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A friend of mine recently sat Shiva for a dearly beloved husband. One well-meaning visitor comforted her by saying, "Don't worry; you'll find someone else soon".
Another friend who sat Shiva told me that she was hurt when a friend came into her home wearing a pair of jeans and an old shirt. "I was cleaning my house and ran out of cleaning detergent," she said airily. "I figured as long as I was out, I'd pop in and pay a Shiva call."
A man I know returned from a vacation abroad during the week his friend's father died. He visited immediately. "I go away for a week," he said upon entering the house of mourning, "and this is what I find when I come back? What kuntzim (nonsense) are you up to?" In this case, his effort at levity was a misreading of the family's grief.
When someone I know sat Shiva for his revered and respected father who had died after a long and painful illness, he noticed that several people who came to pay their respects knew each other and were having conversations among themselves about everyday topics, smiling and even enjoying the opportunity to meet. He spoke up and reminded everyone there that this was a Shiva call. "Let's talk about my father," he said gently to them. "What do you remember about him? When did you first meet him?"
Many of us have been guilty of having said the wrong thing, even when paying a Shiva call. Upon reflection, we hope that the recipient of our faux pas is generous and forgiving and will give us the benefit of the doubt in forming (or changing) opinion of our characters.
There are rules to follow when one sits Shiva. They can be found in books and guides for mourners. But what rules govern the conduct of the visitor, those who come to pay their respects in memory of the deceased and to their relatives?
One important rule is not to speak until the mourner has spoken to you first. His words can be, "Thank you for coming", or inquiries about your own family. By being sensitive to the tone and timbre of his voice, by the look in his eye or by a handshake, one can often sense how to respond.
It's customary not to visit the mourner on the first day of Shiva when the pain of losing one's parent, spouse or sibling is acute. This day is reserved for very close family and friends. One should also refrain from visiting the mourner on Shabbat. Sometimes it's wise to telephone the house of mourning first to ask when it would be the best time to visit. The evenings are often filled with visitors while during the day the mourner is often alone. Some people who sit Shiva want visitors only in the afternoon. Often religious services are held at the home of the mourner. If you wish to be part of the service, find out the times that they are held. Whenever you decide to visit, dress respectfully, don't come late in the evening and limit your visit to no more than half an hour.
Ashkenazim and Sephardim have different customs, even among themselves. Some bring food—even entire meals—when visiting. There are times when the visitor is expected to partake of a meal when he visits. Some homes have drinks and cake on the table and others do not. Call before you bring any food. The Kashrut supervision may be important. Those who are sitting Shiva may have dietary limitations. Often a relation of the family is in charge of meals since the mourners do not prepare any food for themselves. He or she will tell you if anything is needed. I have heard of friends who have given away extra food because there was no more room in their freezer and refrigerator. Always label your contribution dairy, meat or parve, and it is helpful to write down what is inside. Include your name and phone number on the label, and if the pan or pot has to be returned, write your name on it.
There are times when the room is so crowded when you arrive and the person sitting Shiva is so busy with his visitors that there is no opportunity to say much to him. A follow-up phone call or an email a few weeks later can be made with a clear conscience. It was, after all, a mitzvah to pay that Shiva call.
Sometimes the mourners don't know how to set the tone; the Shiva becomes a get-together with chit-chat. Although this could be what the mourner wants, he may actually prefer - or need - the opportunity to talk about the deceased. Don't project your fears of going through the same thing; the visit is not about you, nor is it merely to fulfill an obligation. Stay to speak and share the feelings of the mourner; your questions could encourage conversation.
Right before leaving, it is customary to say a verse of consolation to the mourner such as "May God comfort you together with those who mourn for Zion and Jerusalem."
If one has missed the opportunity to visit during the Shiva period, you may do so during the year, but only if the mourner wishes. Visiting those in mourning is considered a chesed (an act of loving kindness); it should be a comfort to those in their time of grief.