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shiva

11 Things You Shouldn’t Do at a Shiva

closeup to burning candles in darkness

I have just returned from taking a walk around my block (though I’m not exactly sure if I started on the right side, as Chabad.com instructed me to do when I looked up this ritual).

There is fresh snow on the ground, and I imagine how it looks, covering the brown earth of my mother’s newly dug grave.

Bagels upon bagels have been eaten.

Leftover deli platters have been brought to the local homeless shelter.

Tears have been shed. Many, many tears.

Hugs exchanged.

Reconciliations offered and accepted, with hopes that they will endure into the future.

And after it all, one final truth remains: My mother—my vibrant, warm-hearted, zealously gluten-free mother—is gone.

How did that happen? I can’t even begin to go there, or possibly understand the enormity of it all. But for now, I can only superficially reflect on the past seven days. The week that has passed since my beautiful, yoga-loving, grandchild-idolizing mother took her impossibly last, ventilator-assisted breath.

And the shiva that my family and I observed in her honor.

So what about this shiva? These days of mirror-covering, ripped ribbon-wearing, cardboard-box sitting (and did I mention bagel-eating) mourning? They flew by in a haze. Sleepless nights and caffeine-fueled days passing by, much the way they did when we were in the hospital with my mom. But this week, instead of keeping track of whether my mom took a few bites of her baked halibut, or if her supply of chemo was being punctually replenished, or what her white blood cell count was, we looked at old pictures, unwrapped platters of food, held each other, and cried.

And so now, while the memories are still fresh, I am compelled to reflect on comments made by some of our well-intentioned, though slightly clueless friends and family. For the greater good of future mourners, I offer these examples of what not to say during shiva:

1. “How are you?”

This one is a classic no-no that so many people from rabbis to relatives to repairmen asked anyway. Why is it supposed to be off-limits? Because there’s no good response. Am I bereft from her loss? Relieved that her broken body isn’t causing her any more pain? Terrified that my children will forget their grandmother? Guilty over all the times I hurt her feelings, failed to appreciate her love, and was generally an ungrateful daughter? All of the above? Yes, so please don’t ask.

2. “You look tired.”

With that remark, I’m assuming you’ve noticed that I haven’t been getting my beauty rest. But I actually think that’s part of why we cover mirrors during shiva—aren’t I allowed to forget about my appearance? So, OK, let’s say you’re really curious about the reason for those dark circles under my eyes. That’s fine—I can tell you all about the sleepless nights worrying, wondering, wishing that have passed since we learned of my mother’s diagnosis. Or the multiple middle-of-the-night phone calls we’ve received bearing the worst news imaginable. Or how fast I’ve driven to the hospital, heart-pounding, cold-sweating, hands trembling, in the predawn hours.

3. “Did you know, I have a kind of cancer that’s really similar to what your mom had?”

No, I didn’t. And I’m terribly sorry, but you’re standing here, next to me, and we left my mom at the cemetery. So, honestly, I don’t want, and really can’t, hear anything about that right now.

4. “We just went through something similar.”

I’m sorry if you’ve recently experienced a loss, perhaps of a beloved family member. But right now, that comment seems kind of impossible. Every person is different. Every relationship is different. And you can’t pretend to know what I am feeling right now.

5. “The husbands should all be rewarded for missing the Super Bowl.”

How interesting that someone would observe how the mourners’ spouses are sacrificing the opportunity to watch an annual sporting event to sit shiva for their mother-in-law. But as we said in law school: respectfully, I disagree. Of course they should be supporting their wives. Grieving for the loss of someone they cared about, perhaps even loved. And you should just know that.

6. “The person who is suffering the most is…”

Not sure why anyone thinks degrees of grief should be ranked. Last time I checked, mourning was not a competitive sport. And no one knows how anyone else is suffering or coping.

Though, I have to admit that this comment wasn’t actually said. It was posted on Facebook.

And, no, I didn’t share it on my timeline.

7. “It’s a good thing it wasn’t a long, drawn-out illness.”

Is it a good thing? I don’t know. That month of unspeakable and ultimately futile interventions and discomfort actually felt pretty endless. And those painful moments that I keep replaying in my mind prolong the agony even more. Still, you think that a month isn’t bad? Well, considering that my family was too naïve or oblivious to realize how things would end, we never got to say goodbye to my mother, so we were completely unprepared for her to leave us.

8. “Is there any more bread?”

I don’t know. Is there?

9. “Tell me about your mom.”

Though well-meaning, please don’t ask me to give an easily digestible overview of my mother or her life to you right now. I appreciate that you came here as my friend, in support of me and my loss, but I don’t quite have the strength to summarize her entire existence to you right now.

10. “Was she suffering? Was she in pain?”

Yup. She was. And we all were. And still are.

11. Anything else that relates to your fears about losing your mom or your gratitude that it wasn’t you and your family.

As you may already know, shiva is sad. Everyone is shaken up. The mourners. Their friends and family. But please remember that you are there to show your love or support or sadness for people who may really be hurting badly inside.

In fact, I highly recommend the approach that less is more. Offer a simple hug or the words, “I’m sorry.” They’re probably more than enough.

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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