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Cruel Comfort
Rabbi Benjamin Blech

Cruel Comfort

Dos and don'ts at a shiva house.


I just came home from paying my respects at a house of mourning and I'm furious.

How can people be so insensitive and so stupid, I wonder to myself, as I witnessed yet again the unintentional cruelty of those who came to comfort but instead conveyed messages that only added more pain to the grieving.

Thankfully I've never heard anything as outrageous as the reported request to the newly widowed mother of three for her deceased husband's golf clubs so that "his memory will live on in a meaningful way." But what I've seen all too often is almost as appalling.

Making it all the more upsetting is the unique significance of the circumstances. A lapse of proper etiquette in a social setting can readily be forgiven; actions that exacerbate the pain of someone already profoundly suffering are indefensible.

Let me share with you some of my more recent experiences.

We can't know they feel because every tragedy is different.

Didn't anyone understand that saying "I know just how you feel" isn't helpful? It's minimizing a mourner's tragedy to imply that those unaffected can really comprehend the severity of another person's loss. We can't know -- because every tragedy is different.

I was inconsolable after my parents died. But I still wasn’t able to fully comprehend mourning in the same way as one of my dearest friends in Israel when she lost her child in a terrorist attack. She put it succinctly when she wrote to me: "With the death of a husband, you lose your present; with the death of a parent, the past; but with the death of a child you lose your future. None of them can be compared to each other."

Perhaps Shakespeare best captured the irony: "Everyone can master a grief but he that hath it." Real comfort can only come from those who don't exaggerate their empathy.

Far worse, though, were those whose "comforting" counsel was "Try not to think about it." What they were really suggesting is that departed loved ones deserve to be forgotten. They would prefer that survivors be disloyal to memories in order to avoid being troubled by unpleasant conversation.

The truth, of course, is that mourners need to work through their grief. They have every right to hold on to their recollections for as long as required, even if their reminiscences are stained with tears. "Thinking about it" is the only way they can get through their misery. "When grief is fresh," Samuel Johnson wrote, "every attempt to divert only irritates. You must wait till grief be digested, and then amusement will dissipate the remains of it."

That is why Judaism, in its wisdom, teaches that we are forbidden to convey words of consolation “in the presence of the deceased.” It is simply too soon to offer platitudes. Mourners have a right to weep. And even after the burial, during the time of the shiva, the seven days dedicated to remembering everything that the departed meant to us, tears have their place as a vital part of the healing process.

For true chutzpah, I can't forget the troubadours of joy in a place set aside for bereavement. "Cheer up" is the advice I've heard far too many times, a recommendation about as absurd as it is disrespectful. What colossal chutzpah to suggest joyfulness at a time of tragedy. Geoffrey Gorer, in his classic work, Death, Grief, and Mourning put it well: "Giving way to grief is stigmatized as morbid, unhealthy, demoralizing…. Mourning is treated as if it were a weakness, a self- indulgence, a reprehensible bad habit instead of a psychological necessity." Telling mourners to change their mood is much more than inappropriate. It is extremely harmful to those who require the catharsis of grieving.

But the award for the most hurtful of misplaced attempts to reflect on the death of someone's loved one must surely be "the gift of guilt" I have witnessed on innumerable occasions. Maybe you should have… is followed by a philosophic exploration of how it might have been possible, had the survivors only done something differently for the deceased to have avoided his appointment with the Angel of Death.

Imagine what comfort it must have been for the grieving widow to hear, "I wish you would have used my doctor -- he might have saved him." Think of how painful it had to be for the father to be told, "Guess you never should have let her take the car." Yes, I even heard a visitor to the home of the mourners for a 9/11 victim share the brilliant insight that "If he would only have gone to medical school as I suggested instead of becoming a stockbroker, he never would have been in the World Trade Center when it happened"! Why in the world would anyone believe that blaming those who weep for what can no longer be changed can bring them any measure of solace?

All these misguided efforts amply illustrate the powerful truth of a beautiful Jewish proverb: God created us with two ears and only one mouth in order to teach us that it's far more important for us to listen than it is to speak.

Just Be There

That's why I've come to a personal conclusion about what it is that makes a condolence call best fulfill its function. In three words: just be there. What mourners need most is the gift of you.

What mourners need most is the gift of you. Just be there.

