This is the final essay of a three-part series on “Understanding and Accepting Nechama.” Click here to read Part Two.
Guidance of What to Say, and What Not to Say, at a Shiva (House of Mourning)
As helpful as many ideas may be for our personal understanding and acceptance of nechama, it is extremely important to realize that they may be very different from the practical question of what one should actually say, or not say, to a mourner at a shiva. Rabbi Bulka, the author of Comforting Mourners: What to Say When There Is Nothing to Say addressed this critical issue with some basic guidelines:
“As sensitive and caring people, we try to do the right thing. Sometimes, however, trying to do the right thing, and not succeeding, can do more harm than good. Such is the case with comforting the bereaved. One of the worst things that consolers can do is to resort to clichés that are not only worn out, but downright silly.
One cliché is, “He or she is in a better place.” How can anyone know such a thing? This statement is not helpful to the mourner. What we do know is that this world is a good place — for it is a place to do good. Death, therefore, is a tragedy. Another remark that turns mourners off is that G-d needed the deceased more than the living needed him. Again, how can anyone know that? Moreover, it makes G-d into some sort of self-absorbed entity who wreaks tragedy in this world for the purpose of drafting people onto His Heavenly team. Yet another no-no is to suggest, usually following the death of a person who has lived well into their eighties or nineties, that “at least he or she lived a full life.” No matter how well intended these words are, they are a cruel invasion of the mourner’s emotions. They trivialize the mourning and make whoever is in despair feel as if they are grieving unnecessarily. This disconnects the mourner from the consoler when the purpose of offering nechama is primarily to connect.
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Rabbi Asher Resnick serves as a senior lecturer at Aish HaTorah’s Executive Learning Center, and is a senior training lecturer for Aish’s Rabbinical Ordination program. As a close student of Rav Noach Weinberg, zt”l, he developed a special expertise in addressing fundamental issues in Judaism, as well as in bringing classical texts to life. As a bereaved parent, Rabbi Resnick’s extensive writings on loss, suffering and trauma provide a sensitive Jewish perspective on coping with these fundamental life cycle issues. OlamiResources.com is happy to highlight several essays over the coming months featured on his website JewishClarity.com. This essay should be l’zechut ul’iluy nishmat Ruchama Rivka, a”h, bat Asher Zevulun.