How Not to Comfort Mourners

Compassionate thoughts sometimes lead to insensitive comments.

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This emphasis on purity offers the mourner a comforting image--a state of whiteness What a contrast to the tangled intubations, infec­tious fluids, and the body odors of the infirm, or to the horrific sight of a person killed in a car accident. The image of cleanliness and tidiness befits our image of children in their nurseries and leaves the mourner with a feeling of orderliness and fragrance in place of the griminess of dying.

"May You Know Of No More Trouble"

Offering mourners the encouraging hope that they should know no more trouble is not a particularly helpful pronouncement. Would that it were true! Mourners as well as consolers know that such promises can not be realistically fulfilled. There will always be some form of pain; no one will be completely free of trouble in the future. There is absolutely no use denying it, even as an ecstatic hope; it is an impossible wish. Suffering is the universal balance of joy, as the night is of the day. Ex­pressing such a hope tends to make all condolences sound like throw­away poppycock, and not serious, carefully considered wishes.

We find a similar-sounding plea for the impossible in the fervent prayer, traditionally recited at burial: "May God banish death forever." Do we believe that death will one day vanish from the world? Will death ever be conquered? The spiritual response to the prayer is: "Yes, by God, in some distant future." And if God can conquer death, can God also not obliterate trouble?

Unfortunately, this line of reasoning is a bit specious. This prayer, calling on God to vanquish death, is not meant to be a goody-goody, implausible supplication by frantic tell-me-anything mourners. It ex­presses a real hope that we can increase the human life span so dramati­cally that the thought of imminent death will seldom intrude upon our minds. Yet despite today's extraordinary medical advances, it remains completely unthinkable that we could wipe out something as endemic as trouble. Indeed, suffering is indigenous to the human condition, no matter how short or long a human life may be.

There is, nevertheless, a way to make the phrase "May you know no more trouble" usable. When extending this condolence, we can say instead: "May you know no more troubles of this kind" or "this severe" or "for many years" or "before you celebrate many more simhas [celebrations]."

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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.