Tracy Newman wrote amazing lists of things not to do—and to do—at a Shiva recently. It’s been three years since my mom passed and I also remember the things that helped and hurt. I thought I would add my own some concrete suggestions of things you can do to help in ways you might never have thought about.
Here are six things to do when you pay a shiva call.
1. Ask about allergies and think outside the food box.
Jews bring food after a death. You don’t walk into a house of mourning empty-handed. If there is any hard and fast rule of comforting the bereaved, that would be it. However, one phone call could make this mitzvah a true mitzvah. Ask about food allergies. I remember going to my cousin’s shiva. Her husband of 50 years had passed and the house was full of food she couldn’t eat. I seemed to be one of the few who remembered that she had celiac disease. So the kitchen was full of bagels and breads and cookies that were loaded with gluten.
When we were sitting shiva for my mother, my family had to give away a beautiful fish platter because three of us are violently allergic to seafood. Before you send/bring food, make certain that the mourning family can eat it.
Often when sending food for a shiva call, you are sending cold cuts and deli—Kosher or not. Though we were incredibly humbled and grateful for all that we were given, by the second day, my family could could barely look at cold cuts. I remember well when someone sent us Kosher fried chicken. It was different, delicious and fed our soul as well as our bodies.
2. Give a book.
In the days after my mother passed, someone sent me this book. “Remembering with Love: Messages of Hope for the First Year of Grieving and Beyond” by Elizabeth Levang, PhD and Sherokee Ilse. It helped. The little chapters containing simple poems and essays helped me in so many ways. It may not be everyone’s thing, but find a book, a cd, a children’s book for those with kids. This helps.
3. Talk about the deceased.
Tracy didn’t like being asked to talk about her mother on command, and I felt the same way. On the flip side though, I loved when I heard stories that I hadn’t known about my mother. One of my mom’s older friends painted me a wonderful picture of how my mom was as a young mother with her first two babies. It showed me a side of her I had never seen. While it made me miss her all the more—it also helped.
4. Ask to help with the hard stuff.
The hardest thing I have done after my mother’s death is going through her clothes. I would hold up a shirt and remember when we got it on a shopping expedition. I would see her laughing in it. I saw the bleach stains on one pantsuit. We had gotten matching pantsuits. I held that stained pantsuit. It wouldn’t fit me, I’d never wear it, but I couldn’t put it in the “out” pile. I just sat there. Crying. A friend of my mother’s had come and offered to help with this task. She handed me some tissues, told me to mop up and then asked. “Does it fit you? Could you or would you take the clothes apart for a quilt or something?” The answer was no.
“If someone could hide that bleach spot, wouldn’t it be a great interview suit?”
Gently, so gently, she took the suit from my hands and put it in the box of clothes to go away. There were many outfits, dresses, and shirts that made memories and she listened to me as I talked about them. She nudged me when I said that I wanted to stop. She was amazing. I always ask my friends if they need help with this task now. Some have taken me up on it, allowing my outsider’s perspective to help them sort the clothes. It is a huge mitzvah. It is a needed one.
5. Focus on the present, not your phone.
No one wants to cry on the shoulder of someone constantly checking their phone for the latest twitter update. This is not a selfie moment. I have a friend who was livid when she found pictures of her father’s shiva on Facebook and Instagram.
Also put your phones on vibrate. During the minyan service at a shiva I attended the phone rung. The ringtone? ACDC’s Highway to Hell. It’s funny now—and fortunately the mourner had enough of a sense of humor about it then, but it could have been avoided.
6. Cut the mourners some slack.
Mourning a loss is one of the hardest things we humans have to go through. No one is at their best. Did they snap at you? Understand that they most likely aren’t snapping at you—they are snapping at the relative who just made a horrible comment. They are snapping at the illness that took their loved ones.
When I snapped at people it was because somewhere in my mind I had a idea of how I should be acting, mourning, and helping my family and I wasn’t measuring up to it. One of my friends told me that I was making too much of things. (My mother had died—how was I making too much of things?) Instead of screaming at that friend I got prickly with others.
Understand how your friends are not at their best. They have had a hole ripped in the fabric of their lives. It is your job, as a friend, to help them re-knit as best as you can. Be the person you would want to have by your side during a loss.