How Not to Comfort Mourners

Compassionate thoughts sometimes lead to insensitive comments.

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Reprinted with permission from Consolation: The Spiritual Journey Beyond Grief (Jewish Publication Society).

When comforting a mourner, we often draw upon familiar expressions that we ourselves have heard others say in such situations. But unex­plained, such expressions often convey messages that leave the mourner puzzled or upset. Be careful when using them.

"What The Mind Cannot Do, Time Will Do"

When we have difficulty accepting a serious blow, we tend to cast our problem into the future and to take no action in the present. We ratio­nalize this avoidance with gems of old wisdom: "What the mind can­not do, time will do"; "All in good time"; "Time will heal"; "Just give it time"; "Time heals all wounds." The trouble is that it doesn't. Time tends to cover up problems, not deal with them; to bury them, not make them disappear; to soothe over them, not solve them.

No doubt it is true that with the passage of time the piercing pain of grief will be blunted. But the future is little consolation to mourners. What the effects of time will be is only conjecture at present. Grief must be handled today. A promise that eventually everything will be all right is a therapeutic evasion practiced regularly when there is no immedi­ate answer. But it is an empty promise.

Twentieth-century ethicist Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler said that grief will not just float away and consolation will not arrive spontaneously, given enough time. The days by themselves will not magically bring healing; only God can truly heal. Ha'makom yenahem [May God comfort].

"God Took Him Before He Could Sin"

The idea that a child taken by God is without sin is an ancient truth in the Jewish religion, since a person is considered sinless until he or she has attained the age of maturity (13 for a boy and 12 for a girl). Although such a teaching does not make the death of a child any easier to accept, it may somewhat lighten the mourner's suffering. Contrarily, it might be taken as a puny excuse for a child's death, or worse, as a jus­tification that since the child did not sin, his or her death is not so bad. A visitor to the house of mourning must be sensitive to this and choose his or her words carefully.

Precisely such a concern is illustrated by a moving story of a talmudic sage:

When the son of the great Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai died, his dis­ciples came to comfort him. Rabbi Eleazer said, "Adam, the first man, had a son who died, and he was consoled. You should also accept con­solation." Rabbi Yohanan reprimanded him: "Not only do I have my personal suffering, but now you also wish to remind me of the first man's suffering."

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Rabbi Maurice Lamm

Maurice Lamm is the author of many books, including The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning. He is the president of the National Institute for Jewish Hospice, and Professor at Yeshiva University's Rabbinical Seminary in New York, where he holds the chair in Professional Rabbinics. For years he served as rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation, Beverly Hills, CA.