This afternoon and Wednesday I’m teaching my Intro classes about Jewish Death & Mourning. I am pretty sure that when they look at the syllabus, they are thinking about funerals, and they are mostly identified with (1) the dead person or (2) the mourners. That’s normal and human, to picture a topic with ourselves in the center.
My task as teacher is to teach them how to be members of a Jewish community that has mourners in it. True, sometimes they will be the mourners, and someday every one of us will be in that casket at center stage, but for most of our Jewish lives, we’re in the “mourner support” roles. And face it, that’s where the mitzvahs are.
Yes, it is a mitzvah to bury one’s dead. No doubt about that. But there are many other mitzvot that come under the general heading of “comforting the mourner,” most of which don’t sound like a modern idea of “comforting” at all. Here are ways we comfort the mourner:
- Support our synagogue, so that there are clergy to assist mourners.
- Support our local Jewish funeral home, so that Jewish mourners do not have the added stress of explaining everything.
- Show up at funerals, even for people we barely know.
- Show up at shiva, even if we are not “close” to the family.
- Offer to babysit, run errands, wash dishes, answer the door during shiva.
- Sit quietly with a mourner at shiva, just listening.
- Refrain from telling mourners how they should feel “by now.”
- Alert the rabbi if a mourner appears to be slipping into depression or otherwise in trouble.
- Call or write weeks after the funeral, just to “check in.”
- Say hello to mourners when we see them at synagogue.
- Invite widows and widowers to events or to dinner in our homes.
- Make sure that no mourner in our community feels abandoned.
The English word “comfort” in modern usage generally transmits an image of a pat on the back, accompanied by “there, there” or magical words of healing. Grief cannot be fixed by magical means. It can only happen in its own time. We can help by supporting, by being present to the mourner.
Those of us who have been mourners know how important this sort of support can be. Perhaps we received it; perhaps we didn’t. One route to self-healing is to take our sadly-won knowledge and turn it outward, making sure that the next mourner is not left to grieve alone.