Sunday, December 4, 2016

May you be comforted

For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one
-Khalil Gibran
God is our refuge and our strength.
-Psalms 46:1

This blog post is about the practice of sitting shiva. There is no disrespect intended, and in no way do I want to make light of the practice. Sitting shiva is never easy. At best, it's a long, tiring week. At worst, well, it is the worst.
Many psychologists agree that the practice of sitting shiva is healthy and gives the mourners time to internalize the loss without having to deal with day-to-day life - work, shopping, laundry, etc. There are multitudes of books, and hundreds of website about the laws and customs of sitting shiva, and what to say when you visit a shiva house. Apparently, there's even a movie.

However, in my own recent experience of sitting shiva, I found that many people don't actually know how to act when visiting a shiva house. It was disconcerting, to say the least. Most of the people who came to visit me when I sat shiva for my mother were polite, respectful, and helpful. All of the visitors were welcome, However, there were a few who could, perhaps, benefit from a few hints.

Here are a few do's and don't's when visiting a shiva house - in no particular order.

1. Do make sure you've come to the right house.
It is not necessary to know the mourner or even the deceased when you visit a shiva. Here, in Israel, it is perfectly acceptable, and highly regarded to visit a shiva of a soldier or victim of terror whom you do not know. It's also proper and righteous to visit a shiva of someone who had little family in the country - a Holocaust survivor, or a new immigrant, for example. However, it's important to make sure that your facts are right. Three visitors came to my house. I didn't know who they were, but that was ok. In these days of social media, there are many people I know only through email or Facebook. But these three people entered the house, took a look at me, and realized they were in the wrong place. It turned out that they thought someone with a name similar to mine was sitting shiva. (She wasn't.) They were highly embarrassed (though very respectful and said all the right things) and my daughter and I had a very hard time keeping a straight face.

2. Don't pick a fight with another visitor.
What can I say? Just don't. Not even with your spouse. I don't care how right you are. Just shut up.

3. Don't talk over the head of the mourner. 
Two mutual friends came to visit at the same time. They sat on either side of me. I happen to like them both very much. They started a discussion on a particular subject, which was interesting, to me, for about 30 seconds. They, however, found it fascinating for about 20 minutes, speaking to each other over my head. I couldn't speak to other visitors because it would mean I would have to speak loudly over their heads, and I was sitting way low down in a low chair, and that would have been very unseemly. If you need to speak to another visitor - take it outside.

4. Don't sit with other visitors and show off pictures of your kids to each other. 
I don't care how cute they are. Not the time or place.

5. Don't start any sentence with the words: 'you should', 'you shouldn't', or 'why didn't you',  'why did you'. 
Even something as innocuous as 'you should eat breakfast' shouldn't be said.  If you think the mourner should eat breakfast, MAKE him breakfast, and bring it over.

6. Be careful what you say. 
Don't use phrases such as: 'you might as well die', or 'he just killed me when he did that'. It was funny when it happened in my house, but other people might not find it quite so amusing.

7. Don't talk 'stam'
I don't think there is an English word for stam. It means 'unimportant, without reason, without aim'. No matter how fascinating you are, I can't imagine any mourner wanting to hear all about your vacation in Italy, or your new diet and exercise program, or the new tricks your grandkids are doing - no matter how cute. What should you talk about? Jewish law states that you shouldn't speak to the mourner until spoken to. In other words; words are not important. If you don't know what to say, don't say anything at all. You don't have to. Just your presence is comforting.  Remember, a shiva is not all about you.

8. Don't stay too long, and don't come too late.
If you are a local, 15 minutes is enough time to stay. Really. You can stay longer if the mourner is alone, or if you can see you are helping. But really, 15 minutes is enough. If you are not local, but have traveled an hour or more to visit, you are permitted to stay, say, half an hour. But don't expect to be fed, or be given a lot of attention. You can, however, use the bathroom. If you feel that 'you've come all that way' and therefore deserve extra attention or credit, don't come.
Also, don't come at 9:00 PM and stay an hour. Sitting shiva is exhausting, and the family just wants to go to bed.

After all these don'ts, what should visitors do?
Here are some ideas:

9. Talk about the deceased
If you knew him/her. If you didn't, ask about him/her, or say something about him/her anyway. You don't have to ask how the person died. Ask how they lived.
One visitor told me what a special person my mother must have been because her grandchildren are so wonderful. I am in awe of that sentence, and still cry.

10. Bring food. 
It doesn't have to be a full course meal, or even a main course. It doesn't have to be home made. It can be a bag of apples, or a salad, or some peanuts. When my daughter brought me an ice coffee from Cofix (5 NIS), I almost wept with gratitude.  If you can't bring food (and I personally hate cooking), grab a broom and sweep the kitchen. Offer to take little ones out to play. Wash the cups. In my house, it's known that nobody is allowed in the kitchen but me. Ignore me.

11. Remember the others
Just because a person is not officially sitting shiva, does not mean he or she is not mourning. Grandchildren, nieces, nephews, cousins, in-laws, close friends can all be mourning just as much as the official mourners. Speak to them also.

12. Come.
If you can, come to the shiva. Stay 10 minutes. Nobody likes to come to a shiva. Nobody is good at it, or knows what to say. But the presence of friends and acquaintances and family is comforting beyond all description. If you can't come - and there are a many acceptable reasons not to come - send some sort of message either by phone (but sometimes that is intrusive as the mourner is busy with other 'guests') or by text message via whatsapp, email, SMS, facebook, or a million other ways. The idea is to reach out.

13. Reach out after the shiva, also.
Sometimes, you just can't make it - a week isn't a long time. Or you might not have heard. Call after. Send an SMS. Let the mourner know you are thinking of them.

These suggestions are  based on events I noticed when I sat shiva. Some of the points might not even bother other people.

I sincerely wish that nobody would ever have to use these suggestions.

Here's the thing, and it's important all the time, not just at a shiva:

Be kind. Be thoughtful. Act as you would want others to behave.
And enjoy your life, and cause others to enjoy theirs.

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