Nachamu, Nachamu Ami

As we turn to HKBH to be menachem us, it might be an appropriate time to reflect on our parallel responsibility. If you are impatient, skip the next paragraphs of reflection and take advantage of a guide to consoling the bereaved that you will want to save.

Certain features of Torah life win accolades from outsiders, even those not willing to take on a greater amount of the yoke of mitzvos. Shabbos is one of them. I have had more non-frum Jews to my Shabbos table than I could count. Many have been open and candid about their view of Torah-true life and practice. None has ever opined that Shabbos is an anachronism that makes no sense or has little appeal. The modal reaction is, “I never knew that Shabbos was so beautiful. It’s too late for me in this life, but if I am reincarnated, the next time around I will certainly be a Shabbos observer.”

Practices surrounding death and bereavment are viewed similarly. From the way the body is treated, to the participatory closing of the grave, to the simplicity of the plain pine box and shrouds, outsiders usually have nothing but praise.

The greatest praise is reserved for the built-in ways in which we offer some consolation to the grieving. The authentic hesped is meant to bring all present to tears, and very different in style from the current “celebration of life” motif in the secular world. Those who experience it for the first time are at first puzzled, but quickly acknowledge the wisdom of tradition when it is explained.

The local Jewish paper a number of years ago featured a guest column by a Reform rabbi who spoke of the difficulty he had leading the service for a young person taken away from life in a particularly tragic manner. He spoke about how difficult it was to offer anything to the family. “How I wished I could tell them that there was an afterlife, that Judaism believed in some sort of eternal existence. How comforting that could have been to the family! Alas, I know that Judaism believes in no such thing, so I had to tell them instead that the memories of their beloved son and brother would be cherished by all of us.”

Baruch Hashem, that rabbi is our brother, but not a member of the same faith. We can indeed offer much consolation. Speaking about olam habo is only part of it. Many people are tongue-tied when they pay a shiva call, or (against the rule of halachah) try to distract the mourners with small talk, or offer well-intentioned but hurtful words. What follows is a document authored by a wonderful and courageous Los Angeles woman, Rivie Adelman, who lost a daughter and granddaughter in a tragic accident. It contains some insightfull advice and guidelines about consoling the bereaved. It benefited from the scrutiny of a nationally respected talmid chacham, Rabbi Gershon Bess shlit”a of Los Angeles, and a nationally acclaimed frum therapist, Dr Shimon Russell of Lakewood.

Consoling the Bereaved
Hamakom, Hashem is the only one who can console the bereaved. This should be a constant reminder to us when we visit the bereaved. We are there for the sole purpose of consoling them.

To begin with we must always remember that the levaya is not the time to speak with the mourners.

Because we don’t know how each person will react, it is therefore our job when being menachem an ovel to follow the lead of the mourner(s) we are visiting.

The following should NOT be said or done
-Beginning a new subject
-Asking questions of the circumstances of the death
-Asking the age of the person who has died
-We should not attempt to change the feeling in the room into something we are feeling or we feel is more appropriate
-We are not in a shivah home to teach the person the halachos or minhagim of mourning
-“I know how you feel” should not be said, EVER
-Never feel you need to fill in the silence
-Feel better should not be said
-“Call if you need anything”: calling for help is too hard for a mourner to do, instead ask others who know them well, what to do

The following SHOULD be done
-When there is silence a well-meaning person should get up after a minute or so and say the posuk and leave
-Adhere to all signs posted regarding times for visiting. Think of the bereaved, they are constantly on display
-Remember at all times why you are there

The following SHOULD be said
-I’m sorry you have to go through this difficult time
-I care deeply about you
-You are always in my thoughts and prayers
-I daven Hashem should give you nechama
-You should have no more tzar
-“I don’t know what to say but I want you to know I care”. ALWAYS revert to this if you cannot think of what to say. Although well meaning, what we may think of may not be good for them

Important reminders
In some cases there will be many, many people who will come to visit the bereaved. In order not to overwhelm them, those who are already there should consider leaving after a few minutes and let others enter. There does not need to be a completely full room and when the room is close to full we should not begin a conversation with someone next to us.

After Shiva

-Mourners are not sick and we should try not to avoid them, they are not contagious
-Close family and friends should continue to offer to help the family for the entire first year
-Call regularly: do not stalk
-Offer to come by
-Ask if they want company on birthdays, anniversaries etc., If not, consider leaving a note or message on the phone to tell them you are thinking of them
-Take their younger children out to a friend’s house
-Offer to pick things up when shopping
-Give them space yet show you care, gently
– Walk on eggshells
– Don’t ask “How are you?”
– A conversation starter could be “it’s nice to see you” said as casually as possible
-When they do need to be out, it takes all their energy to keep up appearances. No, they are not fine, they are just trying to look fine
-When they are able to reach out, make sure to fill their need, not yours
– The phrase “go on with life” is extremely insensitive

A mourner’s actions or reactions to things may not be as we might think they should be, however, they are doing the best they can. Whatever seems strange to us may be what they need to do. There is no wrong or right behavior. Telling them what they should be doing is not helpful.

Be careful when conversing with others when a mourner might be close by. If they lost a parent, telling your friend that your parent’s anniversary is coming up can hurt. If they lost a young daughter talking about the upcoming Bas-Mitzvah of your daughter is not a good idea, if they lost a grandchild, tone down the excitement when telling of your own. Complaining of your spouse’s bad habits will make some one who has lost a spouse wish they could complain.

When you complain about anything in your life to them right now they are not able to help you. Everyday matters seem trivial and insensitive. Their loss may make them experience everyday life as difficult. Their lives will forever be changed, they must find new direction and it may not look the way we think it should.

With love and support and selfless help, in time, they will find their footing and be able to enjoy things and smile again – although the pain will always be there.

L’iluy Nishmas Devora Bas Yisroel Melech and Aliza Bas Moshe Halevi

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3 Responses

  1. Michoel says:

    Very useful, thank you. Perhaps it could be distributed to funeral homes.

  2. yankee raichik says:

    I do quite a bit (way too much!) volunteer work in chevra kadisha and would like to add one line that is inappropriate and I cringe when I hear it in a shiva house.

    1. “He/She is in a better place”. People use this line when the deceased was ill for an extended period of time. It is insensitive and almost cruel to say it. I heard an ovel answer this one with “If it’s so much better why aren’t you rushing to get there”.

    [YA – We don’t rush to get there because yafeh sha’ah achas, etc. That does not preclude the arrival of a time when a person’s work is done, and HKBH calls an end to it. At that point, the person very much is better off in a better place. (See Ramban on korchah le-mais). An old – and IMHO very effective – vort is “Hamakom yenachem eschem”- the very place that the niftar now resides is the ultimate and only real nechamah.]

  3. ariel says:

    this grammatical point will actually make your article more relevant:
    “nachamu” is a verb. the passuk is telling the nevi’im to go and comfort the people. (heard from R. M. Willig) it marks the turning point in Yeshayahu from prophecies of doom to prophecies of consolation and redemption.

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