I have heard lately that many do not know what to do to comfort mourners during their greatest time of need. I understand this because I attended a shiva or two before I went to rabbinical school, and back then I had no idea of some of the customs that were being followed. I hope that the following can shed some light on the customs of mourning and how one can be comforting to the mourner at that difficult time.
In Traditional Judaism, mourners sat shiva for a seven day period (hence the word shiva – means seven.) One does not sit shiva on Shabbat, (receive the public) but the day is counted toward the seven day mourning period. In our modern times, we don’t always have the luxury of sitting shiva for seven days, so instead, it is customary to sit for one to three days. During that time, the community comes to the home to take care of the mourners. That means, the family who is bereaved should not prepare their own food. It is the obligation of the community to feed the mourners. It is perfectly acceptable to bring food you prepared or food from a restaurant or caterer to the family. However, it is not Jewish custom to bring alcohol nor to send flowers. Donating to a charity that is designated by the mourners is a classy way to honor the deceased.
When you receive a bereavement announcement, it will usually provide the details of the funeral as well as when the family will be receiving visitors. If you are able to go to the funeral, it is customary to join the family back at the house for the meal of comfort (seudat havra’ah.) Sometimes the family will want to say the Mourners Kaddish before the meal, other families want to wait to do an evening Kaddish Minyan, which necessitates ten Jewish people who are over the age of Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Usually the information about the Minyan will be given right after the funeral, but if you are unsure, please call the Temple office or a mutual friend. If you need to visit the family when they are not necessarily receiving visitors, it is a good idea to call the family to see if it is convenient for the family. Remember, that the shiva period is a highly emotional time and great care for the mourners should be the guiding principle.
If you attend the shiva during the visiting hours, you may be surprised to see the door slightly ajar. That is because one is not supposed to make the family do any work – ie, answering the door if you ring the doorbell. Just walk in and if you are bringing food, bring it to the kitchen. If you want your containers returned to you, make sure you mark them in clearly legible writing so that they may be returned at the end of the shiva period.
What is often difficult for people who visit a house of mourning is to know what to say to the bereaved. There is no easy answer for this, but we can look at Job for some guidance. Job 2:13 says “None spoke a word to him for they saw how very great was his suffering.” It is not necessary to say something to the mourner – just sit with him or her. But if you feel you must say something, offer condolences or admit that you don’t know what to say. At the time of great pain, people do not necessarily remember your words – but they will always remember your presence. However, don’t overstay your welcome. It is okay to stay for up to an hour. (Or longer of course if you are close with the family.) But the shiva is not a party – the focus should be on the deceased and comforting the mourners.
Finally, it is okay to talk about the deceased. In fact, it is most appropriate at the shiva to share your stories, your memories and to tell the family what the deceased meant to you. However, make sure that your stories would not embarrass the deceased nor the family. The purpose of the shiva is to comfort the mourners and bring honor the departed. With this guiding principle in mind, you cannot go wrong.