Thoughts from the Shiva

7 day memorial candle my father's shivaUpdate: I added one tip at the end.

When someone dies people are often unsure what to do and how to help. I just got up from shiva, the week-long mourning period for my father, and I thought it might be useful to record some of my experiences.

I appreciated every call, message, visit and offer of help. My father died in New York on Tuesday, and my sister and brothers arrived midday Thursday for the burial here in Israel. I called one local friend, ET, who notified the rest of the English-speaking Emunah chapter. When these women spring into action there’s no stopping them.

I very much appreciated the phone calls and offers of help before the funeral. I had a feeling of numbness and an inability to make decisions. If they lived nearby, I told them what I needed at the moment.

Late Tuesday night, I told my husband that I would try to find a friend to come over to sit with me, and the next morning M called and asked if I would like her to come over. She helped me make up a shopping and to-do list and brought over a hot water urn. J culled her freezer and brought over food for Wednesday, while ET made arrangements for all the meals of the shiva.

What we needed to do before the funeral

Even though the funeral arrangements were done by others, my family here in Israel had to deal with many practical considerations:

  • Collect enough linens, blankets, pillows, towels for everyone who would be sleeping over.
  • Clear the refrigerator to make room for the food that would be coming.
  • Laundry, general cleaning and decluttering of the entire house.
  • We made a list of things that the kids would do at the end of each day to keep the house organized, including sweeping, wiping off counters etc. In practice this didn’t happen much.
  • Prepare a eulogy. (This will be posted soon, God willing.)
  • We had time to go through a file of clippings about my father and put them in plastic sheet protectors.
  • Notify people. The Yeshiva University alumni list has a huge reach among English speakers in Israel. I also put it up on my site, on Facebook, the local email list and several others. We had a poster printed—the ones with the black border. I made corrections via email and they delivered it to the house. Their email is duk@duk.co.il, phone 052-686-4000. We also posted a notice in the print version of the Jerusalem Post, which also has wide reach even on a weekday. All of these notices took involved phone calls, emails and multiple revisions.
  • Personally notify a few old friends. This was a bit awkward because I didn’t want to put anyone in the position of feeling obligated to attend the funeral or shiva. I didn’t rack my brains to think of people.
  • Make a shopping list for a friend who was on call throughout the day as I added to the list. Among the things I needed to have on hand were drinks, paper goods, a 7-day memorial candle, coffee, tea, herbal tea, and fruit. Much of it went unused, especially soft drinks.
  • Make an arrangement for my two youngest children for after school on the day of the funeral.
  • Cover the mirrors, which is harder than you might think.

As you can see there were many things to think about. Even though the sign went up a full day before, no neighbors offered help before the funeral. I asked one of the neighbors who said it simply didn’t occur to her—she just noted the time of the funeral and shiva. One neighbor did mumble an apology for not coming by sooner. I would have appreciated an offer of bed or blankets, but it was really more the idea that my neighbors were available. Had I asked they would have done whatever I needed but I didn’t want to ask.

A shiva visitor said she imagined me during this time sitting in my house with my hands clasped. The period before the funeral in Jewish law is known as aninut. The mourners are free of halachic obligations including prayers, tefillin and blessings so that they will be able to bury the deceased. But in modern times the family doesn’t take care of the technical arrangements. In Israel, funerals are often arranged within several hours of death. In my father’s case we had an extra day.

Someone who wishes to remain anonymous made a comment about my —œbreaking new halachic ground in nichum avelim (consoling mourners) over the internet.— Both before the funeral and after, I did check messages and respond when relevant.

Things I appreciated during the shiva:

