In the Jewish tradition, when someone in the immediate family dies, loved ones do something called sitting Shiva for them. This means that observers sit for a period of between three and seven days, invite visitors into the home to talk about the deceased and share memories, and shun all forms of pleasure or entertainment.
It may sound austere and strict, but indeed, this structure may be what gives comfort. An adherence to tradition, a “format” to follow with mourning when one is too grief stricken or numb to think – indeed, it’s a time to give in to feelings of loss, to mourn and grieve openly in a society that too often wants to push such things to the side.
With a temporary shunning of and cocooning from the outside world, those who mourn can simply focus on grieving and healing.
The role of friends and family
Although the right to sit Shiva is only extended to immediate family members of the deceased such as the mother, father, brother, sister, husband, wife, or son or daughter, friend and family play a very important role, indeed. Those who sit Shiva cannot engage in any other “outside” forms of activity unless absolutely necessary. Because of that, no chores can be done, no shopping can be done, work is not done, and school is generally not attended during this time.
That’s where friends and family can step in and help. Family members who are sitting Shiva will need assistance with chores, shopping, and other necessary tasks that they simply shun for the time being. If you’re someone who wants to help a friend who is sitting Shiva, you may ask family members that are not sitting Shiva if you can help in any way.
Even if you don’t want to or can’t help in that way, though, the Shiva call is most certainly something you can do to offer your condolences and comfort for those who sit Shiva. Both those who observe Jewish traditions and those who do not are absolutely welcome to make Shiva calls. In fact, it is considered a great honor to be visited by friends and family during the time of Shiva. Simply come, offer your condolences (or simply be present while loved ones share their memories), and leave when the time feels right; usually, visitors stay about 20 minutes before they take their leave, although circumstances may entice you to stay longer – and you should certainly do so if you don’t feel like you’re overstaying your welcome.
Remember, the Shiva call is not a social call. You’re not there to be entertained, even though you may generally be used to the family in the Shiva house as hosts – those in the Jewish tradition are generally very warm and welcoming, and it may feel strange to see your friend(s) sitting silent and introspective. The point of sitting Shiva, however, is to spend time grieving and going inward; those who sit Shiva shun all forms of enjoyment, including playing host to friends. However, you offer great comfort if you simply come and offer condolences, offering equally silent comfort until it’s time to leave.