Knowing what to say to a mourner is never easy. What are the words of comfort? Can I help to ease the pain? I want to express my condolences sincerely, but the words seem so inadequate. Or, perhaps I will say the wrong thing- something I intend to be well-meaning – but is received as hurtful?
WHAT CAN I SAY?
In the Bible, we learn from the example of three friends who come to comfort Job as he grieves for his ten children: “And they sat down with him upon the ground seven days and seven nights, and none spoke a word to him, for they saw that his grief was very great. After this, Job began to speak…” (Job 2:12-13) Jewish tradition derived three principles of comforting the mourner from this text: BE THERE, SPEAK IN SILENCE and HEAR WITH A HEART.
If there is one fundamental message of Judaism about death and bereavement it is this: We are not alone. When a loved one dies, the
feeling of being alone is overwhelming. That is why the goal of Jewish comforting is to surround the mourner with a supportive community. Be there. Be there at the funeral. Be there at the shiva home. Be there during the difficult days, weeks, and months ahead. Without a word, your presence says “I am here for you. You are not alone.”
SPEAK IN SILENCE
Ironically, silence is often the most powerful language of all. It is perhaps the best way to begin a conversation with a mourner. A warm embrace, an arm around a shoulder, a sincere look, the sharing of tears together – these are the non-verbal messages to the bereaved that say more than a thousand words. Jewish tradition suggests that comforters say nothing until the mourner begins to speak. Let the mourner take the lead. Some will want to talk, to tell the story, to share their feelings. Some will not. Do not fear silence. Offer a hug, a hand, a touch that says “I understand. ‘I accept your feelings another way you are expressing them. Go ahead. I’ll be here for you.“
HEAR WITH A HEART
There is great power in presenting yourself to the mourning as an empathetic listener. Real hearing is silent – no interruptions, no judgments, no denials, no problem-solving – just hearing with the heart .
This is not easy to do. We all want to fix things. We all want to make things better. We all want to take the grief away. But we cannot. Nor should we try. For when we do, we often say the wrong thing:
“Time will heal. ”
“I know exactly how you feel. ”
“It’s probably for the best.” “Be strong.”
“What my mother went through when she died…”
“You’re young. You’ll have another child. ”
“It’ll be all right. ”
For most bereaved, it is definitely not “all right.” A loved one has died and the grief-work must proceed for the person to be psychologically healed. One of the most important gifts you can give to a mourner is the full, complete and non-judgmental acceptance of the person’s feelings, thoughts, and behaviors, no matter how explosive, no matter how “embarrassing,” no matter how much you wane desperately to reassure the mourner that things will be better. It is the mourner who must do the grief-work, not you. It is the mourner who must come up with answers, not you.
It is the mourner who must speak, not you.
WHAT TO SAY TO A MOURNER
You have come to the shiva home. You have offered your nonverbal greeting. Now comes the awkward moment when you have to say something. What can I say? Here are a few suggestions for opening a conversation with a mourner:
“I’m so sorry to hear about your loss.”
“I’m so sorry about your (mother; brother; etc. or name the deceased)”
“I don’t know what to say. This must be really tough for you.”
“I hurt for you ”
“(Name the deceased) loved you so much.”
“I hope you can hold on to the good memories.”
”Do you feel like talking?”
If the answer to the last question is “no,” suggest another time. Often mourners are too exhausted to talk. Or, they may be tired. of telling the same story over and over again. On the other hand, if they indicate a willingness to talk, you may want to ask a simple “What happened?”
As the mourner talks, keep in mind these suggestions for helpful conversations
- Listen non-judgmentally. Mourners don’t want to be told their feelings are wrong.
- Pay attention. Give your undivided attention. Try to get on eye-level with the mourner, establish eye contact, lean forward, hold hands, nod your head and use nonverbal expressions to encourage the mourner to continue the conversation.
- Don’t interrupt. Give the bereaved all the time he or she needs to speak without jumping in to finish a thought or to hurry the
- Don’t give rational answers. The death of a loved one cannot be explained away with logic.
- Don’t compare experiences. Grief is not a competitive. The last thing a mourner wants to hear about is your loss. Some mourners do feel a connection with someone whose loved one went through a similar illness and death, but if you must speak of your loss, it’s important to qualify your comments with the statement, “I can’t know how you feel, but when my...”
You may also want to offer your help, but make a specific suggestion: “Can I bring dinner tomorrow?” is a much better approach than the vague “Is there anything I can do?”
Many of us have been in shiva homes where there was more talk about the news, sports and weather, more sharing of gossip and jokes, than memories of the deceased. We do this in part because we are uncomfortable with death and grief. But we also do this because we aren’t sure what is appropriate conversation in the home of a mourner.
The rabbis who created the Jewish approach to bereavement knew that there would be talk of death, but they also wanted talk of life. Specifically, talk of the life of the deceased. The eulogy at the funeral is designed precisely for this purpose – to stimulate a life-review and to conjure up memories of the loved one.
Those who seek to comfort can continue this process by sharing personal memories of special times with the mourner and the deceased: “I remember when you and your mother went with us to the theater…” Or, recall a favorite characteristic of the deceased: “I’ll never forget what a generous man your father was…” When the time is right, you might even share a humorous incident. The laughter, though bitter sweet, can be very therapeutic for the mourner. If you did not know the deceased, ask the mourner about photos or other mementos that may be displayed in the home.
Enabling the mourner to share these stories helps them crystallize and record fond memories of the deceased in the heart and mind. This is one of the major goals of the bereavement period. It is also one of the most comforting things we can do.
WHAT CAN I BRING?
When making a condolence call, it is appropriate to bring a token of your support. During the shiva bereavement period, it is customary for the community to enable the mourners to concentrate on their grief by providing for their sustenance. This explains why gifts of food are often brought to the home where the shiva is being held. Cakes and cookies are popular choices, although one should inquire about the level of kashrut observed in the home. A safe choice for any home is a fruit basket. Flowers, liquor and candy are usually considered too festive for a house of mourning. A meaningful and much appreciated alternative to food is to make a donation in memory of the deceased to a charity designated by the mourners.
WHAT CAN I WRITE?
Condolence letters are another source of comfort to mourners. The words of sympathy and memory are welcome reminders to the bereaved that you are thinking about them. A good condolence letter acknowledges the loss and names the deceased, uses words of sympathy that share your sorrow, notes special qualities of the deceased, recalls a memory about the deceased, reminds the bereaved of their personal strengths, and offers specific help.
~ What Can I Say / Words of Comfort / What to say to a Mourner was written by Dr. Ron Wolfson
Dr. Ron Wolfson is Vice President, Director of the Shirley and Arthur Whizin Institute for Jewish Family Life, and William and Freda Fingerhut Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Judaism. He is the author of A Time to Mourn, A Time to Comfort in The Art of Jewish Living series published by the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs and the University of Judaism (1994).