  • My brothers and sister. So often weddings and funerals are the catalysts for family conflict.  Old hurts come out because of the emotional weight of the event. The four of us lead different lifestyles, but everyone arrived with good will and a desire to accommodate. I don’t want to idealize things but I didn’t notice any instance when someone insisted on others doing things in a certain way. Those few days with them will be a memory that I will treasure.
  • My sister’s daughter Shifra, who came along from New York and helped out in countless ways. She is going to be administering a memorial page about my father, on this site. You can send her material or links to her at BZWacholderMemories@gmail.com.
  • My husband, who will be embarrassed if I write any more. And of course my children, all of whom were good-natured and cooperative throughout the week. My teenage daughter’s close friend lost her own father on Shabbat.
  • All friends who came to the funeral in the middle of a weekday. My father’s colleague’s son, who was with me all through school, stayed until the end to share memories with the family.
  • My husband’s immediately family plus a few more relatives, all of whom came to the funeral with their spouses. My husband had yahrzeit for his mother over Shabbat, and the family —œtook a tramp— on my father’s funeral to say kaddish for her then instead of coming the next day as originally planned. When this idea was first broached I worried that my siblings would be anxious to get back to my house after their flight, but they didn’t mind at all and even appreciated it, another example of how smoothly everything went. I was especially touched by my sister-in-law’s insistence on coming back to the house with us after the funeral even though she lives in the opposite direction—she had a long drive home afterward. Most came again for the shiva.
  • The notes, emails, blog comments, Facebook, Twitter condolences, etc. I hope to acknowledge them individually but if not, know that they were read and appreciated.
  • All the people from various parts of my life who helped out with or visited the shiva. I’ll give a shout-out to the bloggers: Hadassah Levy, Rena Reich, Our Shiputzim (a couple people asked how I know you, and I told them you were semi-anonymous on the internet), Mirj, Israeli Kitchen, Baroness Tapuzina, Anne, Robin and Yosefa.
  • The people who stayed at the shiva. Usually people stay for about 20 minutes, but I noticed that many of the visitors stayed longer and it wasn’t a function of how well I knew them. Unless it was crowded, or very late, I was quite happy for people to stay as long as they wanted. The few times I was alone I wandered around the house quite pathetically. I also caught a cold. It was so important for me to be able to share stories about my father and I’m glad that people took the time to listen.
  • The people who offered to help with the kids, although in most cases the older children took care of things. My second-grader is in a dance performance today and she needed black —œtaytz,— not to be confused with tights. Taytz are close-fitting calf-length pants. A friend had offered to shop for them but didn’t get a chance. A girl in the class offered to bring an extra pair but I was appalled to see that they were threadbare with gaping holes. Even I would have thrown them out long ago. Late last night I repaired them as best I could (—œIma, you can’t see any of the holes!—) but wish I had made more of an effort to get new ones. My point is that there are other things going on that the mourner usually takes care of, especially mothers, and they have to get done somehow.

Tips on Preparing Food for a Shiva

My husband said the problem with shiva isn’t that you aren’t allowed to cook—even the mourner can prepare food if necessary—but that there is simply no time because people are always coming in. We were blessed in that we had many more offers of food than we needed. Often the main problem with shiva is having to deal with an overload of food. ET tells how she once shopped and cooked for a shiva meal, but asked to bring it home because the kitchen was stuffed with food.

The most helpful things:

  1. A coordinator. Anyone who offered to cook,including from our shul, was directed to ET. She diplomatically convinced people only to bring what might be really needed. Some people still brought unsolicited offerings. There’s really no way to avoid this completely, and no way to predict exactly how much will be needed.
  2. A list. ET wrote me a list of who was bringing each meal—two meals a day. A friend who had recently sat shiva said she felt that was excessive, but I appreciated it even though we didn’t know which kids would be eating at home all the time. Two meals a day meant more variety for picky eaters. I put much of the food in the freezer for next week.
  3. Convenience. Everything was welcome, but the best were foods that saved time. A casserole in a foil pan can be heated in the oven and the leftovers put back in the fridge. But soups need a pot, ladle and container for leftovers. Salads, fruit or vegetable plates, and small whole fruits work better than whole melons.
  4. Healthy foods. People brought snack foods and cakes, which we preferred not to have around not including the brownies made with butter, walnuts and white chocolate. We also didn’t drink soft drinks but every family is different.
  5. Disposables. ET said there should be a rule about only bringing containers that don’t need to be returned. I didn’t find this a big problem but ET took it upon herself to remove a few items.
  6. Labeling. Each item should say who brought it, what’s in it, and whether the container should be returned.
  7. Shabbat. The most helpful labels were the ones that said Friday night or Shabbat lunch. Setting up the food Friday afternoon was stressful enough without having to check inside containers and make decisions. We were mostly adults, but a family with small children could use a neighbor during this time.

