The passing of my mother last month placed me in the unenviable position of experiencing the Jewish mourning process for someone in my immediate family. It was my first time, and while I had a general idea of what to expect, one thing took me by surprise. While incredibly touched and warmed by the many forms of comfort I received from friends near and far, I was also distinctly aware of the people who did nothing. I noticed the ones who failed to make any kind of contact.
I understand and sympathize with the discomfort many people feel when they hear that someone has died. I’ve been there myself. But to give in to that and avoid the situation is much, much worse than facing the fear and doing something. Almost anything would be better than nothing.
It’s very common for people struck uncreative in the face of tragedy to ask the mourner what they can do. Based upon my experience, this isn’t a good idea. The mourner(s) may not be capable of thinking even five minutes ahead. It was hard for me to remember what to do after getting out of bed in the morning; everything that used to be automatic required great thought and effort, and it was completely overwhelming.
If, however, you do ask, and the mourner never tells you specifically how to help, it doesn’t mean your help isn’t wanted or needed. More likely, she wasn’t able to articulate her needs, or felt uncomfortable taking you up on your offer. After the loss of my mother, I didn’t want to be the one to assign tasks: I wanted people to simply do nice things for me. I needed to feel loved and cared for, and communication from others filled that need.
So I’ve created a list–three lists, in fact–of ways to help in situations like these. I’ve left off the obvious ideas, like visiting during shiva, because I know it can be hard to find the time. That’s the idea with these small gestures: most require very little effort–but if my experience is anything to go by, they’ll make a huge difference for the mourner.
Three minimum-effort ways to provide comfort at a time of loss:
1. If the mourner posted about his or her loss on social media, comment with a simple, “I’m so sorry for your loss.”
2. Send a text, an instant message, or an email that simply states, “I’m so sorry for your loss.”
3. Send a condolence card in the mail. No personal message is needed; the card is enough.
If you have more time, three moderate-effort ideas:
1. Make a donation to a synagogue in the name of the deceased. The mourner will be notified that you did this.
2. Make a donation to a cause or organization identified by the mourner. This is often mentioned in the obituary. The mourner will be notified that you did this.
3. Send or give the mourner a gift card to a grocery store or restaurant (even just $10 is fine). Mourners often forget to eat.
And finally, three things that take a bit more time and effort:
1. Make or buy nutritious food for the mourner and bring it over to the house. Remember, mourners often forget to eat.
2. Arrange for food to be delivered to the mourner from a restaurant or grocery store. Again, mourners often forget to eat, and a healthy body is important for emotional healing.
3. Stand next to the mourner when he or she says kaddish in the synagogue, to provide moral support and tissues.
Any of these things can be done after the week of shiva has concluded; there really isn’t a time limit for acts of kindness. In fact, I felt even more lonely after shiva, when all of the attention waned.
And that’s the real message: if there was ever a time when doing something–anything–is better than nothing, it’s when a friend has lost a loved one. Make the effort, however tiny. It matters.