A Shiva visit can be awkward. Should you sit quietly or say something wise? Should you offer help or just a comforting hug? Most people don’t know what to do. Some give the mourner a quiet hug and a grave sigh before retreating to chat with other visitors, some talk to the mourners about the latest gossip and current affairs, and some try to console the mourner with banal clichés.

Just like the four sons, who show us the many ways that people can come to a Seder table, these approaches show us the many ways that people cope with a Shiva visit. But at least all four sons appear at the Seder. There is the fifth son, who is the most painful of all. He is so uncomfortable or so ignorant that he doesn’t even show up. The same is true for Shiva. No matter how you cope with your Shiva visit, at least you show up. There are those who feel so awkward that they don’t even go.

To the anxious visitor, staying away seems like a neutral solution. But it is important to know that to the mourner, not showing up causes pain. You sit there and wonder why your neighbor, friend or family member couldn’t make time in their schedule to see you in your time of need.

The only solution is to make the Shiva visit, even if you find it challenging, but what you should do and say?

What Not to Say

We’ve all heard well-intentioned people say, “At least your loved one is in a better place now.” At first glance, this seems like a lovely sentiment, but let’s think about why we actually sit Shiva.

The Talmud teaches that the funeral is for the deceased and the Shiva is for the mourners. When the grave is filled, our attention shifts from the mitzvah of accompanying the dead to the mitzvah of comforting the living.

The living know that their loved one has gone to heaven, but this does not change their grief. They aren’t feeling bad for the deceased; they’re feeling sad picturing a future without them. That pain can’t be soothed by assurances that the departed is in a better place.

I’ve also heard well-intentioned people say, “Your loved one had a special soul; G‑d takes the best first.” Whether this statement is true or not is debatable. Regardless, think about whether it is helpful.

When our sages asked themselves how long a Jew should mourn a loved one, they turned to Aaron. They reasoned that just as Aaron and his sons trained for seven days to become priests so should we mourn our loved ones for seven days.1 What is the link between these two subjects?

Aaron needed to make peace with G‑d after he took an unwitting part in the sin of the Golden Calf. Initially, he felt uncomfortable accepting the role of High Priest because of his involvement, but after he completed seven days of training, he grew more comfortable and accepted the role.2

The mourner also needs to make peace with G‑d. Mourners often rail against the sad fact that their loved ones were taken from them, their ill will often directed at G‑d for He alone controls the timing of life and death. One of the reasons for Shiva is to help mourners transition into a place of peace with G‑d.

Just as Aaron grew comfortable with G‑d after seven days despite his feelings of guilt, so can the mourner grow comfortable with G‑d after seven days despite the feelings of anger.3

When you consider this, you quickly realize that telling the mourner G‑d takes the special souls first only serves to exacerbate their angst. “If G‑d takes the special souls first, why did He give my child such a special soul?” a mourning mother recently asked me. “Couldn’t He give me an ordinary soul who might have stayed with me longer?”

What to Say

We now know what not to say at a Shiva visit.

But what can one say to comfort the mourner?

Our sages provid the perfect guidance.4 They advised that we say absolutely nothing. Sit quietly. Let the mourner initiate and follow their lead. Let them dictate the subject, tenor and flow of the conversation. If you listen carefully, you will know exactly what to say.

It is also important not to overstay your welcome. Take your cue from the mourners. When they indicate that they are ready for solitude, say goodbye and leave.5

What if the mourner says nothing? It may happen.

Learn to feel comfortable with silence. Silence is a profound source of comfort if you embrace it. It might feel awkward at first, but if you persist, the mourner will quickly catch on to what you are trying to do and embrace it with wholehearted gratitude.

After hearing all the banal clichés, the mourner will finally receive deep and meaningful comfort. All you need to do is push past the awkwardness and you will come to appreciate the communication of silence.

Addressing the Fear

Some are afraid that the mourner will ask awkward questions. What if the mourner asks me why this happened? What if the mourner cries in my arms? What do I do?

Remember that a Shiva visit doesn’t mean you have to come up with a witty reply or brilliant response. Don’t worry about finding the perfect words. Your presence, your silence, and your empathy is enough.

In the words of a recent mourner: “Hearing ‘I am deeply sorry for your loss, my heart is with you and your family,’ meant a lot to me, but in truth, the visitor’s simple presence spoke louder than words.”

Death is part of the cycle of life, but when Moshiach comes this too will change. May that time come speedily in our days and may we never need to worry about Shiva etiquette again.