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.

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Recall something personal: "I loved _______. Remember the times we went on vacation together? She adored you so much." Do not tell people not to cry or that they will get over it. Crying is a normal part of the grieving process. And, as most people who have been bereaved will tell you, you never "get over" a loss, you only get used to it.

Spend anywhere from a few moments to 10 minutes with the mourners. There will be others who also want to speak with them, and you can always come back. If you are the only visitor, then, of course, spend as much time as you wish.

Participate in the service. If a prayer service is conducted during your call, participate to the extent you can. If you do not know the service, sit or stand respectfully while it is in progress. If the rabbi or leader asks for stories about the deceased, do not hesitate to share one, even if it is somewhat humorous. The entire purpose of shiva is to focus on the life of the person who has died and his or her relationship to the family and friends in that room.

If invited, eat. Take your cue from the mourners. In some homes, no food will be offered, nor should you expect to eat anything. In others, especially after the funeral, food may be offered. Be sure that the mourners have already eaten the meal of condolence before you approach the table. When attending a morning minyan, you will likely be invited to partake of a small breakfast. After evening minyan, coffee and cake may or may not be served. In any case, should you be invited to eat, be moderate in your consumption. Normally, guests are not expected to eat meals with the family during the shiva.

Talk to your friends. Inevitably, you will encounter other friends and acquaintances at a house of mourning. Your natural instinct will be to ask about them, to share the latest joke, to shmooze about sports or politics. You may be standing with a plate of food and a drink, and if you did not know better, it would feel like a party. But the purpose of the shiva is to comfort the mourners.

You are in the home to be a member of the communal minyan. The appropriate topic of conversation is the deceased. Reminisce about his or her relationship to the mourners and to you. Of course, human nature being what it is, we tend to fall into our normal modes of social communication. This is not necessarily bad; however, you should be careful to avoid raucous humor, tasteless jokes, loud talk, and gossip.

Do not stay too long. A shiva visit should be no more than an hour. If a service is held, come a few minutes before and stay a few after. Mourners uniformly report how exhausted they are by the shiva experience; do not overstay your welcome.

Say goodbye. When you are ready to leave, you may want to wish the bereaved good health and strength, long life, and other blessings. The formal farewell to a mourner is the same Hebrew phrase offered at the gravesite and in the synagogue on Friday evening:

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Dr. Ron Wolfson

Dr. Ron Wolfson is the Fingerhut Professor of Education at American Jewish University and the president of Synagogue 3000.

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