Simchas... a brit, bar/bat-mitzvah, a wedding... are life transitions which involve feelings of loss as well as happiness and joy. It is natural and easy for us to support our friends and relatives by sharing these transitions with them. It is enjoyable to be with someone who is experiencing so much "nachas". But when sadness strikes, especially in the form of a death, we feel very uncomfortable and it is difficult for us to comfort those we care about.
Death too, is a life transition. Funerals, shivas and the long months of mourning following a death, are times that we must mark with friends and relatives, with the same commitment and closeness that we share at times of celebration.
The only thing more painful than enduring grief, is enduring grief alone. Often, however, we are at a loss when in the company of someone who has recently experienced a death in the family. We wonder what to say, how to say it, or even if we should say it. While our intentions are to console or comfort our bereaved friends or relatives, it is difficult to know the best way to do this.
The members of the JFDA offer this advice:
The Jewish funeral ritual is not only a time honored tradition designed to take leave of the dead in a sensitive and dignified way, but also the foundation on which the process of mourning is built.
The chapel service provides the necessary environment for family and friends to share their grief, to confront the realities of death, to celebrate the achievements of life.
Recognizing the importance of the mourners to be surrounded by family and friends, Jewish tradition deems attending both the funeral and burial services to be a mitzvah, a religious obligation. For this reason we are required, whenever possible, to accompany the dead to the cemetery and to participate in the burial.
Like all other Jewish mourning rituals, the Shiva takes place within the context of community. All prayers are recited within a minyan, a quorum or ten adults, and throughout the shiva period, friends and family visit to offer support and condolences. The paradox of the shiva is that while the family can withdraw from the community, the community cannot withdraw from the family. This reminds the mourner that there are others who truly care.
People are often uncertain about what to say to the mourner. Jewish tradition encourages that visitors remain silent and wait until the mourner speaks first. Often silence can be very healing and soothing to those in deep emotional pain. Be willing to simply sit in silence, perhaps holding the mourner's hand, sharing a smile, communicating without words your concern and caring.
There are no words to take away grief so it is best just to listen. Your presence and acceptance is often more important than your advice.
Allow mourners the opportunity to talk about and express their feelings of loss and the pain of separation from a loved one. Do not attempt to change the topic or divert mourners from speaking about their painful feelings. If they wish to cry, allow them to do so, and do not attempt to stop the tears with statements like "be strong". Tears are not a sign of weakness; they are simply an indication of grief, and the funeral, shiva, and subsequent mourning periods are the time for grief.
Ask questions that will allow the mourner to talk with you about their grief. The Shiva is the ideal time for reminiscing and reflecting on the life of the person who has recently died. Do not hesitate to talk about the deceased whose memory is very much alive in the hearts and minds of loved ones. Share your own stories and recollections. This is a good time to bring out family photographs which evoke many pleasant moments of the past. Memories are treasures for the mourners who long for the dead person.
If you are feeling sad, share your tears. If you see humor in a certain memory, laugh. Laughter is a good way to regain energy, but do not use it as a distraction or to undermine the importance of grieving.
The paradox of being in mourning is that often the very person who would provide comfort in such a time of emotional distress, is the very person who is so badly missed. The person who would hug, hold and console the mourner is no longer available and neither are the hugs. If you have a close relationship with the bereaved, do not hesitate to hold, hug or at least touch them. Holding helps an individual feel temporarily safe and secure; a touch can be worth more than words.
Grief often makes people feel as if they are losing their minds; it makes them say and do things that are unusual for them. If you can accept them without passing judgment, you will communicate that you care about them unconditionally.
Grief can make daily living a burden. During and following Shiva, you can assist by providing meals, organizing a minyan, carpooling, grocery shopping, or helping the mourner seek legal advice. Help them, but allow them to remain in charge of their own lives. If you take on their responsibilities, they are left with less of a reason to carry on.
Grief is a process of adapting to change rather than "recovering". Be patient in allowing relatives or friends to "get over" their grief after Shiva. Jewish tradition prescribes saying Kaddish for the deceased for up to eleven months -and it usually takes at least that long for a mourner to feel like himself or herself again. At times it can be difficult to be in the company of a person who is experiencing acute emotional pain. However, in the face of suffering, your patience and compassion will make a difference in their healing process.