By Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman
In Jewish tradition, when a loved one dies it is customary to sit shiva. This is most commonly done when one experiences the loss of a parent, sibling, spouse/partner, or child, though some will also choose to sit shiva when a grandparent or other close relative dies.
Shiva is the seven-day period of mourning that follows the funeral of a loved one. Friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and members of the community make visits to the mourner's home to offer prayers and condolences. Usually there is a service followed by a light meal or simply snacks or cookies. While observing the seven days is traditional, in liberal communities some will choose to observe fewer days.
Shiva is a very communal practice, and in our individualistic society these practices can often seem strange. What follows are some guidelines from Jewish tradition.
- You do not need to be friendly with or even know the mourner to make a shiva call. Paying condolences and attending a shiva minyan (service of mourning) is the responsibility of members of the community. Mourning is understood to be a communal obligation and not a private event. If you are unsure about whether you should attend, consider going even if only for a little while. Your presence is important.
- There is no limit on the number of shiva minyanim you should attend. It is a mitzvah to attend a shiva minyan, so consider attending at least once.
- When making a shiva call, simply enter the house. Do not ring the doorbell or wait to be greeted. (Those sitting shiva are not supposed to act like hosts so they don't get up to answer the door.)
- When entering the house, go up to the mourner. It can often be difficult to think of what to say. Jewish tradition suggests not talking at first, which allows the mourner to begin the conversation. This is because you don't know what the mourner needs. Giving a hug or putting your arm around mourner is more important than any words you might say. When you do speak, appropriate things to say are "I'm so sorry" or "This must so difficult." If you did not know the person who died, feel free to ask the mourner to share memories. It is not appropriate to say, "It was for the best" or "At least he or she is no longer suffering" or "Don't worry, you'll get over it." Try to refrain from talking about sports or the weather.
- It's best not to speak to the mourner for a long time, especially if there are a lot of other people there. Shiva gatherings can be very draining for mourners, and they may not want to talk for extended periods of time.
- Mourners may be experiencing a wide range of emotions. There is no right way to act during the mourning period. Take your cues from the mourner and act accordingly.
- The house of mourning is a house of grief. It is not a festive gathering or a celebration. The point of attending a shiva gathering is to allow the mourner to express grief and to support the mourner through the grieving process. That being said, when you see people you know, it is fine to engage in normal conversation, as long as you avoid joking, gossiping, or talking loudly.
- It is the responsibility of the community to feed the mourners, thus you might want to bring food when attending a shiva minyan. However, sometimes food has already been provided. Read the announcement to see whether food is requested. In Jewish tradition, it is not customary bring flowers.
- The food at a shiva minyan is for everyone, so feel free to eat. It is respectful to allow the mourners to eat first or to bring them a plate of food.
- Participate in the service as best as you can. If you are not familiar with the service, just follow along or sit quietly. The mourners usually sit low on a stool as an outward sign of grief. Others can sit in chairs or on couches.
- You may see that the mirrors are covered. This is to encourage mourners to focus on inner reflection instead of on outward appearance. It is also a sign of disruption from ordinary life.
- It is appropriate to make a donation in memory of the person who died, either to the synagogue or another meaningful organization.