You know what nobody talks about? Visiting mourners during shiva (the 7-day mourning period for someone who loses an immediate relative), which is commonly referred to as “making a shiva call”. The term is a bit of a misnomer these days since doctors don’t make “house calls,” but I’m assuming that’s where the term originated.
(You’ll have to forgive the informal tone I’m using to discuss something so serious, but having unfortunately experienced it firsthand, I have the ability to be a little casual about it.)
Now, shiva happens to be one of the best things Judaism offers. Okay – that really sounds weird, but stay with me on this one. First off, it’s important to have a ritual where mourners are homebound and static for an entire week that prevents them from evading the harsh reality of their loss. Once again, that sounds bad, but taking a week from your everyday life to properly grieve is vital to being able to begin the coping process.
Additionally, aside from giving mourners the chance to have some healthy social interaction with other humans and a sort-of-normalcy during one of the most difficult times of their lives, it also affords a great opportunity for the local community to provide real empathy and kindness to people who can’t admit that’s exactly what they need.
I know though that not everyone realizes the magnitude of what visiting does. That’s part of the reason I’m writing this post.
I’ll often hear people that are hesitant about making a shiva call give some sort of excuse like “it’s so awkward.” I get pretty annoyed at this one. My usual response to this is, “Yeah… now imagine how the mourner must feel.”
At a wedding, we go to incredible lengths to “bring joy to the bride and groom.” We’re willing to dance while lacking any sort of rhythm and make fools of ourselves in front of hundreds of strangers. Yet, we often won’t put just a fraction of that effort into calling or visiting a close friend in their time of need. Think about it: if there’s a specific mitzvah to bring happiness to a bride and groom, who are going to be happy anyway, how much more important is it to comfort a mourner during a time of sadness?
This isn’t about you, though your presence is crucial.
People worry that they’re going to end up saying the wrong thing, and while every shiva house undoubtedly has a Google Doc of dumb things people say during the week, remember – when in doubt, just don’t say anything. Mimic the energy of the person mourning, and let that be your gauge. If the person you’re visiting is being talkative, you can be talkative. If they’re being more reserved, then be more reserved.
I would even venture to say that it’s more important for the visitor than it is for the mourner. Your visit is an opportunity for real empathy. It’s a chance to set aside some time from your busy week to get a glimpse into the life of someone having a busy week for an entirely different reason.
Imagine for a second that you’re going through the toughest time of your life, and the only glimmer of hope you might have is, “well, at least I can rely on my friends to visit me.” But then your friends distance themselves because of how uncomfortable the situation is. Now, not only have you gone through this horrific life-altering event, but even worse, you have to face it alone. And that can make things unbearable.
This person was just like everybody else, but is suddenly thrust center stage for a pretty awful reason. I’m sure most mourners would like nothing more than to hide from the world, under the covers, and turn back the clock to the prior week when things were normal. I’m sure they don’t want to have every head in the synagogue turn their way as they try to keep it together while reciting the words of Kaddish during prayer services.
But mourners don’t have this luxury, because Judaism helps us realize that this time of vulnerability is critical. Shiva serves as a lesson in pure humanity for both the visitor and mourner.
- For the visitor, it’s not only a time to reflect on our own behavior as we contemplate mortality; it’s a time to put all personal needs aside and to just be there for someone. It’s a time to put away our cell phones and really see people again, and see what their needs are.
- For the mourner, it’s okay to need people and to be upset. As much as we want life to only be the positive Facebook posts, that’s not the reality, and there are times we need to cry and be human. And that’s okay.
And lastly, maybe shiva exists so that a mourner can see the good of a community and for him to not lose hope in others at a time that seems otherwise utterly hopeless. Maybe he will have that memory bookmarked in his head, so that, one day, when he is eventually whole again, and unfortunate circumstances land on another family, he can be there for them, just as others were there for him.