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ESSAY: The Subtle Rules of Etiquette for a Shiva

In the Jewish religion when a person dies, their body is buried as soon as possible. After the burial at the cemetery, there is a gathering back at a family member’s home to comfort the bereaved. This is known as a Shiva.

Recently, I hosted a Shiva for my almost 88-year-old and very-ready-to-"transition" (or some say, “die”) Aunt Alice. I thought I might take this opportunity to share some of my thoughts about subtle social etiquette, that may apply not only to a Shiva, but to many social occasions, should the people below still be invited to such events.

One attendee at my aunt’s Shiva actually corrected the bereaved son on his recollections of his mother. No, she was not “drop dead gorgeous,” she was, “pretty.” Another, wagged her finger at the bereaved daughter because she had voted for President Obama, not once, but twice. Still another guest, arriving very late, asked me in a rather entitled and guilt-provoking tone: “Can you introduce me to some of these people?” As if this was a dinner party at my home and I was neglecting my hostess-duties.

I love the Jewish traditions, but I do notice that those who are unaware of others even at such a sensitive time, are not just Jewish and not just insensitive at a Shiva. My Catholic, Protestant and Islamic friends agree that, they, too, have people who are emotional-intelligence-challenged in their families, as well.

Thus, I have put together a list of "Don'ts" for people who have difficulty with the appropriateness and effect of what they are saying. These may be helpful not-only to those who want to know what not to do at a Shiva, but they may also be clues as to how not to behave anywhere.

  • There is a time and place for everything. A Shiva, which is a tradition meant to comfort people who have just lost someone significant, is no time or place to be fighting with, correcting or instructing the bereaved, particularly with wagging fingers and nasty tones. It may be possible for you to save your political or religious views for another occasion. This holding back your thoughts is a wonderful exercise in self-control. No, every thought that enters your mind is not necessarily a pearl of wisdom needing to be shared, even if that’s what your mom told you or what she did herself when you were small.
  • A general rule of thumb, as well, for any who do not instinctively know it: Do not interrupt the bereaved when they are sharing their remembrances, to correct their perceptions about their loved one, even if you actually are always right about everything.
  • Do not mistake a Shiva for a dinner-party where you might expect to be waltzed across the rooms of guests, like Scarlett Oharastein, and individually introduced.
  • Exercise your creativity by looking around you to find a guest who is not wearing a coat and then ask him what he has done with his. Most likely, the person scurrying around in the kitchen is not the only one with answers to your questions.
  • Do not invite people who did not know the bereaved or their loved ones by to share a free meal. A Shiva is not a community gathering hall where all are welcome and anybody you haven’t seen for a while can conveniently drop by to visit you and have a free meal on-the-house, especially since this is not your house.
  • Do not share gossip or negative talk about others with the bereaved or other people. Try to save such nastiness for later, when the person you are talking about is not standing right behind you.
  • Do not ask the person in the kitchen any of the following questions, particularly if you see that they are trying to do something associated with the Shiva, such as making you a fresh pot of de-café: Do you happen to have my favorite condiments or sweeteners or a low-calorie substitute for dessert? Food at a Shiva is there to comfort the bereaved and thank the guests for coming. Act as if you were traveling in another country. If they don’t have what you prefer, either bring it along yourself (unless it is a pork chop) or live without it.
  • Do not ask a person where their children are living these days to helpfully inform them about anti-Semitism. We are depressed enough that our Aunt died, thank you very much.

Perhaps this list can be useful for almost any gathering where those who need it go, given that they are still being included in family events. It may be a godsend for others and may give those who need it at least a partial answer to what may have been a lifelong question, "Why don’t I have any friends?"
Linda Benjamin is a Clinical Social Worker in private practice in Milwaukee.