How to Make a Shiva Call
Because a shiva call requires total sensitivity to the needs of the mourner, the tradition mandates appropriate behaviors for the visitor.
Reprinted with permission from Wrestling with the Angel: Jewish Insights on Death and Mourning, edited by Jack Riemer (published by Schocken Books).
We are not alone. This is the fundamental message of Judaism about death and bereavement. Every law and every custom of Jewish mourning and comforting has, at its core, the overwhelming motivation to surround those who are dying and those who will grieve with a supportive community. While some may argue that facing death and coping with grief heighten one's feeling of aloneness, the Jewish approach places loss and grief in the communal context of family and friends.
Comforters are obligated to tend to the needs of mourners. For instance, since a family sitting shiva [seven days of mourning following a death] should not prepare meals, it is the responsibility of the community to feed them. Some people send prepared foods from local caterers, and many Jewish newspapers carry ads for "shiva trays." With our busy, frenetic lives, it is certainly convenient to turn to these sources. Yet personally prepared and/or delivered food is a more traditional act of comfort. Liquor, candy, or flowers are not usually sent. A donation to a charity designated by the mourners would be another appropriate way to honor the deceased, while comforting those who mourn.
As a comforter, making a shiva call is one of the most important acts of condolence. But all too often those visiting a mourner's home are not sure of the appropriate behavior. David Techner, funeral director at the Ira Kaufman Chapel in Detroit and a leading expert in the field, suggests that many people do not have the slightest idea as to why they even make the shiva call. "People need to ask themselves: 'What am I trying to do?' When people say things like, 'At least he's not suffering,' who are they trying to make comfortable? Certainly not the mourner. People say things like that so that they do not have to deal with the mourner's grief. The comment is for themselves, not the mourner."
In my interviews with rabbis, funeral directors, psychologists, and lay people for my book, A Time to Mourn, A Time to Comfort, I discovered that the act of comforting the mourner is quickly becoming a lost art. We do not know what to do, so many people avoid making a shiva call altogether. We do not know what to say, so many people say things that are more hurtful than helpful. We do not know how to act, so often the atmosphere is more festive than reflective.