Words often miss their mark. They may hurt as often as they heal. What leaves no room for misunderstanding, however, is a simple hug, a shared tear, the language conveyed by our presence.

It is a truth I came to best realize in one of the most remarkable shiva visits I ever witnessed. The mourner was a young widow, a mother of four, who had suddenly and without warning lost her husband, a brilliant Talmudic scholar and revered teacher of hundreds of devoted students. We came to the shiva house, colleagues, friends and disciples. None of us knew what to say. Nervously, we attempted some conversation. All eyes suddenly turned to the door as we noticed the arrival of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, of blessed memory, one of the greatest rabbinic luminaries of the generation.

We held our breaths in anticipation. What would this great scholar have to say to the widow? What wisdom would he be able to impart to ease her suffering? What could we learn from the way he handled the situation?

Rabbi Feinstein started to tell the mourners what a great man the deceased was, how learned, how pious, how righteous. But after no more than two sentences the rabbi choked up and could say no more. He wept, tried again -- and then remained silent. He sat for about 20 minutes all the while making clear his grief. He then rose and offered the traditional words recited for the occasion: “May the Lord comfort you amongst the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”

And after he was gone and for many days thereafter the widow would tell everyone how much she had gained from that visit.

No, it was not the words that mattered. None of us will ever find words comforting enough, wise enough, profound enough to undo the tragedy or to minimize it. It was simply fulfilling what Jewish law teaches us to do at a time such as this. We are to show by our presence that we too are affected by the loss. We are to demonstrate by our sorrow that we share in some measure the pain of the mourners. We are to illustrate by recounting our memories of the departed that the life that is no more will continue in our minds and in our hearts, offering a measure of immortality to the deceased. We are to make clear to those who suffer that we will always continue to be there for them because we are part of a greater community that understands that all of us are responsible one for another.

This is why shiva, when properly observed, has the power to console and to comfort countless generations.

Click here for a one page practical guide on how to pay a shiva call.

November 28, 2009

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Visitor Comments: 33

(33) Anonymous, October 6, 2013 1:49 AM

Think before you speak

The Rabbi at my Father's service didn't know my father.
Somehow something went amiss. Having lived so long in the Midwest & since Dad died near St Patrick's Day someone in the family commented about this to the Rabbi. How unusual
to mention this very non-Jewish day at the funeral of a man who was very spiritual and who always believed in G-d. Even a Rabbi can make a mistake. Just think people . That's all you have to do!!

(32) Anonymous, March 21, 2011 7:56 PM

Well expressed idea

Thank you once again for putting such a poignant idea into precise words.

(31) Anonymous, June 27, 2010 6:06 AM

Crying at Shiva

When my best friend passed, I went to Shiva and I just broke down and cried and cried. I could not help this, I loved her so much, she was like a second mother to me. Was this wrong of me? was it rude? its been over a month, I am still sad and depressed,

(30) Anonymous, February 10, 2010 7:14 AM

Thank you

Thank you, I have always been uncomfortable when visiting relatives of a decease.I have been afraid of saying the wrong thing to them. Now I know, that not saying anything, just being there, is acceptable.

(29) Sofer Elam, December 31, 2009 4:59 AM

People can really say things that hurt.......

When my Son Michael was murdered on September first, boss assumed that he had committed suicide. About a day after his death my boss came by to pay his respects and stated ..."your son was a coward for killing himself". I was angered and hurt instantly. I let him know in no uncertain terms that my son hadn't done such a thing. He was trying to let me know that he thought a lot of me and felt sory that my son could have done such a thing to his family. Obviously, when the investigation revealed what had happened to my son and his friend that was killed with him, my boss apologized. Even then, he was still bumbling. He asked one question after another about shiva. On and on about why our mirrors were covered and why we didn't go to a local funeral home. I didn't have the inclination to explain a Jewish funeral and I didn't invite him or any of the other employees. When I returned to work, the questions and comments kept leaking into conversations. I just couldn't get those first comments out of my head. Finally, after a week back on the job, I walked in to my bosses office and quit. After that experience, I was careful to apply at firms that had at least a few other Jews on the job. Anyone can say or do or act in some way that offends a grieving person. However, cultural differences can certainly make these comments cut deeper. I let the whole thing become a learning experience. I'm careful what I say when I go to someones home during shiva. This article is certainly helpful. I hope a lot of people read it. Yeshar Koach!

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