A friend of mine who recently sat shiva made a comment to me about how some people were so helpful and supportive and others not so much. As professionals I was wondering if you could give your suggestions on how to properly be menachem avel [comfort mourners] and be supportive of those who have suffered a loss?
Every person mourns differently. According to the Kübler-Ross model, there are officially five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance), but not everyone experiences these stages in the same manner, in the same order, or indeed at all. Additionally, different people have different personalities and differing coping skills and mechanisms.
There are some things that may be very helpful to one person, but can anger another. Just as we have different ways of dealing with people in other situations, at a shiva house, we need to assess each person’s feelings and sensibilities. In ordinary circumstances, we tend to do this automatically. We generally don’t consciously focus on others’ needs and decide how to react. In a shiva house, however, many of us feel uncomfortable and out of sorts. We have the sense that we need to be careful about how we act and what we say. Therefore, we lose some of our instinctive ability to simply respond appropriately.
Imagine that you met a friend in the street, and he told you that he had lost someone close to him. How would you react? What would you say? Would it be easier for you to respond naturally without focusing on what is appropriate? If so, this means that you know how to react, but are not comfortable doing so in a shiva setting.
Some people generally have trouble responding appropriately. When this occurs in normal circumstances, their inappropriate comments are easy to shrug off—or to laugh off. In the charged atmosphere of a shiva house, however, being inappropriate can be hurtful. People who know that they can be inappropriate at times should be especially careful when being menachem avel to think carefully before they speak.
Since we can feel uncomfortable when paying a shiva call, it can be difficult to “just be ourselves,” and to react naturally. For many people, your presence is enough. They don’t necessarily need you to do or say anything. Some aveilim [mourners] are comfortable with silence (even if their visitors are not). Others are happy to initiate conversations, in which case following their lead is usually a good course of action.
Aveilim often wish to discuss the niftar [deceased]. If you are in a situation where you believe that the avel would appreciate your words, a good rule of thumb is to use open-ended questions, or comments that invite response (like, “What types of things did he enjoy?” or “I understand that he loved helping people.”). These often open the door for the avel to speak of his memories of the niftar. More specific, closed-ended questions (like, “What did he do for a living?”) can be hit-or-miss. The avel might be interested in discussing that, or his response may simply be, “He was an accountant.”
Unless the avel is clearly interested in discussing them, questions about illness, manner of death, and other possibly sensitive subjects should generally be avoided. These subjects can cause hurt or anger in some. People who find these types of discussions cathartic and helpful in going through the mourning process will generally broach these subjects themselves...
-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW
psychotherapist in private practice
author of Self-Esteem: A Primer
www.ylcsw.com / 718-258-5317