Strength in numbers
Sitting Shiva is the tradition of mourning in the Jewish religion. Gathering together as a community is at the core of sitting Shiva, just as it is at the core of many Jewish traditions. The strength and support of friends, family and neighbors, during sitting Shiva, plays a key role in helping the bereaved get through the process of grieving.
Shiva is the mourning period, traditionally observed by the parent, spouse, sibling or child of the deceased. During Shiva (“sitting Shiva”), which is traditionally a seven day period that begins immediately after the funeral, the family stays home to focus on their grief, remember their loved one and receive visitors. Although traditionally a seven-day period, many families sit Shiva for a shorter period; perhaps 1, 2 or 3 days. The Shiva period is often announced at the funeral.
Sympathy Gift Baskets are Customary
Jewish custom discourages sending flowers or gifts other than food when people are sitting Shiva. In fact, Shiva begins with seudat havra’ah, “the meal of consolation,” prepared by family and neighbors. For those who are unable to make a personal visit, sending a food gifts basket such as a Shiva Food Gifts or Sympathy Gift Baskets, with a thoughtful card is an appropriate and helpful gesture.
“I find that when giving a sympathy gift or sympathy basket, people feel the need to send it immediately,” says Jane Moritz, owner of The Challah Connection. “However, it’s important to remember that people are visiting throughout and even after the Shiva period. The need for food to share continues for some time, so spacing out gifts is perfectly acceptable.”
Be sure to find out if the family sitting Shiva keeps kosher so you can send an appropriate food gift basket. In addition, when you are thinking of what to write, a simple message when people are sitting Shiva is best. Consider a message such as “With our heartfelt sympathy,” or “We are so sorry for your loss. You are in our thoughts,” or the most traditional, “May God comfort you among all mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”
What you can do and say
For many, consoling the bereaved that are sitting Shiva can be difficult and uncomfortable. However, Jewish customs are quite clear in describing proper etiquette and that helps alleviate awkward feelings. Generally, be a good listener and be as helpful as possible when people are sitting Shiva.
Soon after arriving, visitors should approach the mourners and sit quietly with them, possibly offering a hug or handshake, but letting the mourner begin the conversation. They may not feel like talking at all, and sitting in silence is perfectly acceptable. Alternatively, the visitor can simply say, “I’m sorry,” and that can be enough. Just being there says it all—words are not always necessary when visiting those sitting Shiva.
It helps to remember that Shiva occurs during the most intense days of mourning. Those who have just lost a loved one will experience a range of powerful emotions, and that is an important part of the healing process. This is the perfect time to share stories, photos and cherished memories of the deceased. Moreover, if you do not know what to say, remain silent.
Shiva—an act of kindness
If there is a chance to be helpful, make an offer, or just complete the task, when appropriate. Run errands, pick-up at the airport, host someone coming in from out of town, cook or clean up, or take care of children. Whatever can be done to remove daily chores from those sitting Shiva becomes an immense help. Shiva calls should be thought of as an act of kindness, not as a burden. The visit can be an hour or less to avoid tiring the family. Different families will observe Shiva in different manners. It is traditional for mourners to have a tear in their clothing to symbolize their loss; they may sit on low stools or even on the floor to show the depth of their sadness, and some show a traditional disregard for vanity and personal comfort by maintaining only the minimal standards of personal care, dressing simply and covering mirrors. Usually a 24-hour candle burns in memory of the deceased. In some homes, mourners will recite Kaddish up to three times a day with a minyan, which is a group of 10 Jewish adults. At times, it is difficult to gather a minyan, so visitors who can participate are especially appreciated.