Recently, my family experienced a loss. Since we’re Jewish, we began to prepare our home – and schedules – for a weeklong shiva in memory of this beloved person. I converted to Judaism long ago, but this is the first time that shiva will be held in my home. Non-Jewish friends and family members have no idea what to do or how to help. This is shiva etiquette for gentiles and anyone who might find themselves in similar circumstances.
Most modern Jewish families like ours are not Orthodox. We do not follow strict protocols or rules surrounding the shiva tradition. We fall somewhere between the Reform and Conservative denominations – leaning more toward Reform. Therefore, most Shiva Guides don’t really apply to us. Perhaps this blog post can be of service in that regard. Just keep in mind the lens through which it is written – mostly Reform.
What is sitting shiva?
Sitting shiva is a mourning period that lasts seven days. Someone who loses a parent, child, sibling, or spouse will sit shiva for a week after the funeral or memorial service. They sit because they are tired and sad. They don’t play host or hostess during this time. Others take that role.
A “shiva call” refers to those visiting a friend or family member sitting shiva.
Shiva mourners stay home and receive visitors during a specific time. They announce said time either at the service, in obituaries, or on social media. This helps visitors know when to arrive on whatever day they want to make their shiva call.
Family members sitting shiva don’t work or go shopping. They tell stories. They laugh and cry together. Shiva callers provide comfort and solace.
Stopping the daily business of living to fully mourn a loved one’s passing is a healthy way to handle death. It encourages mindfulness and presence.
It also allows them to honor the person who’s gone.
When a close relative dies, returning to life so quickly after they’re gone feels strange. Maybe even disrespectful. When we don’t mourn a loss, that loss grows stronger inside us. Therefore, meditating on this loss surrounded by loved ones helps us move through it. It allows us to say with our actions that this important thing happened. We pause for a few days to acknowledge it.
How to sit shiva includes:
– lighting a Yahrzeit candle after the funeral. This candle burns for seven days, throughout shiva.
– covering mirrors with black cloth. Some say this tradition is important because, while mourning, we shouldn’t be concerned with our appearance. Recently, a Jewish funeral director told me there’s another reason we do this. In Jewish folklore or mysticism, it’s believed that spirits of the recently departed linger for that week among the living. If they pass by a mirror, they’d be alarmed not to see their reflection. So we cover mirrors to help them with the transition.
– Hebrew prayers, such as the Mourner’s Kaddish. Most shiva homes will have prayer books because let’s be honest, these prayers are challenging to memorize. They contain translations so non-Jewish visitors can follow along. Prayers usually occur at the end of each day around dinnertime.
– wearing Kriah ribbons. More traditional Jews rip their clothing when someone dies. A black Kriah ribbon has the same purpose, symbolically.
On day seven, the bereaved take a walk together sometime before noon. This is a physical way of returning to life. Of course, we don’t automatically stop missing the person we’ve lost. This walk just tells us the official mourning period is over.
More observant Jews might incorporate other traditions. For example, some might utilize special shiva chairs that are low to the ground. The mourners sit in the chairs while visitors serve them. Another more orthodox tradition is to not bathe or shower for that week. They also sit shiva all day, every day, with a small break in the afternoon.
Less observant Jews might consider a weeklong break a bit too indulgent. They sit shiva for one or two nights only, feeling like that’s appropriate. There’s no right or wrong way to do this. It’s up to each individual family.
How to make a shiva call?
It’s easy. You visit during the time the family announces they are receiving visitors. And you bring food.
You show up with some grub, nosh a little, and sit with your friend who just experienced a sad loss. With this simple gesture, you provide comfort and love during a tough time.
Kind of like a hero.
This is especially helpful if you can’t make the funeral or memorial service. Multiple days of shiva makes giving personal condolences more convenient for those with busy schedules. And you don’t have to stay the whole time. If a family lists shiva from 4-8pm each evening, show up around 6pm and stay for an hour if that works best for you. Any visit is appreciated.
If you can’t make a shiva call in person, send a food basket or frozen casserole. Mail a handwritten card of condolence. Call or text to check in during the week. Inquire about a remote option, like a video call one evening during the prayer portion.
Some people stay away from services and shiva because they don’t know what to say. Click here for specific ideas about what to say, but the general rule is to say you’re sorry for the loss. Ask them about the person who’s died. And then just listen.
Don’t make mourners feel like they need to comfort you. Don’t talk about your own losses. The recently bereaved don’t need to hear how your Pop-Pop fought cancer for ten years. Or how your mother-in-law just dropped dead in the middle of a New Year’s Eve party. They’ve got enough going on.
Plus wear masks if you aren’t vaccinated.
Shiva etiquette for gentiles is pretty basic, right? Making a shiva call is a simple and wonderful way to support those enduring a loss. Be a mensch and give it a try. Contact Anitya Doula Services for support, guidance on how to sit shiva, and other shiva-planning guides.