Guidance of what to say, and what not to say, at a shiva (house of mourning)
As helpful as many ideas may be for our personal understanding and acceptance of nechama, it is extremely important to realize that they may be very different from the practical question of what one should actually say, or not say, to a mourner at a shiva. Rabbi Bulka, the author of Comforting Mourners: What to Say When There Is Nothing to Say addressed this critical issue with some basic guidelines:
“As sensitive and caring people, we try to do the right thing. Sometimes, however, trying to do the right thing, and not succeeding, can do more harm than good. Such is the case with comforting the bereaved. One of the worst things that consolers can do is to resort to clichés that are not only worn out, but downright silly.
One cliché is, “He or she is in a better place.” How can anyone know such a thing? This statement is not helpful to the mourner. What we do know is that this world is a good place — for it is a place to do good. Death, therefore, is a tragedy. Another remark that turns mourners off is that G-d needed the deceased more than the living needed him. Again, how can anyone know that? Moreover, it makes G-d into some sort of self-absorbed entity who wreaks tragedy in this world for the purpose of drafting people onto His heavenly team. Yet another no-no is to suggest, usually following the death of a person who has lived well into their eighties or nineties, that “at least he or she lived a full life.” No matter how well intended these words are, they are a cruel invasion of the mourner’s emotions. They trivialize the mourning and make whoever is in despair feel as if they are grieving unnecessarily. This disconnects the mourner from the consoler, when the purpose of offering nechama is primarily to connect.
Many people who have gone through mourning for parents have complained to me about receiving this comment. They claim that such rationalizing is demeaning and undermines their feelings. They believe that the experience of many years together with parents makes separation after death more difficult, rather than less so.
A couple was grieving the loss of a six-month-old daughter. A well-meaning person came by and offered that, “She died as a perfect soul, never having had the chance to transgress.” He meant well, and truthfully many people in similar circumstances might be comforted by this remark. But these parents were in fact very upset by the comment. It is true that the young girl had no opportunity to transgress, but she also had no opportunity to do good, and that was the unaddressed, even ignored, lament of the grieving family.
The problem, and the challenge, is that it takes more than good intentions to be an effective consoler. And presumptuous comments about the good side of a terrible tragedy are tricky at best, highly damaging at worst. A young widow, during the mourning for her husband, was hurt by a friend who suggested, with the best of intentions, “You are young and pretty, you will soon find someone.”
Without getting too deep into more examples, we can add to the collection of no-no’s such phrases as, “I know how you feel,” “Life goes on,” “You will heal,” “Count your blessings,” “You have other children,” “Your grief will pass,” and “You have your whole life ahead of you.” All these expressions trivialize the mourning, rather than appreciating the gravity of the grief.
Condolence visits challenge us to be exceedingly sensitive and careful with our lips. Once the words come out, they cannot be taken back. It is nice when the mourners themselves are understanding and appreciate our good intentions, but we should not rely on this.
You may ask, “If everything I say is potentially no good, what should I say?” That is a great question. And the answer is that it is not the obligation of the consoler to offer words of nechama. The consoler’s obligation is to give nechama, plain and simple.
How can one give nechama without saying anything? Nechama is achieved simply by being there, with the mourner, even in silence. Everyone would agree that coming and saying nothing is preferable to coming and saying something silly or unwelcome. Of course, the best result is attained by coming and sharing wise thoughts and reflections.
But how can one know what is appropriate when every mourner thinks differently? The answer is — through silence, through coming with lips sealed and ears wide open. That is the Jewish protocol, an often-ignored protocol, for mourning visitation. Come there, sit, and listen. The mourner will start talking, and you will then know where the mourner is. You can then respond. This is the safe, sensitive, and sensible way to be a comforter.
Affirming the mourner, and the mourning, is critical. Acknowledging the difficulty in finding the right words is a comforting gesture. Wanting to learn more about the deceased, when appropriate, is also welcome when one senses the mourner would like this.
One of the most effective sources of nechama is saying nice things about the deceased. Stories about the deceased, especially ones of which the bereaved were not aware, are a great source of nechama, often bringing a smile to the face of the mourner. Saying kind things to the mourner can also be quite comforting, such as expressing admiration for love shared, or care given.
Always remember that no matter how awkward you may feel when visiting a mourner, it’s not about you. It’s about the mourner. What will make the mourner feel better (as opposed to yourself)? What will bring a smile to his or her face? The answer may be hard to come up with, or you may have many answers. The more effort that you put into answering this question, the more likely it is that you will really fulfill the religious and social obligation of comforting the mourner. And the more likely, then, that the mourner will be helped along on his way from grief to gratitude — gratitude for the life of his or her loved one.” (Reb Yochanan’s Bone, pg. 213–5).
Only Hashem can give nechama, not merely time, nor people
Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach once went to give nechama to a young widow. He told her:
“People will definitely tell you that with time your pain will be forgotten, and with this they are trying to give you nechama. However, the truth is that it is impossible to forget, and therefore it is a mistake to tell you that you will forget. Rather, you will need to live with this situation, and together with this, to strengthen your emunah and bitachon in Hashem, and He will be the One to help you.” (Lekach Tov — Pirkei Emunah v’Nechama, pg. 139).
Rav Chaim Shmulevitz told Rav Rozovsky, the Mashgiach of Ponovezh, when his wife passed away:
“In order to give nechama to one in the midst of pain, one needs to feel this pain. However, since we are taught that the wife only fully dies to her husband, there is no one at all that could possibly feel the pain of a husband who lost his wife. No person has the ability to give him nechama, only G-d Himself Who knows how great his pain actually is. Therefore, he concluded — ‘HaMakom yenachem etchem — Hashem should give you nechama — b’toch she’ar aveilei Tzion v’Yerushalayim — among the other mourners of Tzion and Yerushalayim.’” (Lekach Tov — Pirkei Emunah v’Nechama, pg. 137).
Every moment of a short life is precious and worthy of thanks
As painful as any death is, there is a much greater sense of tragedy when a young child passes away. However, Rabbi Avrohom Stone explained that this is really a question of our perspective. He wrote:
“It was a house of mourning, like so many I had been in before. On a table in the corner, the flame of a lone candle flickered. People spoke in hushed tones, afraid that their voices might carry. Grief and sadness were everywhere, and an air of sorrow filled the room. It was like every other house of mourning; yet, for me, this time it was different. This time, it was my house that was filled with sadness. And it was I who was in mourning.
My family sat in the living room on small chairs, low to the ground. In the same spot where we had celebrated her birth with a festive kiddush, just three and a half months earlier, we now sat shiva for my baby daughter Shoshana Devora, may she rest in peace. The “sweetest little baby in the world,” as I had often called her; a perfectly normal, healthy baby had died suddenly, for no apparent reason, and our family had been cast into indescribable sadness and unbearable pain.
If a person lived 70, 80 or 100 years, and everyone who knew them found them to be a source of only love and happiness; and if they themselves knew no suffering, only the adoration and love of others; when such a person would die, how would we feel? Certainly, there would be the hurt and pain of losing such a wonderful human being, and they would be missed dearly. But, reflecting on their life, would you feel sorry for them? Would you feel an ounce of regret for the beautiful, perfect world they had known and created? I ask you, then: does it really make a difference whether it’s 135 years or 135 days?
There is a story in the Talmud which I had taught in my daily class a few days before Shoshana died, that keeps running through my head. It tells of how the Sages, for various reasons, decided to remove Rabban Gamliel as the Prince and Head of the yeshiva. Looking for a replacement, they settled on Rebbe Elazar ben Azariya. When they offered him the position, he consulted with his wife, who asked him a pointed question. “What do you need this for? How do you know that they won’t replace you tomorrow, just as they replaced Rabban Gamliel today?”
I had explained Rabbi Elazar ben Azariya’s reply as follows. “And if they do remove me? So what if I occupy the position for only one day. Does it mean that it has no value? Absolutely not! From that day on, my whole outlook on life will be different and improved. Everything will take on new meaning. From that one day, I’ll have memories that will last a lifetime. Everything I look at will be from a different perspective, a more meaningful one, because of the moments I served in that capacity. Are you saying that, just because an experience won’t last forever, it means that it has no value? That, since I might have to give it up, I should never know the experience in the first place? That it won’t be worth every second because it will have to end? G-d forbid!” I feel exactly the same way about my baby.
G-d gives us many gifts in life. Some are long-term; others are short-term. Each child is a precious gift from Him. I sincerely hope and pray that the seven gifts he has given us will be long-term ones, for 120 years. But the eighth gift he gave us was a short-term one. So, what should I do? Should I sit here and be angry, and complain to G-d because He cheated us? Or should I sit and be grateful for every single day of the free, short-term gift He bestowed upon us? The first day we had her was wonderful, and it didn’t necessarily ever have to have happened. So, too, the second. And the third. And the 135th. They were all wonderful, special days. The challenge for us is not whether we will be angry with G-d or harbor complaints against Him. The challenge is whether we have the capacity and ability to appreciate every special moment He gave us. And the fact is that we do.
This is not to say that we aren’t hurting. Believe me, we are. For my wife, the evenings are hardest. For me, the mornings are my time to cry. Strangely, as the days pass, the pain seems only to intensify and I miss her more and more. If your heart goes out to us, if you want to share our hurt, if you want to take a part of our sorrow over how much we miss her, we won’t object.
Pain shared is pain lessened. But if you wish to help us deal with the seeming injustice of it all, the apparent unfairness of it all, please don’t bother. For while we will always grieve and there will always be pain, there will also always be gratitude and appreciation. For a lifetime of happy memories condensed into three and a half months. And for having merited to receive the most special short-term gift we could ever have hoped for — Shoshana Devora, the sweetest little baby in the world.” (Reb Yochanan’s Bone, pg. 174–7).
Move past negative thoughts
A major element in achieving nechama is being able to get past guilt and blame for the death of those close to us. The Netivot Shalom brings this point out based on a well-known Rashi at the beginning of Parshat Chayei Sara. Rashi explained that the death of Sara directly followed the Akeidah because she died when she heard about how Yitzchak had almost been offered up on the altar by Avraham. This explains why the very next verse (Bereshit 23:3), after Sara’s death, says — “Vayakam Avraham mei’al p’nei meito — And Avraham got up from eulogizing Sarah.”
While eulogizing Sarah, it occurred to him that he might have had some degree of responsibility for her death by virtue of his willingness to perform the Akeidah. Once he recognized that this thought was only negative, he got up and departed from that line of thinking. It wasn’t a constructive thought, it didn’t help him, and on the contrary, it hurt him. So, “Vayakam Avraham,” he removed this thought from his mind and never considered it again. (Reb Yochanan’s Bone, pg. 342–4).
While our perspective is now limited, all will be clear in the end
The Shabbat immediately following Tisha b’Av is known as Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Consolation. We read the prophesy of Yeshaya to the Jewish people (Yeshaya 40:1), which begins “Nachamu nachamu ami — Console, console my nation.” Rav Berkowitz explained this double language of consolation as referring to two different aspects of nechama, based on what will occur in the end of days.
The first is that there will come a time in history when all of the difficulties, both individually and communally, will finally be finished. And that is also a nechama now, since it tells us that the enormous degree of suffering we see all throughout the world has an end-point.
The second nechama, however, is even more significant. At that future time, when all of the painful yissurim will have finally ended, we will then be able to look back and understand why everything, including all of the difficulties throughout history, needed to have happened in the first place. Simply knowing that all of the pain and difficulty in the world fits into some larger picture, even if we don’t understand how, is a tremendous nechama at the present time. And it can help us to deal with even severe pain right now.
Rav Shimshon Pincus (Bi’ur Tefillat Nacheim, pg. 277) articulated this point as well:
The nechama that we will merit when Mashiach comes will not merely be a forgetting of the difficulties through the passage of time. Rather, it will then be clear retroactively that all the difficulties of the long galut (exile) were never actually negative things.
The Chafetz Chaim (Shem Olom — Shaar Shmirat Shabbat, Chapter 3, in the footnotes) addressed our limited perspective in being able to understand the difficulties and challenges all around us, with the following mashal (parable). A traveler spends Shabbat in a new town. He observes the gabai distributing the aliyot, seemingly at random.
This visitor cannot understand the gabai’s logic, and questions his decisions. The gabai responds by chastising him — “How dare you, a visitor from out of town, question my judgment? If you wish to understand my actions, you must be here [at least] an entire year and see how I distribute the aliyot. You cannot even attempt to understand my system by observing me on only one Shabbat.”
The Chafetz Chaim asks, who is this visitor who knows so little and yet demands to understand so much? This is each one of us. We are in this world for a very short stay and yet expect to understand G-d’s complete plan, which began far before our existence and will continue long after we’re gone! [The Chafetz Chaim also says, in the name of the Ari z”l, that nowadays almost all of the souls are gilgulim (reincarnations).] We have no choice, therefore, but to go with emunah and trust that whatever Hashem does is for our best. (Reb Yochanan’s Bone, pg. 328–9).
When exactly this will occur on a global level is not something which we can know. The Gemara Pesachim says that one of the seven things which are hidden from a person is “Yom HaNechama — the time when all will have nechama from their various difficulties.” (Rashi).
“There is a blessing within every curse”
Professor Michael Josephson, a teacher of ethics, told the following parable to shift how we view the events in our lives:
“A man and his companion lost their way in a forest. The companion despaired, but the man said maybe some good will come of this. They came upon a stranger who needed the man’s help. The stranger turned out to be a prince who gave the man a beautiful horse.
His neighbors praised his good luck and said, “How blessed you are to have such a magnificent animal.” The man said, “Who’s to say whether this is a blessing or a curse?”
The next day the horse ran away, and the neighbors said, “How horrible that you were cursed with the loss of your horse.”
The man replied, “Who’s to say whether this is a curse or a blessing? Perhaps some good will come of this.”
The next day the horse returned leading five wild horses. “You were right!” his neighbors exclaimed. “The curse was a blessing in disguise. Now you’re blessed with six horses.”
The man replied, “Perhaps, but who’s to say whether this is a blessing or a curse?”
The next day his only son tried to ride one of the wild horses. He was thrown to the ground and broke his leg. The neighbors said, “How wise you were. Your blessing was really a curse.”
The man replied, “There may be good yet. Who’s to say whether this is a curse or a blessing?”
The next day soldiers came through the village and took every able-bodied boy to fight in a war where it was almost certain that all would be killed. Because the man’s son was injured, he was the only one not taken. “How blessed are you to have your son!” the neighbors said.
The man replied, “Who’s to say? I don’t know whether there is a curse in every blessing, but I am sure that there is a blessing within every curse.”” (Reb Yochanan’s Bone, pg. 506–7).
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, the author of On Death and Dying, pointed out that we grow and gain enormously from the difficulties in our lives:
“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.” (Reb Yochanan’s Bone, pg. 492).
How we relate to yissurim is always a choice
Victor Frankel, a psychiatrist who survived the Holocaust, expressed (in Man’s Search for Meaning) a fundamental principal that extends far beyond the concentration camps:
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
And there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity.
In the final analysis, it became clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him — mentally and spiritually.
He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp. Dostoevski said once, “There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.” These words frequently came to my mind after I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost. It can be said that they were worthy of their sufferings; the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom, which cannot be taken away, that makes life meaningful and purposeful.
If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death, human life cannot be complete.
Do not think that these considerations are unworldly and too far removed from real life. Such men are not only in concentration camps. Everywhere, man is confronted with fate, with the chance of achieving something through his own suffering.” (Reb Yochanan’s Bone, pg. 446–7).
New beginnings are not new to Jews
In May of 2004, 34-year-old Tali Hatuel, a social worker who lived in the Gaza Strip, was gunned down on a Gaza highway by Palestinian terrorists along with her four daughters, Hila, 11; Hadar, 9; Roni, 7; and Merav, 2. As if the atrocity could not be any worse, Tali Hatuel was 8 months pregnant with her first son.
When their husband and father, David Hatuel, was asked if he hated G-d for what had happened, he replied — “But I am able to cope only because of G-d. Rather than focus on the horror of how my family was taken from me, I am focusing instead on the twelve beautiful years G-d gave me with my beloved wife and daughters. I just have to believe that G-d has a plan as to why that time was cut short.”
At a later date, when he announced that he was getting remarried, he said —
“My sight is set on the future. I am building again on a home that still is. My wife and daughters will never be erased. They will always be a part of me, and part of my life. The new home that Limor and I will establish will not replace the home that was destroyed. Rather, our home will be an additional floor upon that home’s foundation. I am like a tree whose branches were cut off and now they are growing again.”
He continued, “After the tragedy, I realized that I had two choices: To fall and to be destroyed, or to continue to live. I am choosing life.”
While many wondered how it would be possible for him to go on, the sad reality is that, only two generations ago, millions of Jews started over under even worse circumstances: Holocaust survivors lost not only their spouses and children, but their parents, siblings, communities, and even nationalities. New beginnings, sadly, are not new to Jews. (Reb Yochanan’s Bone, pg. 477–481).
Allen Bodner (in an article in Jewish Action Magazine) expressed the following realization after his wife Jill had passed away:
“Nechama does not mean to forget and move on. It does not even mean that we stop grieving…nechama means to reconsider what was originally thought, to reevaluate the situation. One year ago, at the funeral, we thought that we could not go on without Jill, and now we have learned that we must. In my hesped (eulogy), I said, “My tomorrow has been canceled.” Over the past year I have learned that I was wrong. Tomorrow has not been canceled. Not for me, not for my family, and not even for Jill.” (Reb Yochanan’s Bone, pg. 339).
The words from David Hatuel and Alan Bodner very concisely expressed the essential quality of nechama:
No matter how painful or difficult our situation may be, we must always continue to choose life. That means to realize that — tomorrow is never, ever canceled. Not for us, not for our family and not even for the deceased.
The Maharal (Netzach Yisrael — chap. 41,56) explains that nechama is the ability to hope for the future. The Atzmot Yosef (on parshat V’et’chanan) adds that it is the refusal to give up, even when you feel such despair that you don’t think you will be able to go on living. When someone close to us passes away, we also experience a type of death. Without the spiritual healing and the renewed wholeness and shleimut (completion) that we get from nechama, it would be impossible for us to continue to exist.
Rav Dessler (Michtav m’Eliyahu — 4:342) pointed out that:
“Nechama is really against human nature. The fact that people are able to get nechama is only the result of a special gift or miracle from Hashem. And the S’fat Emet (on Birkat Hamazon) added that only Hashem is called “Ba’al HaNechamot — the Master of Nechama.” He is outside of time and nature, and, therefore, only He is able to transform our pain into good. However, we need to know that this nes (miracle) will only occur if we are willing to accept it. As the Pele Yo’etz wrote — Just like it is a mitzvah to give nechama, in terms of any difficulty that may befall another person, it is also a mitzvah to receive nechama and to accept the Heavenly judgment with love.” (Lekach Tov — Pirkei Emunah v’Nechama, pg.173–4).
This collection of beautiful, inspiring, and uplifting ideas that define and explain the meaning of nechama, were largely taken from Reb Yochanan’s Bone, written l’iluy nishmat Chana Hinda bat Boruch Chaim Kohen, as well as Lekach Tov — Pirkei Emunah v’Nechama, and Divrei Yeshua v’Nechama.
G-d willing, these ideas should strengthen all of us to accept a true nechama with whatever challenges we face in our lives, whether big or small.
This should be l’zechut ul’illuy nishmat Ruchama Rivka, a”h, bat Asher Zevulun.