Shiva is the Jewish period of deep mourning after the death of a parent, a spouse, a sibling, or a child. It begins immediately after the burial and continues for no more than seven days. It may be paused for Shabbat (we do not officially mourn on Shabbat) or for certain holidays. When a person is “sitting shiva,” it is Jewish custom to visit them at the designated home as a way of providing comfort and support.
It is a mitzvah (sacred duty) to visit a person during shiva. However, it is not like a regular social visit. The rules of shiva are set to provide the best support for the bereaved, and to help us in what is for some a challenging mitzvah.
1. Visit only at times when you are welcome. If the bereaved is part of your synagogue community, hours of shiva may be available from the temple office. Alternatively they may be put on a sign on the door of the house. They will certainly be announced at the end of the funeral.
2. Be helpful. Bring prepared food to the shiva house, if you are able, but do not bring dishes that will have to be returned to you. If you visit the shiva house and see something that needs to be done (welcoming guests, simple cleaning, work in the kitchen) it is very helpful to do so. A mourner is not a host, and should not be expected to entertain in any way.
3. Comfort with your presence. The general rule in speaking to mourners is: don’t speak unless they indicate a desire that you talk with them. It is perfectly fine to sit next to a mourner and say nothing at all.
4. Listen. If the mourner wants to talk, listen. Let them talk, acknowledge what you hear from them. Let them express whatever emotion they are feeling: do not try to make them feel “better” or judge what they say.
5. Don’t overstay your welcome. Unless you are extremely close to the family, make it a short visit. Do not use the shiva gathering as a social event to visit with others. The mourners are likely exhausted.
WAYS TO HELP THE BEREAVED
- Be there. Listen.
- Offer to run errands, cook, deal with practical matters.
- Give tzedakah in honor of the dead, arrange for a card to be sent to the mourner.
- Make sure the bereaved are included in social invitations.
- Make sure that a mourner does not sit alone at services. Invite them to join you.
- Call just to say “Hello.”
- Drop a note to say hello, or to share a memory of the deceased.
- Listen to their memories.
Too often, because we don’t know what to do, we withdraw from mourners, leaving them to grieve alone. This is an act of cruelty, even if it is done out of confusion. Do not abandon a mourner.