Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 19 December 2015 / 7 Tevet 5776

Comforting the Mourner

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Phillip

Dear Rabbi,

The wife of one of my neighbors recently passed away and he is currently sitting shiva. I know it is a mitzvah to console a mourner, aside from being a kind thing to do. But I am very uncomfortable in those types of situations and would rather not do it. Since there are certainly other people who are closer to him than me, do you think I really have to do it? He probably won’t notice if I’m there or not anyway. What are your thoughts?

Dear Phillip,

I am sorry to hear of the unfortunate news, and certainly empathize with how you feel, but by the same token, I’m sure we both empathize with your neighbor, and therefore you should certainly go to console him.

G-d forbid you should be in his position of mourning, but if you were in his position, you would certainly want, and very much appreciate, people coming to comfort you in your loss and loneliness.

Another thing to consider is that many people are more than happy to join other people’s joyous occasions – after all, there’s music, dancing, merriment and, of course, a several-course meal. But when it comes time to share in others’ sorrow, G-d forbid, suddenly people don’t feel close enough to participate.

This is wrong, and if you’d participate in his joyous occasions, you should certainly overcome your natural awkwardness and involve yourself in his grief. And even if you wouldn’t necessarily attend his joyous occasions, or might not even be invited, you should still visit him, according to the teaching of the Talmud that is preferable to participate in the house of mourning than the house of mirth.

Often people justify their discomfort to comfort the mourner with the thought that the person won’t notice their absence. Although this might be true, it’s usually not. And even if the person would not be missed by not attending, he certainly would be noticed if he did. In fact, the less likely his absence would be missed, the more likely his actual attendance would be noted and appreciated.

Similarly, people often rationalize that their presence is not so important since there are others who will certainly console, and many are actually closer to the mourner than him. But this thinking is also faulty. First, if everybody thought this way, most would never come. Second, every person, no matter how distant, just by the visit alone relieves to some degree the intensity of the mourner’s suffering. In addition, virtually every single person has some special thought, recollection or experience to share about the deceased that makes that person’s visit uniquely comforting.

Therefore, I think you definitely must overcome your personal feelings of discomfort and awkwardness and place your mourning neighbor’s feelings and needs before your own. Perhaps the following practical considerations will make it easier for you.

Constantly remind yourself why you’re going and why you’re there:

  1. To show the mourner that everyone he knows, or who knew the departed, cares enough about the loss to make a special effort to share in the sorrow of the living and honor the memory of their beloved deceased.
  2. To give the mourner the opportunity to relieve his suffering and sorrow by either expressing to others, or hearing others share, heartwarming and elevating thoughts, recollections or experiences about the deceased.
  3. To distract the mourner from the intensity of his suffering by being available for him to converse with if that is what he needs.

Regarding the logistics of the actual visit, there are several practical customs which help to facilitate the intentions above.

Since the initial days are the most traumatic days of mourning, consolation visits during the first three days of the seven are generally designated for the closest of family and friends. It is usually much “easier” for both the mourner and comforter who are not especially close to interact after those first three days.

Also, when one does actually visit, the custom is not to speak until the mourner initiates conversation. This affords a few moments of mutual silent reflection in honor of the departed, expresses through silence the essentially inexpressible nature of the pain of bereavement and helps initiate the process of recovery by encouraging the mourner to proactively reach out of his solitary grief to accept the outstretched helping-hand of society.

Upon departing, the custom is to express condolences in the context of our collective mourning and feelings of loss over the destroyed Temple while offering a prayer that the mourner will have both a personal and collective consolation at the time of Redemption when G-d will remove the tear from all eyes and sorrow will be no more. In this way we remind the mourner that he is not alone in his grief, while constructively directing it toward collective consolation in a better future.

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