Withholding / Delaying Notification of Death
My father passed away about 3 weeks ago. We decided at the time not to notify his brother whose health is precarious and whose mental acuity is not 100%. On the other hand, as a result, my uncle never sat shiva with the family. It feels very awkward to me, especially since family members regularly visit him and I can’t imagine the subject will not come up. I’ve heard that in such situations people sometimes tell the relative at a later date. Is that appropriate?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
I’m very sorry about your father’s passing, first of all. May his soul find peace in heaven and may he be a worthy advocate for the entire family.
In terms of your question, the truth is, by the letter of the law, there is no obligation to inform a person that his relative died – even though as a result he will not observe the laws of mourning. This follows the principle that we avoid spreading bad news. It is also not considered causing him to sin inadvertently by not mourning his relative. Since he did not know about his relative’s passing, he had no obligation to mourn. (The only exceptions are the sons who will have to recite Kaddish for their father.)
In practice, however, since the relatives are bound to find out anyway and would be quite upset if such devastating news were withheld from them, we do inform all relatives. The exception is a relative who is in failing health. If there is any possibility that the distressing news might aggravate his health, he should not be informed. (See Shulchan Aruch Y.D. 337:1 and 402:12.)
In your uncle’s case it sounds like it would be better not to notify him of the death at all. It sounds like nothing would be gained from it. The relatives should try their best to be careful in his presence, especially when the subject of your father comes up. (I should add that although we avoid sharing bad news, we are not allowed to lie for that purpose. If such a person would ask point blank if his relative is still alive, we would have to admit it to him. If on the other hand he is not entirely lucid, the issue can usually be skirted.)
There are times when the family feels an older relative should be told, but not right away. Say for example he is physically and mentally sound and is sure to find out sooner or later, but sitting shiva for an entire week would be too much for him. In such a case it might be appropriate to delay notification. If he first hears about his relative’s passing 30 days later, the laws of mourning are much more lenient. The 30 days are counted from the deceased’s passing rather than his burial, but the notification must be after 30 days rather than on the 30th day (Gesher HaChaim 24:1:(6)). (The situation is known as a sh’muah rechokah – a distant notification.)
Note that this situation requires a careful judgment call. If the relative will become agitated that the news was wilfully withheld from him for so long, it would be better to notify him immediately.
The laws of mourning for a delayed notification are as follows:
(1) The mourner does not tear his garment unless it’s for a parent (402:4). He should recite the blessing “dayan ha’emes” (“the True Judge”) on hearing the sad news.
(2) He should do a single act of mourning – such as removing his (leather) shoes or sitting on a low chair – for a short time (402:2).