By Carl Astor
Excerpted from The Observant Life
It is traditional to comfort mourners with the hope that they find solace among all Jews who have suffered loss and who have subsequently known recovery. Beyond this, however, what is said is often far less important than the simple presence of others. For visitors to a house of mourning to express their condolences and sympathy in their own words is perfectly adequate. Something as simple as “I’m so sorry” will often be more moving, and provide more comfort, than an elaborate speech. Also, there is no need to offer deep wisdom or complicated advice to mourners during the shivah week. Listening is far more important than talking. And what conversation there is in the shivah house should be about the deceased, not about the mourners and even less appropriately about those who have come to visit.
Visitors should not attempt to keep the mourner’s mind off his or her loss, as focusing on the mourner’s loss is precisely the point of observing a week of intense mourning in the first place. Jokes, gossip, business talk, and idle chatter do not belong in a shivah house.
The best thing visitors can do in a house of mourning is to share their own memories of the deceased with the mourners, or to listen to the mourners’ recollections. Sometimes, sitting in silence with someone is all that is needed to provide solace.
Certain common-sense rules should apply when visiting a house of mourning. Visitors should not come at mealtime. Visitors should neither stay late nor too long. Above all, visitors must be sensitive to the physical and emotional exhaustion of the mourners. It is traditional to bring gifts of food to a house of mourning so that the mourners do not have to look after the preparation of their own meals. Visitors themselves, however, should make a point of not eating or drinking in the shivah home. Gifts of substantial food will often be far more appreciated than cakes and cookies. It is also considered appropriate to give gifts of charity to the poor or to worthy organizations in memory of the deceased.
Mourners continue the rituals of mourning only for an hour or so on the final day of shivah. It is then customary to end the mourning week by walking together in the street or around the block. By exiting the home, mourners formally re-enter the world in which they must now live without the individual who has passed away.
If news of the death of a relative for whom one would normally mourn only comes more than thirty days after that person’s death, then the custom is to observe a kind of abbreviated shivah that lasts for an hour and features only the obligation not to wear leather shoes. Nor, unless the sad tidings regard the death of a parent, is the mourner obligated to rend his or her garment. If, however, the news of a relative’s death comes within the thirty day period, the regular week of mourning commences with the arrival of the sad news, as does sh’loshim (SA Yoreh Dei·ah 402:1–2).