Thursday, July 3, 2014


I've been trying to quantify the difference between sympathy and empathy. People like it when others feel the latter, but not the former. 

When I got the news that the boys were dead, I felt like I was kicked in the gut. I crawled home, shivering in the summer heat, huddled inward, my face haggard. I blinked blankly at anyone who was able to smile, only able to summon a cheerful "thank you" to the pharmicist by sheer will alone.

My thoughts were, simply, thus: OhGodOhGodOhGodOhGod . . .

These families are now sitting shiva, and possibly hundreds, if not thousands, will be coming to be menachem aveilim.

Menachem aveil, today, tends to defeat the original purpose. For the visitor, since it can be supremely awkward, they often succumb to that primitive fight-or-flight response, blurting out the most inappropriate of comments. Also, bare acquaintances somehow feel obligated to come, placing even more pressure on the mourner to be a gracious host, rather than being free to grieve.

David Brooks' "The Art of Presence," and Rabbi Eliyahu Finks' "Fixing Shiva" are two articles that really are must-reads prior to entering a house of grief. 

First a Brooks' highlight (read both pieces in their entireties, please): 
I’d say that what these experiences call for is a sort of passive activism. We have a tendency, especially in an achievement-oriented culture, to want to solve problems and repair brokenness — to propose, plan, fix, interpret, explain and solve. But what seems to be needed here is the art of presence — to perform tasks without trying to control or alter the elemental situation. Allow nature to take its course. Grant the sufferers the dignity of their own process. Let them define meaning. Sit simply through moments of pain and uncomfortable darkness. Be practical, mundane, simple and direct.
The whole point of the shiva week is to provide a structured, safe time for mourners to lament. Ergo, it is not the time of platitudes: "They are in a better place," and the like. The mourners are sad. Let them be sad. Don't demand that they must make peace with the situation right now just because the visitor feels uncomfortable.

Only the mourners can say platitudes like that. The visitors can't. 

The Rabbi Fink highlight, for me, is the story of Rabbi Yosef Tendler on a shiva call. The point of the story is that Rabbi Tendler remained silent the whole time. He hugged his student, he listened to the mourners, and he quietly departed.

Rabbi Fink echoes Brooks identically, in that our society has "Bob the Builder" Syndrome: "Can we fix it?" "Yes we can!"
Death can't be fixed! At best, death can be, eventually, calmly accepted. Our job, when sitting down with mourners, is to help them to do that; not to succumb to our own fears, but rather to open our hearts and plumb the depths for shared experiences. Raw, visceral emotion can be scary. But don't be afraid, for the aveil's sake.

Lehavdil, there was an episode of Will & Grace ("Bed, Bath, and Beyond") where Grace, expecting a marriage proposal, is actually dumped instead. She takes to her bed, where Will tries every which way to get her out and into the sunshine. She refuses his efforts, crawling back into her room. He enlists Karen and Jack, who feel that same desperate need to make Grace move on. 

After they attempt to physically manhandle her out from the apartment to rejoin humanity, she fights back: 

I'm not like any of you. I just handle things differently, so, please, just let me go back to bed and deal with things the only way that I know how.

She climbs back into bed, at which point they all trail in, acknowledging that since they never truly mourned the disappointments in their lives, the way Grace is, they had never truly moved on. Mourning has a purpose, and a time, as Shlomo HaMelech said.

The next morning, Grace awakens, smiling, and rejoins humanity, on her own speed. 

Don't make going menachem aveil about you. Go only if you think the mourner will appreciate your presence. Don't talk until they do, and only respond, if necessary, with the most carefully selected of words. Feel their pain, no matter how frightening it may be. 

I want to remember, the next time I am menachem aveil, that feeling of being kicked in the gut and that same litany of OhGodOhGodOhGodOhGod . . .        


Daniel Saunders said...

People sometimes say the most tactless things at a shiva, perhaps out of nervousness and fear of silence. The halakha against speaking before the mourner is therefore very sensible.

Worst example I've ever encountered: my paternal grandfather died shortly before elections in the UK (general and local). A distance acquaintance of my parents' who happened to be standing in the local election came to the shiva one night... and proceeded loudly to talk politics and canvas everyone there (no matter that most of them weren't in his electoral ward anyway). It was horrible, although my Dad did at least see the funny side of it.

Princess Lea said...