‘You don’t know what you don’t know’ is a proverb of sorts that seems to capture the sentiment of friends who plan to visit someone sitting shiva. This article, and this website in general, is not intended to address orthodox Jewish traditions, but rather explains what might be expected in a shiva home that is more mainstream than extreme.
My father died a few years ago. He was a good man. And personally, I struggled to find a way to deal with his death. I did not have a bar mitzvah, but I danced to the Havah Negilah at my wedding. I never went to synagogue regularly, but I always wear a yarmulke on Passover. I don’t eat on the Jewish fasting holiday of Yom Kippur, but I celebrate Christmas with my kids along with Chanukah. When others guess at my background, rarely do they pick ‘Jewish’ – I usually get ‘Irish’.
I am more of a mainstream Jew, probably as religiously observant as my friends who are Roman Catholic that come over for matzoth ball soup when my wife cooks it. So when it came to dealing with the death of my father, I didn’t exactly know where to start, other than with my natural emotions of profound sadness and loss. I needed to express my emotions. I needed to mourn. However, without knowing the Jewish traditions of how to mourn, I lacked the tools with which to express myself.
My friends and family were quick to come to my aid. One of my friends offered to organize the food deliveries. Another offered to cover my responsibilities in the office (both he and I are both attorneys). And yet another helped make arrangements at the funeral home. People came to my house to pay their respects and offer consolation. Their mere presence comforted me. It was a manifestation of the humanity that is common in all of us. I didn’t even get to talk to all the visitors. But by their attendance, I knew that they not only understood the intensity of my grief, but also wanted to ease my pain. And the food…. The food just kept on coming. Some made up plates for me to eat while I spoke about my dad to them. Others cleaned dishes and threw out garbage. And some even brought low boxes that looked like wood but were actually cardboard. They sat on the boxes as others sat on chairs. Each day of the seven day shiva period seemed to repeat itself. And each day I felt stronger about re-entering everyday life from the mourning period.
I still am friends with many of the same people who paid a shiva call during those times. When we see each other, there is an unspoken connection between us that was forged from their shiva call- a connection on a spiritual, compassionate level. When they paid their shiva call, they did not wear yarmulkes. They did not read passages out of the Torah. Nonetheless, they made strong, affirmative efforts to comfort me while I was mourning- they brought food, sat on boxes, spoke with me, and the like. Truthfully, it was the thought that my friends put into their actions which comforted me more than the acts themselves. It was so nice that all who comforted me during my grief made efforts to recognize my Jewish heritage. But had they brought flowers instead of food, I would not have thought any less of them.
By virtue of paying a shiva call, there is a certain constant truth: regardless of what you bring, say or do, you will never make a mistake if your efforts carry with them the notions of connection, compassion and humanity.