General observations about my shiva

  • About 90% of the people who came were women.
  • The only time it felt crowded was Motzei Shabbat. That was also the time that my brothers and sister were still around so there were multiple conversations. The rest of the time there were anywhere between one and seven people.
  • I directed whoever came in to sit directly in front of me, and seated additional people next to them in a row. I strained my neck if I had to turn my head to see people at the side—an occupational hazard of shiva. The low, plastic mourning chairs provided by the shul were reasonably comfortable but may have contributed to the neck strain issue.
  • Phone calls. My attitude toward phone calls changed throughout the week. Before the funeral I made an announcement to my family that all phone calls should be screened during the shiva, and that I would not take most of them. I stuck to this early in the week, but agreed to speak to more people as the week went on and even answered several calls when no one was around. I also asked visitors to answer the phone—a charity telemarketer convinced my sister-in-law to give a donation for a kid having surgery in chu—l (out of the country).
  • It was good to have food and drinks available for people who were hungry, but only a small amount got eaten.
    • Conclusion

    My friend ET pointed out that everyone has to go through this stage of mourning for your parents. Because the only reason you don’t is if you die before they do. One visitor said that he learned that the saying, —œVelo tosifu daavah od,— or “Shelo ted’ee od tzaar” (you should have no further sorrow) is only a blessing for mourners who have lost both parents. No one looks forward to sitting shiva, but it’s part of the normal cycle of life.

I found this idea comforting. I wouldn’t have appreciated it twenty years ago when my mother died suddenly at age 65, but my father lived a productive life for nearly ninety years (no one knows for sure). He died peacefully at home with loved ones around him.

Thank you again to my wonderful friends, both “real-life” and “virtual” (you are also real), who aided and comforted me during this time.

Extra tip: The visits I will remember with the most pleasure were from those who asked thoughtful questions about my family, helping me to recall old memories or process them in different ways.

Related: Notes from a Granddaughter

Batya’s Guest Post on Organizing a Shiva House at Here in Highland Park

Holocaust Memorial Day: One Family’s Story (My Father)

Check out the 2016 fashions at Hydrochic modest swimwear.

Comments

  1. I think that phone calls as a condolence should be used only for really close friends when you absolutely can not get there for shiva (as in being in another country or home with a contagious disease ~ lo aleinu). In most cases I don’t go to shiva in the first 3 days (known as the days of crying) unless I feel close to the mourner. I also try to visit or call again a week or two afterwards where I feel close to the mourner because I know that I felt I needed the encouragement and sympathy then as well. My father was buried erev Pesach and we had no shiva. Many people who I did not see on Pesach did not even know he died. It was strange and difficult.
    I hope you do find comfort among the other mourners of Zion and that you truly know no more sorrow.

  2. Caralee says:

    I’m sorry for your loss. Your post was right on the money. I hope it will become a useful resource for others in the future.

  3. It’s always bothered my husband that people will say “Shelo ted’ee od tzaar” (you should have no further sorrow) when only one parent has died. You do want to know that “tzaar,” it’s the natural order of life.

    I really enjoyed listening to the stories you told about your “rogue” father. I never really did sit shiva for my father (I ended up in the hospital instead, long story), but when I sat for my mother in 2009 it was the stories I told about the two of them that comforted me. I hope you found comfort in your memories of your parents this past week.

  4. Would it be a terrible ayin hara if I bookmarked this?? Hannah, I am grateful you took the time to write this up. This could be so helpful to so many. May you know no more sorrow (according to your blog, I’m allowed to say that to you, right?).

  5. May you find comfort. I look forward to hearing more about your dear father z”l.

    In my experience, shiva goes more smoothly if the most organized person in the family isn’t the one sitting shiva. It should be a time of reflection and grieving, but the details of life, especially when family members live in different parts of the world, creep (or burst) in.

    • Miriam I says:

      So much useful and thoughtful information here. I am amazed to see how you, Hannah, are able to share the wisdom you gain through all experiences–even this painful one.
      It is also interesting to think of the differences between men and women–both practical and emotional. When each of my husband’s parents passed away, he had a longish period of aninut and he did not want calls; he needed to hunker down and process things on his own. We were also busy making flight arrangements (and in the case of my mother in law, returning home from a vacation at the beach). With the aninut and funerals out of town, I had time to plan for shiva and I was the one who called friends and arranged for food, etc.
      I, like Leora, look forward to hearing more about your father who was, from the little bit I’ve heard until now, truly a great man.

