, “What was your mother/father like?” You often see people’s faces light up with love and fondness as they recall memorable moments and admirable traits about their parent. Listening to a mourner tell stories about their loved one, or describe their accomplishments, is such an incredible fulfillment of the mitzvah of menachem avel. Some people also like to give a little history about their family, such as describing their early childhood life or their country of origin. So it is pretty safe to ask questions like “Where did your father/mother grow up?” or “When did they move to America?”
Sometimes when visitors feel awkward or uncomfortable they will make small talk to distract themselves. It is not uncommon to hear visitors ask the mourners questions about the decor of their home or comment on the weather or traffic. While these may be appropriate as conversation starters or if the mourners are in a lighthearted mood, it may not be a meaningful use of the time, especially if the mourners are entertaining many such conversations throughout the day.
It is always helpful in any situation like this to ask yourself the following question when you walk into the house: “What would I want to talk about if I lost a loved one? (G-d forbid.) It will put you in the proper frame of mind and will generate feelings of empathy. You can sit and listen to other conversations for a while and chime in with a positive remark such as, “I never knew your father was a chaplain in the army!” You can also say something simple and generic like, “I’m sorry for your loss,” or “How are you managing?”
Finally, one crucial aspect to avoid, especially in the case of a tragic loss, is trying to inject some interpretation or positive spin on the events. It is tempting in our culture, especially among spiritually inclined people, to offer some perspective that helps the mourner make sense of or find a silver lining in the loss (e.g., “At least you had time to say goodbye before he passed!” or “At least he died peacefully in his sleep without pain.”).
This is treacherous territory! Even seemingly innocuous comments such as “She’s in a better place now” or “Hashem decided that he completed his mission and wanted him back” could sound like helpful clichés, but may end up having the opposite effect. People who lose a loved one in an unexpected and tragic manner (Heaven have mercy on them) are likely experiencing raw and intense emotions. While they may grapple with their own interpretations and even share some positive perspectives, that has to come from within them and at their own pace. It usually is the type of work best left for therapists and spiritual leaders to handle privately.
I hope this was helpful to you and all our readers. May we know no more suffering and may G-d comfort all the mourners of Zion, as well as the entire Jewish nation, during the weeks of shivah d’nechemta and beyond!
Rabbi Saul Haimoff, PsyD, is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice. He specializes in treating children, adolescents, and adults with anxiety and behavioral disorders. He is also the co-author of the “Handbook of Torah and Mental Health” and a public speaker on topics related to Judaism and psychology. For more information, visit rabbidrsaulhaimoff.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.