A couple of years ago, amid a personal crisis, someone introduced me to Emily McDowell’s line of empathy cards. McDowell has created a company devoted to making cards for the relationships we actually have, not the ones we wish we had.
Her mission: Help people connect when they don’t know what to say. So, if you are looking for a card that says, “When people say it’s a marathon, not a sprint— I don’t think they get how much you hate running,” or “I wish I could take away your pain, or at least take away the people who compare it to the time their hamster died,” she’s got you covered.
Her witty takes on the awkward moments of sadness and grief ring true, but I am not sure they answer the question so many of us ask: What do I say?
What do I say to someone who has lost their spouse suddenly, and far too young? What do I say to someone who just buried a child? What do I say to someone whose parents no longer live in this world? What do I say when I see them on the street, at school pick-up, in the grocery store? And even more urgently, what do I say when I show up at their house for shiva?
On one level, there is an easy answer to that question. There are traditional phrases one says in a house of mourning. The first: Hamakom yinachem etchem b’toch she-ar avelei Tzion v’Yerushalayim — May God comfort you amongst all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. Or, if that feels like a mouthful, there’s the shorter (and perhaps more hopeful): Chaim aruchim — May you have a long life. And in Sephardic households, you might hear someone say: Min ha-shamayim tenachumu — May you be comforted from Heaven.
Yet, even with these phrases easily at hand, Judaism understands loss and mourning, especially in its early days, as murky and convoluted. Our tradition understands that it takes time to ease back into daily routines, to begin to look and feel and act like ourselves again.
The roadmap of Jewish grief is marked in increments — the hours or days before the burial comprise a liminal phase called aninut, when you are not your normal self, but you are not yet a mourner. There is shloshim, the 30 days after a loved one is buried, which offers mere glimpses of normalcy. There is shanah, traditionally reserved for those mourning a parent — an entire year, during which bereaved people get closer and closer to the lives they led before their loss (though some activities, like attending a wedding, party, or concert, remain forbidden).
And perhaps more than anything else, there is shiva. In the world in which I grew up, shiva often felt oddly festive, perhaps because until my late adolescence, I was lucky enough to attend shiva only for people who had died “in their season.” Even a grandparent dying too young is still a grandparent and such a death still fits into the basic scheme of life.
And so, there was food (mostly deli, and a lot of it) and drink (frequently seltzer) and there were some nods to traditional behaviors (the occasional covered mirror, the low stools provided by the funeral home). Visitors told stories — often poignant ones and funny ones —about the deceased; these vignettes were gifts of memory to those who were in deepest mourning.
All of this changed the first time I went to a very traditional shiva for a classmate, then in his early 20s, whose mother had just died. Walking into that home was like nothing I had ever experienced before. Rather than the hubbub of small talk, of offering refreshments, of those stories being told or performed, there was silence. The mourners sat on those low stools; visitors sat beside them without talking. The focus was on the mourner, not the deli platters. I felt as if I had landed on some alien Jewish planet.
Tradition teaches that comforters — those who come to the shiva house — are not permitted to say a word until the mourners themselves open the conversation. This tradition traces its origins to the Book of Leviticus 10:1-2.
And Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his firepan, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the Lord, which God had not commanded them. And there came forth fire from before the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord.
It is a sudden and shocking moment. Having just been given, at least metaphorically, the keys to the Sanctuary, Aaron (the High Priest) watches as his sons are consumed by flames. Reading it, each time, the shock remains visceral. Stranger still is what happens next.
Then Moses said unto Aaron: ‘This is it that the Lord spoke, saying: Through them that are nigh unto Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ And Aaron was silent. (Leviticus 10:3)
Jewish sages have long tried to spin Aaron’s silence as a theological statement, as an attempt to gain praise from God. Rashi, the great commentator, suggests that Aaron was rewarded for his silence, given the gift of a personal address from God. About 800 years later, Rabbi Eliezer Lipman-Lichtenstein notes that this Torah portion uses a very particular word (va-yidom) for silence. Rather than just implying that Aaron did not speak or weep or moan or cry out, Rabbi Lipman-Lichtenstein suggests that the verb is meant to teach us that Aaron’s heart and soul were at peace; somehow, in this tragic moment, the saintly Aaron arrived a place of inner peace and calm.
Isaac ben Judah Abravanel, a medieval commentator, reads this text the way that I do: His heart turned to lifeless stone, and he did not weep and mourn like a bereaved father, nor did he accept Moses’ consolation, for his soul had left him and he was speechless.
So too, when the biblical Job was mourning his unfathomable losses (10 of his children), we read:
And they sat down with him upon the ground seven days and seven nights, and none spoke a word to him, for they saw that his grief was very great. After this, Job began to speak … (Job 2:12-13)
Because sometimes, there are no words. Sometimes, nothing that you can say, as heartfelt as it might be, is what a mourner needs to hear. Sometimes, the most powerful thing that we can do is bear witness to someone’s pain, to hold in our presence their silence. Based on these texts, Dr. Ron Wolfson, of American Jewish University, says that the essence of consoling the bereaved can be distilled to three actions: Be there, speak in silence and hear with a heart.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches that there are three modes of mourning: silence, tears and song. The rules and traditions of Jewish mourning tell us that we — the comforters — do not get to set the mode and the tone. Grief ebbs and it flows. It can be melancholic and profound, it can be raucous and inappropriate, but whatever it is, it belongs to the mourner. It is the bereaved who can tell you if and what he needs to share, or when she wants to cry or laugh. If the mourner is too stunned to even form a coherent sentence, that’s OK, too. Your job, our job, is to be with them where they need to be. Not to coax, not to lead — just to be there.
(Rabbi Sari Laufer is the director of congregational engagement at Stephen Wise Temple in Los Angeles. A cum laude graduate of Northwestern University Rabbi Laufer was ordained by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles in May 2006. Prior to coming to Wise, Rabbi Laufer spent 11 years as the assistant and associate rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York City.)
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