  6. Thanks for the feeback, your thoughts, experiences. Though I’m older, so far I’ve only been on the helping side. Here in Shiloh we have people who always help/cooridnate meals, aids, etc. We make sure the mourners aren’t alone if there aren’t family members not sitting shiva.
    I’m sorry I couldn’t “lenachem” in person.
    Each family and individual have different needs, halachik and personal.
    HaMakom y’nachem…

  7. Thank G-d neither I nor my husband have the experience of sitting shiva, so I find your comments and insight very interesting. (I would say inspiring, but that’s not quite the word I’m looking for). I could have done with some of your advice just last month when my father in law sat shiva for his brother. My husband was abroad (as he so often is), his sister does not live in our town, and so the initial preparations fell on me. And I had no clue what to do! In the end my parents and my sister (whose inlaws both passed away recently) assisted me in preparing the house, calling people, informing the shul and community etc. It was strange that at my “ancient” stage in life (a multi-times grandmother) I was so ignorant of something so basic.

    I hope it is a VERY long time before any of us will need your advice again.

    I’m glad I could help you out in my own small way, and hope to only assist in smachot in future.

    • Sorry to go off-topic for a minute – I’m changing my nic to Anne, since you mentioned me in your post here, and since I have a blog in my own name now. Thank you for the mention above – there was no need. I was grateful to be on the helping side and not on the receiving end. And anyway, what are friends for?

  8. Thank you for this beautiful post. As others have said, it is quite amazing how you pull together these comments when you are so fresh from mourning yourself, although, perhaps “organizing” these comments has helped you, as you are very organized! Again, my condolences, and may your memories of your father be a blessing.

  9. B”D”E
    I am so sorry for your family’s loss. How incredibly generous of you to use your own insights to help others comfort and help mourners. We lost my father-in-law just about a year ago, and except for having to put people up overnight, this all sounds so familiar.

  10. Generous is the word for this post. I remember well the surreal feeling of a parent’s death. It’s wonderful of you to extract useful, practical advice from your mourning.

  11. I am also sorry, Hannah, that I wasn’t able to visit you in person. Your post is excellent. I have just finished the period of avelut for my father A”H (Although because of the two Adars this year, his yahrtzeit is not until after Pesach) and the memories of the shiva last year are still very raw. What you said about your siblings being together is so true. We spent Shabbat together with my mother for the first time in years and everyone “behaved” and it was like reliving my childhood for a brief moment. I felt like my father was happy with us all being together and getting along and I would say the same about your parents watching all of you together.

    May you and your family be comforted by your memories and wishing you all only b’sorot tovot.

  12. Miriyummy – It’s always bothered my husband that people will say “Shelo ted’ee od tzaar” (you should have no further sorrow) when only one parent has died. You do want to know that “tzaar,” it’s the natural order of life.

    Maybe it’s yet another way of saying we hope the Mashiach will arrive before the loss of ones second parent?

    • and also maybe the loss of other family members? In my husband’s family especially I can understand it – he lost his sister when she was in her 20s and his brother’s wife passed away 5 months ago aged 56.

    • Observer says:

      For many, this is absolutely the case. But, I can see how it would grate.

      It’s one of the reasons I prefer to stick to the traditional format of “hamakom yenachem” without add-ons.

  13. I’m so glad you wrote this post. Maybe you can do a follow up other appropriate or inappropriate discussion topics for shiva. And if the discussion seems innapropriate, but the mourner seems comforted by it, do you let it continue?

    Labeling the container, including if you need it back, is very important. I told ET that I didn’t need anything back, but I think she saved them for me anyway. I was mostly thinking of foods that could be heated in individual portions and microwaved with leftovers frozen, but I hadn’t considered the strain on fridge space. It sounds like foods that can be eaten cold and are safe left out on a counter or table for a while are the best. Did you find any foods particularly comforting? Or was it mostly the shiva visits that were improtant.

    A lot of people were taught not to show up empty handed. Do you have any suggestions for acceptable unsolicited foods that you can buy at a store ready made? I saw a TV show where the character brings her deli bought pototo salad to the kitchen to find a mountain of the same.

    I think having a list of who is bringing what and when is not at all excessive. B”H, my only experience is with getting meals after having a baby, but I find it very comforting to know who or what to expect. When I organized meals for new moms I also wanted to make sure everyone who made food wrote down the address and told me when they planned to bring food, so I could make sure it was appropriate for the family. After I had a baby, hated getting calls all day just to get my address, find out how many of us there were, or what we liked to eat. This should all be done by the coordinator so the mourners or new parents can relax and just know they’ll be fed.

  14. HaMakom Yinachem Etchem B’Toch Shaar Avlei Tzion V’Yerushalayim.
    May we share only smachot and meet under happy circumstances from now on.

    As you may recall, I came with some of your “real-life” friends, and so, to a certain extent, it was one of those surreal, worlds-colliding experiences that often happen when one is a blogger…

    Besurot tovot, and Shabbat Shalom U’Mevorach!

