A good friend of mine recently lost her father, and after shiva (the mourning period following the death of an immediate family member) had ended, she called me up and said, “I had no idea how to be a good shiva guest.”
Unfortunately, because I have suffered several losses, I have some insight into what can be helpful, and conversely, not so helpful, during this difficult time. If you haven’t sat shiva before, or you’re looking for the best ways to support the grieving family, here are a few tips to help you be a terrific shiva guest.
1. Before shiva even begins, ask if you can pick up specific items, such as paper goods, soda, coffee, etc. With funeral arrangements to be made, the mourner may not have time to run errands or get to Costco to pick up these items.
2. Offer to help organize meals being sent. This will eliminate three meals coming on one night and none the next.
3. Offer to be there to accept food on the day of the funeral and prepare the house for shiva by covering the mirrors and placing a pitcher of water outside the front door for those who attended the funeral to use to wash their hands when they return from the cemetery.
4. Be a good listener. Allow the mourner to talk about their loved one (or anything else they want to talk about) and just listen. Today is not about you; your job is to comfort the bereaved. Refrain from talking about yourself unless asked.
5. Help clean up and pack up food. There will be work to be done. Take saran wrap and freezer bags and get to it.
6. If attendance looks light, try and be there for the evening prayer service to ensure that there will be a minyan (quorum of 10 required to recite group prayers) so that the mourner can say Kaddish (the prayer for the dead).
7. Do think about how you can help the mourner. When my father died, one friend offered to bring my youngest son home from sleepaway camp so he could attend the funeral, and another offered to walk our dog because she knew the service and burial would take many hours. Sometimes a little thing can mean a lot.
8. Make a donation in honor of the deceased. Ask the mourners which charity they would find most meaningful.
1. Don’t bring cookies. The mourners will end up with 97 boxes of cookies and will be even more depressed when they gain weight. Dried fruit or nuts are a better option if you feel the need to walk in with dessert or snack food.
2. If you want to send or bring fruit, a basket with uncut fruit such as apples, pears, and oranges or a fresh fruit platter are a better idea than the cut up fruit on skewers. Although those arrangements look beautiful (and are expensive), they tend to spoil rather quickly and go to waste. They are also hard to store in the refrigerator.
3. In the Conservative and Reform movements, the mourners often set hours for shiva and there is a reason for this. I know I desperately needed a break from the constant stream of people. Respect those hours and do not show up right before, after, or during dinner hours. It’s harder than you think to make chit chat all day and a few quiet hours are necessary to recharge.
4. Don’t stay too long. An hour is more than enough time to spend at a shiva. Allow other people the chance to pay their respects to the mourners.
5. If you were unable to attend the funeral or shiva, don’t offer lame excuses. The mourner really doesn’t want to hear about the workman you had to wait for or your cat who needed to go to the vet. Express your condolences and offer to take them out to lunch another day.
One of the most important things you can do is to continue to be there for the mourner after shiva has ended. Just because you have moved on, do not expect that they have, and do not judge their grieving process. Mourning can be painful and lengthy.
I was extremely grateful to those who got it right when I sat shiva and tried to be understanding of those who didn’t, realizing that they probably didn’t know what to do or say because they had not yet had the experience of being a mourner. The most any of us can do is try to learn from our experiences and strive to do better.
And may the memories of our loved ones be a blessing.