Shiva – the Do’s and Don’ts
By Aviva Keren Barnett
Overview: Going to a shiva house is not easy. It is not easy because emotions may be high, and if you do not know what to do it can feel quite uncomfortable. Everyone means well, and if we can all try to act with sensitivity our shiva visit can be heartwarming and very supportive.

Going to a shiva house is not easy. It is not easy because emotions may be high, and if you do not know what to do it can feel quite uncomfortable. Everyone means well, and if we can all try to act with sensitivity our shiva visit can be heartwarming and very supportive.

Sometimes you may be in a situation where you know the mourner well, and sometimes you won’t know them well. As you enter you may see a poster on the front door with shiva visiting times, and minyan times.

Each shiva house is completely unique, even though there are similarities.

At some shiva houses the mourners sit together, and in some shiva houses you may see the mourners sitting in different rooms.
Some shiva houses you can hear a pin drop and there is complete silence, until someone stands up and says the customary words ‘May you be comforted like the mourners of Zion and Yerashalyim. May you have a long life.’ And other shiva houses you may think you have walked into a party, without the music!
Some people sitting shiva are quieter and more reflective, and some people sitting talk non-stop. This might be out of fear of someone talking about themselves as opposed to the mourners lost one.

What are some don’ts when it comes to attending a shiva house?

1. Remember to not talk about yourself – this is not what you are there to do.
2. Remember not to stare at the mourners – use a soft warm look, and do not stare!
3. Remember not to be overwhelming or too loud, the mourners may be reflecting on their memories of their loved ones. You are not supposed to be intrusive, instead, a supportive presence.
4. Do not attend like it is a fashion show, your perfume can be highly off putting. When someone is mourning, their senses are a little sharper so strong perfume smells can offend.
5. Lastly don’t talk if you are in doubt as to whether what you are going to say will cause any offense. Go with the useful phrase ‘if in doubt, leave it out’.

What about some dos?

1. Ask open questions about the person who died, e.g. ‘What was your mother like?’ This is comforting, it allows the mourner to talk about any aspect of their mother that they would like.
2. Speak at their pace and try to imitate their tone. Slow and soft speech is always appreciated most.
3. We are supposed to wait until the mourner speaks first but sometimes, they need a little help to open up. It can be really challenging feeling pain in front of a group of people. It is a vulnerable position to be in. So, a gentle soft nod, can help the person to say something to open a conversation about their lost one.
4. We enter the shiva house and must remember we are entering their world of grief; therefore, we need to always act with respect.
5. Statements like ‘you seemed like a dedicated daughter’, after they tell you about how much they tried to be there for their parent is kind and can offer comfort.
6. Do remember that everyone grieves in a different way, at a different time, and that is true even if they are in the same family. This means you may see some mourners crying, and others laughing. That is all ok. It is part of the process.
7. Do take some food if you can, soup is often easy to eat in a hot cup whilst sitting. It is difficult to eat properly when sitting shiva as people are coming at all different times, and so soup is a good option.

Aviva Keren Barnett
Aviva Keren Barnett is a UKCP registered psychotherapist, clinical supervisor and international lecturer. She specialises in working with people anticipating a loss and grief. She has worked for 20 years with people who have experienced a sudden loss, and an expected loss. Training in palliative care and oncology Aviva Keren has a compassionate approach and her clients feel safe to explore their loss with her. Aviva teaches courses to counselling students and professional therapists specifically about loss and has more information about this on her website. She works with clients in London, and in Israel, by phone, zoom and face to face.