Do’s and Dont’s at a Shiva House

Shiva House Guide – Making a Condolence Call to a Mourner’s House

Unfortunately, my father passed away this month.  For the first time, I was a mourner.

Little did I know there’s a whole sub-culture to the mourning process.  Here’s some advice from a recent mourner on what to do and what not to do at a Shiva house.

1. Don’t ask how old the deceased was or how did he die.  Get that info from someone else if you must know.
2. Don’t say “well at least he lived a long life”.
3. Do offer to tell nice stories about the deceased.
4. Do offer to help serve, take out garbage, etc…

5. Don’t come to tell the mourners about your problems.
6. Don’t stay for a long time unless the mourner specifically asks you to.  Don’t jump in and leave in two minutes either.
7. Do come to as many minyanim as possible.  The mourners have enough things to worry about.
8. Do ask about the mourners (surviving) family and catch up on old times.
9. Don’t ask for many details about the deceased and how he passed.
10. Don’t network with other visitors on business or jobs unless out of sight and ear of the mourners.

I was most-sensitive to number two on this list.  My father lived to 86 years old.  On the outside, one can say “well, he lived a long life”.  But to a son, and especially during the mourning period, these words are painful and ambivalent at best.  When your parent lives to 86, you want them to live to 96.  At 96, you were hoping for 120.

The other more obvious observation – don’t come to a shiva house to share your depressing life with the mourners.  They have enough on their heads to also have to play armchair psychologist in ragged clothes.

As with anything, these points serve as a guideline.  Obviously, let the mourner guide your conversation. If they want to discuss the details of the death, then by all means do discuss it.

Some shiva houses see many hundreds of visitors during the week.  Try to time your visit when it’s not too crowded.  The mourner feels an obligation to speak with every visitor.  If there are ten visitors encircling the mourner at once, it can become quite unnerving.

Above all, take your cue from the mourner.

I hope these points, although obvious to some, will help future mourners and visitors to be spared from unnecessary mixed feelings.

6 thoughts on “Do’s and Dont’s at a Shiva House”

  1. Good guidelines Moshe. It’s hard for everyone all around as the visitors don’t want to say anything bad yet don’t know what is the best way to give comfort. I hope you only have simchas and not have to go through this process again.

    The most stupidest thing I have ever said in my life is when I was about 15 years old and happened at a shiva house.

    A friend of mine lost his mother to the big “c” and this was the first shiva call I ever had to make. I remember I went with my older brother and two friends and was really nervous. When we walked in and it was my turn to stand in front of the mourner in the awkward “I’m not allowed to great you position” he started to talk to me and asked how I was doing. I said ok, he then asked me how my Mom was doing. My answer? “Thank G-d still alive”. At which point I turned around and walked out of the house and never had the guts to speak to him again until I befriended him on Facebook a month ago. He didn’t say anything so I’m hoping he didn’t remember.

    On a less embarrassing note I know someone who when he was leaving the shiva house he went up to the mourner and instead of saying “HaMakom Yinachem” he said “Haray At mikudeshet Li…”

    Simchas 🙂

  2. I’m Moshe’s brother and I could have co-authored this plus more.
    Nachum- hilarious. If the mourner was a female and she didn’t make a macha’ah on the ‘mikudeshes’, i wonder if she would have to join the fellow’s harem?

    My favorite experience during the 7 days was when one of our mother’s dear old friends came and was bawling all over the place until I finally said, “C’mon, lady, get out of here! We’re trying to have a shiva house. You wanna cry- go next door.” Of course, ahem, it was said in jest. No, really…

  3. When my mother and I were sitting shiva for my father the worst comment was, “well at least he’s out of his misery now” and the funniest was the person who couldn’t remember whether to say Hamakom or U’lchol bnei Yisroel lo icheratz celev leshono” which is the one to keep dogs away

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