How to Help a Jewish Mourner

October 20, 2013
standing shivah

standing shivah (Photo credit: glsims99)

At a time of trouble, good friends are apt to say, “Let me know if I can help.” However, the worse the disaster, the harder it is for the suffering person to articulate what they need. Here is a list of things you can offer to do for a Jewish mourner:

During shiva (the week following the funeral):

  • Bring food
  • Clean the kitchen
  • Pick up the children from  —
  • Assist with pet care
  • Run errands: grocery, dry cleaning, etc.
  • Make coffee or tea
  • Greet visitors at the door
  • Answer the phone
  • Make phone calls

After shiva is over:

  • Invite them to lunch or dinner
  • run errands
  • help with household chores
  • help with transportation for children, pets, or the mourner herself
  • invite them for part of Shabbat or a holiday
  • listen when they talk about the deceased or about their sorrows

Do not:

  • Tell them you know how they feel
  • Speculate about the afterlife
  • Tell them that they should get over it, or that they will get over it
  • Ask when they will be dating
  • Press them about anything that they don’t want to discuss
  • Ask for the belongings of the deceased

Mourners have been left behind by someone they loved. They may also feel abandoned by the living. You can help by including them in your life, and by making genuine, concrete offers of assistance at a difficult time.

A friend is a wonderful gift, but a friend who is willing to be present and help at a time of trouble is a treasure.

 

 

 

 

 


How to Mourn as a Jew

January 24, 2013
English: A lit Yahrtzeit candle, a candle that...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mourning is a time like no other.  Someone with whom we had a close connection has died, and our world is out of balance. We have spent years depending on that person, or supporting that person, and interacting with that person and suddenly they are … GONE.   On top of that, there is much to do:  arrangements must be made, legal requirements fulfilled, and all while we are stunned by the news.

For American Jews, it is particularly confusing because as with many things, we are pulled in two directions.  American secular culture largely avoids mourning, and encourages us to be self-sufficient individuals, bravely getting on with life with as little disruption as possible. The dominant Christian religious culture suggests that loved ones have gone “to a better place.”

Jewish tradition takes a different path. It structures mourning as a staged process undertaken by those who are closely related to the deceased:  children, siblings, parent or spouse.  This definition of “mourner” can be updated to reflect the needs of all kinds of families, but the principle behind it is that we recognize some relationships as especially close. If you have lost someone whose absence will significantly alter your life, then consult with your rabbi for help in following the Jewish mourning process.

1. ANINUT is the time from the death itself until the burial is completed.  This is a time of concern for the body of the person who has died. Because it is so important in Judaism to treat the body with respect, the mourners have no responsibilities other than to make the funeral arrangements. They are relieved from other ritual requirements, and all social niceties. They are also assumed to be in deep shock and mourning, and friends should be available to assist if need be but should not intrude. Persons in aninut do not go to work, and are not responsible for other commitments.  They may tear an article of clothing and then wear it during shiva, or pin a torn ribbon to their clothing, to express their feelings of loss.

2. SHIVA begins at the moment the body is safely laid to rest, and continues for a period after that, usually a week. (For calculations for the exact length of shiva when holidays are near, consult a rabbi.) Mourners in shiva remain at home, and friends help them with the necessities of life.  Friends visit to offer comfort.  (For more about the mitzvah of a shiva visit and what to say to a person in shiva, see Five Tips for Shiva.)

If you are the mourner, it is OK to ask for what you need, even if what you need is silence.  When you are sitting shiva, you are not entertaining. People may come to the house, but you do not have to look nice or have a neat house. It is OK for other people to do your dishes and to bring food to you.

Often American skimp on shiva, saying that they need to get back to work, or they don’t want to be any trouble.  If you possibly can, let shiva do its work. It can be boring and uncomfortable, but its purpose is to allow you time and space to mourn. You have suffered a loss.  It is OK to take time to acknowledge that loss.

3. SHELOSHIM is the 30 days after burial, including the seven days of shiva. At the close of shiva, mourners leave the house again.  Gradually, mourners will return to the routines of life.

4. MOURNING A PARENT goes on even longer, for eleven months or a full year, depending on local custom. One says Kaddish for the parent.

5. UNVEILING the tombstone (matzevah) is a ritual that became common in the 19th century, when close family gathers at the grave to unveil the marker and read Psalms and Kaddish. Timing of the unveiling depends on local custom: in some communities it is done at one year, in others at the end of sheloshim, and in others, at any convenient time at least a week after burial. It is traditional to visit the graves of loved ones, and to leave a stone on the tombstone as a sign that someone has visited.

6. YARTZEIT is the observance of the anniversary of the person’s death.  (The first yahrzeit is observed at the anniversary of the burial; after that, it’s the anniversary of death.)  Mourners say Kaddish for the person and it is the custom in some places to burn a yahrzeit candle. It is an opportunity to remember the person, and if the feelings are still there, to grieve in the arms of one’s community.

7. YIZKOR is a memorial service attached to the major Jewish holidays. It means “May [God] remember” but really, it is an opportunity for us to remember, and to have an opportunity to feel the feelings that may come up with memory. Yizkor takes place as part of services on Yom Kippur, on Shmini Atzeret, on the last day of Passover, and on Shavuot.

It takes time and effort to rebuild our lives after a significant loss. Jewish tradition allows us the time and space to fully mourn, then put away mourning for a return to life, all the while honoring the memory of the deceased.  Remember that if you have to deal with people who want you to “get over it” and get back to work or social obligations, Jewish mourning is a religious obligation as well as a psychologically healthy approach to dealing with loss.

May you be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.


Five Tips for Shiva Visits

November 17, 2012

 

holding hands - age 10, and age 8

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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

During Shiva:

  • 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.

After Shiva:

  • 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.

 


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,790 other followers

%d bloggers like this: