|Ask Rabbi Simmons|
Please tell me about the correct way to behave when visiting the home of a person sitting shiva.
Please allow me share an excerpt from "Remember My Soul," by Lori Palatnik (Leviathan Press -- http://www.leviathanpress.com):
When one pays a shiva call, the focus is on comforting the mourners in their time of greatest grief. Traditionally, one enters the shiva house quietly with a small knock so as not to startle those inside. No one should greet visitors; they simply enter on their own.
Food or drinks are not laid out for the visitors, because the mourners are not hosts. They do not greet the visitors, rise for them, or see them out.
One who has come to comfort a mourner should not greet the mourners. In fact, it is best to come in silently and sit down close to them. Take your cue from the mourners. If they feel like speaking, let them indicate it to you by speaking first. Then you can talk to them, but what about? Let them lead and talk about what they want to talk about. It is best to speak about the one who has passed away, and if you have any stories or memories to share with the mourner, this is the time to do so.
This is not a time to distract them from mourning. Out of nervousness, we often babble on about nonsense because we do not know what to say.
Often, the best thing to say is nothing. A shiva call can sometimes be completely silent. If the mourners do not feel like talking at that time, so be it. Your goal is not to get them to talk; it is to comfort them. Your presence alone is doing that. By sitting there silently, you are saying more than words can. You are saying: "I am here for you. I feel your pain. There are no words."
And sometimes there aren't. Here are examples of things not to say:
"How are you?" (They're not so good.)
"I know how you feel." (No you don't. Each person feels a unique loss.)
"At least she lived a long life." (Longer would have been better.)
"It's good that you have other children," or, "Don't worry, you'll have more." (The loss of a child, no matter what age, is completely devastating.)
"Cheer up -- in a few months you'll meet someone new." (He/she has just lost the other half of their soul!)
"Let's talk about happy things." (Maybe later.)
Comforting a mourner does not mean distracting a mourner. Don't fill in the time talking about happy subjects or inconsequential topics like politics or business. Remember that speaking about the loved one they lost is comforting. It's alright if they cry; they are in mourning. It is all part of the important process of coming to grips with such a loss.
Even if this was a visit in silence, a traditional statement of comfort is said to the mourners just before leaving the shiva house. It can be said in either Hebrew or English:
May God comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
Ha-Makom y'nachem et'chem b'toch sha'ar aveilei Tzion v'Yerushalayim.
God in this line is referred to as HaMakom -- "The Place." By saying this to the mourner, you are saying that God is everywhere, that we exist within Him -- here and in the next world. The person who is gone is still connected to you, for you are together, contained within "The Place."
"Among the other mourners" speaks about the Jewish people. You are saying that we are family. Some people are close and some are distant cousins, but the loss of even one Jew makes us all mourners.
"Of Zion and Jerusalem" speaks of our collective mourning over the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the central point of the Jewish relationship to God that was destroyed by the Romans 2,000 years ago.
The mourner should nod or say "Amen," and you should quietly depart, making sure that the mourner does not get up to see you out.With blessings from Jerusalem,
Rabbi Shraga Simmons