What Not to Say at Shiva (and What to Do and Say Instead)

Cross-posted from the WRN Blog: http://womensrabbinicnetwork.wordpress.com/

At some point during shiva, I turned to my friend Steffi and made an off-hand comment – something like “mutter, mutter, mutter, class on what not to say at shiva.” Which is how I found myself giving a presentation a few days ago at LimmudBoston. To be perfectly fair, there were very few comments at shiva that landed on the “I can’t believe s/he said that” list. It was more the discomfort of those who didn’t know what to say, friends who later shared with me some of the comments that their families had gotten in the past during shiva, and some comments I got in the weeks after Bob’s death.

You can look on-line for things to say or not to say to people who are grieving. Most of the lists are very good. It’s important to remember that it’s not your job to “fix” things; nothing you say will “fix” things for mourners. The best words to say are those that recognize the person’s loss and recognize the person’s feelings. For example:

  • “I’m so sorry.”  “I am sorry for your loss.”  “I was so sorry to hear that X died.”
  • “I don’t know what to say, but I want you to know I care about you” or “. . . that I am here for you.”
  • “I can’t imagine how you are feeling (or – “I don’t know how you are feeling,”) but I am here for you.”
  • “I love you.”
  • “I will always remember the time when . . .” (share a memory or story)
  • Silence and a hug (or clasping their hands in yours.)

When someone has died after a long illness, the family’s immediate memories are of the illness and the person’s decline. It can be hard in that moment to remember the person before the illness. One of the best things you can do in that case is to share a story about the person. If you didn’t know the person and you’re there because you know the family, look and see if there are old photographs and ask a question about them. One of my favorite questions for the spouses of my hospice patients is: “How did you meet?” I hear wonderful stories and the spouse has the chance to remember and share cherished memories. This type of question allows children and grandchildren to hear stories they may have never heard. It also gives friends and family who were present in the early days of a relationship a chance to share their perspective on how the relationship developed.

When a death is sudden, it is common for people to ask: “what happened?” Some people want and need to talk about it; they need to tell the story to understand what happened and make meaning of it. Others in the family may not be able to endure telling or hearing the story. It’s also possible that the mourner has just told their story before you arrived or has told it enough times today. “Would you like to talk about what happened?” is a better way to phrase the question. It gives the mourners the power to say “yes” or “no” – a great gift at a time when they may feel completely powerless.

In the what not to say category are:

  • “At least he didn’t suffer . . .” (How do you know?)
  • “She lived a long life.” (Not nearly long enough. Or maybe too long.)
  • “You’re so strong.” (Mourners may be in shock, they may be ‘sleepwalking’ through their grief. This is akin to “Don’t cry.” It denies the need to cry, scream, moan, and confront grief.)
  • “I know just how you feel.” (No. You don’t.)
  • “You’ll meet someone else.” “You can have another child.” (Really?)
  • “Time heals all wounds.” or “Time brings healing.” (The best thing I ever learned about grief was from Carla Sofka, Professor of Social Work at Siena College: “We grieve, five or ten minutes a time, for the rest of our lives.”)

What can you do to help someone before, during or after shiva? Here are some of my categories of helpful actions.

  • Toilet paper & garbage bags – If you are helping organize shiva, check and see if there are enough basic supplies. This also includes paper plates, cups, and silverware. As much as we may want to be environmentally friendly, it is difficult to compost or recycle as hordes of people are coming in and out of the house. You can also be sensitive to where the garbage goes. My town does not have garbage pick-up. I was very grateful when my neighbor asked if I needed her to take my garbage to the dump and when my son-in-law arrived to specifically do a dump run. For people who live in places where they are limited to how much garbage they can put out each week, a really helpful action is to take a garbage bag home with you.
  • Offer specific help:
    • Clean out the fridge
    • Stay at the shiva home during the funeral / burial
    • Arrange for food for shiva / bring dinner to the family on the day(s) before the funeral
    • If you are comfortable doing so, let the family know you can lead the shiva minyan.

Be sensitive and understanding if your offers are refused. I had two people offer to mow my lawn before shiva. Even the most irrational person (and I was not always rational in my grief) would have recognized that my lawn was badly in need of mowing. However Bob always said that, left to his own devices, he would let the lawn go wild and in that moment I thought the lawn looked just like I felt. I thanked each of them and said “no.”

  • Food – If you are bringing food to a shiva minyan, be sensitive to the many dietary issues that may be involved. Does the family keep kosher? Are they vegetarian? Gluten free? It is good to bring things that won’t spoil if they are not put out right away. Shiva is not the best time for preservative free food; now is the time for the coffee cake with the two-month shelf life. Bring or send cut up fruit rather than a fruit basket. Few people know how to cut and serve a pineapple, and no one wants to take the one apple or banana. If you’re out of town, there are companies that ship food or you can contact a local specialty shop (for example, a cheese shop) and arrange to send something. While at the shiva house, ask if you can make up a plate for the mourners. They may forget to eat, but will do so if a plate is in front of them.

After shiva, help the family donate the leftover food. When I was a congregational rabbi, we had a relationship with a day shelter / soup kitchen a few blocks away from us. They were always thrilled with fresh fruit, sandwiches, casseroles, and anything that could add to the lunches and snacks they supplied every day. A food pantry might accept unopened food (like those coffee cakes.) If you can’t find a shelter or soup kitchen or it’s a holiday or weekend and they’re not open, call the local fire station. The fire station in my town was more than happy to take the leftover food from shiva when my friend Steffi called them.

Other things you can do at or after shiva:

  • Talk about the person who died. Mourners don’t want their loved one to be forgotten. It doesn’t hurt us to hear the name and it’s fine if we cry as you talk to us or tell a story.
  • Send a condolence card / letter. (Using the deceased’s name is best; if you don’t know the name then “your husband,” “your mother,” is better than getting the name wrong!)
  • If you have photographs & can get copies made – bring them and give them to the family. You can also email them or share them through a site like “Dropbox.”
  • Make a tzedakah contribution in memory of the person who died.
  • Open your calendar to some arbitrary day in the next 2 – 3 months and make a note to call the family.

It’s not easy to make a shiva call. It reminds us of our own mortality or our own losses or our fear of loss. We worry about saying or doing the “right thing.” But there are many “right things” we can do; the lists above are just a start. A simple “I’m so sorry” can be words enough. Our presence – sitting silently, giving a hug, making a phone call a few weeks or months later – says to the mourner that we are here, supporting them in their grief and offering comfort. Shiva visits also help to build and maintain the community that will one day be there for us as we face our own losses.


Rabbi Julie Wolkoff, D.Min., CT, is a hospice chaplain in Massachusetts and a past co-president of the WRN. Find her blogging at: https://fabricfiber.wordpress.com/

About wallcough

Trying to find beauty and joy in the world around me . I am many things, among them a quilter, a knitter, and an incessant reader. There is not enough time for them all, so I jump in between them as the mood hits me. Professionally - a rabbi; a hospice chaplain.
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