True empathy requires us to put ourselves in others’ shoes. Thus the question we should ask ourselves when responding to tragedy is not, “What would I want others to do for me were I, G‑d forbid, in a similar situation?” but, “What would the bereaved want from those seeking to help ease their pain?”

This type of reflection could help avert misplaced efforts or offers to honor the departed, which can bring unnecessary pain to the family, especially if these offers are perceived as a veiled attempt to take advantage of the situation in order to advance someone’s agenda.

The Rebbe’s sensitivity to this issue can be seen in the postscript to the aforementioned letter1 he wrote to Rabbi Herbert Weiner after the loss of the rabbi’s mother:

P.S. On the basis of our personal acquaintance and what I have heard about you from mutual friends, I take the liberty of suggesting to you that in addition to [reciting] Kaddish in the daily prayers, as is customary, you should also study a practical Jewish law publicly, such as from the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law). This is of special importance in our day and age, and it has many worthwhile implications. Above all, it is a zechut horabim (“public merit”), coupled with a special zechut for the soul of the departed. Also, furthering adherence to the Will of G‑d, especially by a person of influence, gives practical expression to [the opening words of the Kaddish] “Glorified and sanctified be G‑d’s name….”2

Following this, the Rebbe added:

This entire piece has been written as a P.S. and on a separate sheet not because it is of lesser importance than the letter preceding it. However, our Sages wisely reminded us that allowances should be made for a person in distress. The thought might just occur that here comes a man who is not a relative and wishes to take “advantage” of a profound and unhappy experience in order to advance “his ideals.” For this reason, this part of the letter has been separated from the first.

Surely, no one felt as strongly about the ideal of promoting Jewish practice than the Rebbe did, and yet, that ideal, however noble, was superseded by his sensitivity to the needs of the bereaved.