Religion & Beliefs

Light My Fire: How to Make a Shivah Call

I'd been planning to post about Havdalah for this week's Light My Fire, but a good family friend passed away at the beginning of the week, and I found myself wondering what to do. When do you visit? What do … Read More

By / January 24, 2008

I'd been planning to post about Havdalah for this week's Light My Fire, but a good family friend passed away at the beginning of the week, and I found myself wondering what to do. When do you visit? What do you say? What do you bring? Judaism has a lot to say about what to do when someone dies. Last year, Tamar Fox offered some very helpful rules for making a respectful shivah call. More recently, Paulina Borsook blogged about her personal experience with the Jewish traditions around death and dying, which she calls "simply the best." Here are a few of the rules that will help you find your way, and below are a handful basic guidelines to help you help a mourner.

  • Unless you are family or very close friends, it's traditional to wait three days before making a shivah call.
  • You're there to offer support, and your presence alone may be enough. Don't feel obligated to wax poetic about the deceased, or to lighten the mood. Let the mourner take the lead in the conversation, listen if they need to speak, and remember that it's acceptable to just be quiet. I tend to give an Angel Catcher–a journal of loss and remembrance–to those who I believe may benefit from it in the long run.
  • If there are memories, feelings, or extended thoughts you want to share, consider writing a note. This will allow the mourner to read and process it in their own time and on their own terms.
  • Though cooking and cleaning the house are the two forms of work Jewish mourners are permitted to do, and while it isn't required to provide food, preparing and arranging food for a mourner can be a welcome assistance. Think practically about what to bring: What's healthiest? Most sustaining? What will last the longest? Remember, this is not a time for frivolity or pleasure.
  • Be sensitive to the amount of time you spend with a mourner. It's important to visit and let them know they are not alone, but it's also important not to overstay your welcome. Trust your instincts: If you think it's time to go, it probably is.
  • In some communities, mourners walk around the block to indicate the conclusion of the shivah week. Whether you join them for this ritual or not, remember that their mourning continues. Unless they've lost a parent, the entire mourning period is 30 days. If they've lost a parent, the mourning period is one year.

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