Things not to say to mourners (and some things you can do instead)

by Esther D. Kustanowitz


When friends announce on Facebook that a loved one needs prayers, or is in the hospital, or that they’re going through a hard time, I get a sinking feeling. And while recovery sometimes happens, sometimes, it doesn’t. So when I read, “I am heartbroken to announce …,” my heart breaks, and the pain of my own loss reawakens, in sympathy for the end of a life and for what is to follow for those still with us — a year mourning the loss through text, ritual and the communal embrace that is vital, but stands in contrast with grief’s frequent companion: a stark and searing sense of solitude.

Death is part of the organic fabric of life, our liturgy tells us, arriving sometimes in a timely manner and sometimes in a shocking and unexpected instant years or decades too soon. But regardless of the individual circumstances surrounding a loss, family members and friends are left to mourn and to try to move through the grief to live their lives in a new normal.

Jewish rituals provide a year of structure for rudderless mourners, with customs that encourage communal engagement while acknowledging that the year is one in which the mourner is set apart from and different than the embracing community. While this state traditionally lasts a prescribed year, in emotional reality, it tends to linger. Five years after my mother’s death, when people check in on me, I’m grateful; Judaism says that I have been done with mourning for the span of a college education, but that doesn’t mean I’m back to the me I was before. It doesn’t mean that my mother’s absence from the world doesn’t affect me anymore. It’s just different.

I remember those first few months, and how many people, hoping to utter words of comfort, instead spewed forth words of frustration, anger, pain and even insensitivity. They were probably as appalled as I was, but I know — and I hope they know that I know — that their hearts were in the right place. I believe they were so concerned about saying the wrong thing that they often said something even less appropriate.

Each mourner is different. Each grief circumstance is different. Each person finds comfort differently, in different gestures and phrases. But here are seven things — in honor of the traditional seven days of shivah — that everyone should try to avoid saying, along with a few things you can do or say instead to express your love and concern for someone who is experiencing a loss.

Avoid awkward moments engaging the mourner, conversationally or physically. There’s a tradition to leave the conversational initiative entirely to the bereaved, to wait until he or she wants to speak. Some mourners crave the physical embrace of community, while others prefer a spiritual support and company, but not literal embraces (especially from virtual strangers). While challenging to all of us who love words and fear silence, or who are more inclined toward long and crushing hugs to convey what’s in our hearts, sitting quietly in a room next to someone who is grieving can send a powerful, wordless message of presence and support (even if you don’t touch).

“Read” the mourner and be mindful of your relationship with him or her. Are you a close friend, whose embrace the mourner may be expecting, or are you an acquaintance who hugs as an alternative to conversation? If you’re concerned about the potential awkwardness of your physical or verbal interaction, ask the rabbi or a relative what kind of support the mourner may want. You can also ask the mourners if they would like a hug, and don’t be offended if they say no — not everyone wants to be touched by everyone.

Avoid commentary about the illness or the last moments of the deceased. “At least your loved one’s suffering is over” falls into a category of things that people inside and outside the immediate family may think quietly, especially if the deceased has been through a long or public illness, but should not say. Similarly, “at least s/he didn’t suffer,” or “what a blessing that it happened so fast.” You are not the coroner, so don’t offer your opinion on the cause of death or its nature. Instead, sit quietly with the mourner for a while — if there’s an appropriate opening, gently ask the mourner to share their favorite memories or most memorable moments.

Avoid making comments about the afterlife. In some religious communities, it’s comforting to devout people to think about their loved one being “in a better place,” “taking his place at God’s side” or (as I’ve heard religious Christians say) “going to Jesus.” But, emotionally, most mourners do not find comfort in this concept (especially “God needed another angel”). Is there an afterlife? Heaven? Hell? Olam ha-ba, where you study Talmud all day? No one knows; there are too many theological and emotional potholes in grief’s road to cover over with religious speculation about the afterlife. Instead, focus on this life: “I hope the community is the right kind of supportive when you need it. And I’m always available to help you.” (More on this in the next paragraph.)

Avoid: “Is there anything I can do?” Think about the vastness of the word “anything,” and the one thing it cannot include: the return of the lost loved one. Also, offers to help are something mourners receive in abundance at funerals and at shivah, but as time goes on, the offers trickle down to nothing. A year in, people who haven’t been through a loss themselves may assume you’re “fine.” And while you probably will be functional to some degree, at least, you’re probably not “fine.” Instead, if you’re offering assistance, get specific — grocery shopping, picking up kids from school or activities, baby-sitting so that the mourner can have some personal time. Specific offers give the mourner a chance to say “yes” or “no, thanks,” but without challenging them to think deeply about what they need and what you can and cannot provide. And if you’re a friend who really wants to be supportive, offer assistance even after shivah, or during the year of mourning, or beyond, after the offers have faded away but the need for support remains.

Avoid judgmental commentary about the funeral, the shivah or about how the mourner is grieving. 

In many communities, there is variation in how people participate in mourning rituals. For instance, traditionally, shivah is held for seven days (shiv’ah means “seven” in Hebrew) for a close blood relative (parent, sibling or, God forbid, a child) or a spouse, and in a designated year of mourning, traditionally mourners abstain from “celebration.” But some (especially the non-Orthodox) are altering these traditions to fit their lives: sitting shivah for an aunt, uncle or grandparent, or only observing a few days of shivah. People want to connect to Jewish meaning and tradition, but not necessarily in a strictly Orthodox halachic framework. Saying things like “you’re not supposed to” or “not allowed to” grieve in a specific way is counter-supportive: The function of shivah, in particular, is to help the community gather around a mourner for support, not criticize the depth of their feelings or the minutiae of their approach to mourning. So don’t render a judgment as to whether it’s appropriate or halachic. Instead, if you’ve ever been on the inside of a year of mourning, you can offer, “If you ever want to know what helped me, I’m happy to share.” And if you haven’t been, just be there and listen.

Avoid over-empathizing with the mourner’s experience and emotional state. While this comes from a good place, saying, “I know exactly what you’re going through” minimizes the intensity of the mourner’s emotional state and shifts the conversation to being about you. For most mourners, especially at funerals and during shivah, this is not comforting; it’s a negation of their special status in that space. Occasionally, people double down on these kinds of statements, following up with an anecdote about a deceased pet or another “loss” story that isn’t equivalent — because no story of loss is ever really equivalent. Instead, saying, “I can’t imagine how hard this is for you,” or “I know it’s not the same, but I have some experience with loss if you ever want to talk,” is a better approach.

Avoid using shivah as an excuse to badmouth the community or its members. While this might seem a simple enough thing to avoid, the essential awkwardness that people feel when trying to comfort a community member may result in people blurting out things that are unintentionally hurtful. This may include criticizing the eulogies or the funeral service, or gossiping about the community’s failure to let everyone know the funeral was happening. Listen to the mourner. That’s why you’re there, to offer presence, an ear, and words of consolation when you have them. In most cases, that’s enough.

May we all know only simchas. But in the unfortunately inevitable event of a tragedy, let us focus our love and respect on the needs of those who are in the center of the grief circle, and may we as community members take seriously the sacred privilege of helping those who suffer to know that they are not alone.

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