  15. Shmuel Shimshoni says:

    HaMakom Yinachem Etchem B’Toch Shaar Avlei Tzion V’Yerushalayim.
    We don’t know each other, other than being part of a buletin board on the internet. Neither do i know any of your family, but I wish to comment on your “Shiva report”.
    Not necessarily because I also lost both parents, but because I;m a retiree from the local Hevra Kadisha – and your report should be tranlated and adapted as a practical guide, to be distributed by the Hevra Kadisha clerks to every family that contacts them under like cercumstances.
    Your experiences and suggestions are totally in line with the needs of every Avel.
    Kol hacavod!!
    Shmuel Shimshoni

  16. Once again, I am so sorry for your loss. I was debating whether it would have been really odd to show up to pay a shiva call after never having met you in person. I guess I should not have hesitated.

    Thank goodness I have never sat shiva so I can’t comment from that aspect. Our community is pretty close knit, so I have had the zechut of helping others out. Many of the things on your list are things that work quite well in our community.

    A great site (in english only) that you might appreciate after your experience is this one.
    http://www.lotsahelpinghands.com/
    It is a kind of coordinator-someone sets it up and “invites” the people who want to help and people list what they can help with.

    Min Hashamayim Tenachaami. (I personally like that blessing from mourners that I picked up from sephardim. My personal belief is that it is not only Hashem that we are calling on to help comofrt you, but also the deceased whose soul is still around, definately at shiva time, if not longer. )

    Sending you ots of strength.

    • Susie, I looked at the site and it seems very useful. Thank you for your kind words, and I look forward to meeting you in person in more positive circumstances.

  17. Regular Anonymous says:

    How lovely of you to use your experience to help others. May it be an ilui for your father’s neshama.

    Just to add – I used to shy away from going the first few days if I was not close to the family, but in a community where many people are olim, some do not have a lot of visitors. As I have a flexible schedule I try to make shiva visits in the morning when less people are around – this seems to be appreciated.

    Many Ashkenazim have a custom not to eat at all in a shiva house; many Sefardim take offense if you do not eat in their shiva house. In my opinion, drinks are essential – cold water in warm weather, hot tea/coffee in winter. Anything else is optional.

    I am glad to hear that you and your siblings found comfort in each others company.

    • Thank you, RA. Many friends chose to wait until after my siblings left, when I would be alone. But my siblings appreciated the visits from my friends as well.

  18. First, I want to offer my sincere condolences during this time. I empathize.

    Your post is so thoughtful and thought-provoking in many ways. It has so much useful information culled from your own sadness.

    Others will gain insight and information from your experiences.

  19. Observer says:

    Firstly, I’d like to offer my sympathy. Shiva is over, but there is a long way to go…

    Your post was wonderful. So on target.

    Reading this made me think about our experience, and I wondered if you also experienced the some of the other things we experienced.

    People coming in LATE. It’s bad enough when the aveilim are relatively young and in good condition. If they are on the older side (my mother and aunts) or otherwise not so great (I was two weeks post partum, and my sisters, who had flown in both had nursing infants of their own) it can get really, really hard. I don’t know how common this is, since I’ve always made it my business to come at a reasonable hour.

    “Interrogations”. People who just ask and ask all sorts of detailed questions mostly mean well. But even when they are asking about relatively appropriate items such as the life of the niftar, it can get too much. We didn’t get asked about medical treatment, etc. but I’ve seen this. It always makes me cringe.

    • Observer, thank you. In Israel it’s common to put signs with times, at least among Anglos. I think the interrogations can happen when there is something being hidden. You’re remind me that I didn’t like when people questioned decisions we had made about the funeral/shiva.

      • Here in the USA at my grandmothers shiva a few weeks ago, we also put signs up regarding when shiva visits may take place. The signs included the times for Shacharit, Mincha/Arvit, and the earliest and latest time visitors should plan to come.

      • Observer says:

        People questioning decisions is not surprising, but it really is so inappropriate and hurtful. I can imagine that you had a hard time with it.

        “Digging” for what’s hidden is also really not right. If the family doesn’t really want to discuss something, leave it alone. Even in the rare case where something may be truly of public import, it can wait till after Shiva!

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  1. […] busy preparing for the funeral and for my siblings, who came and stayed for the first few of the seven-day mourning period. In Jewish tradition, the community prepares food for the mourners. I still have leftovers so I […]

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