The misery of mourning and the overwhelming desire to help. I remember it well after each of my parents and my mother-in-law died. Three family deaths in twenty months. Each loss was so debilitating with pain that was so new and disorienting. Everyone wanted to help. yet my equilibrium was so messed up, I could barely see straight. The texts, calls and emails offering help were sweet yet my inability to respond and my lack of energy to engage weighed so heavily upon me. My family had enough to do just to make sure I got through moment by moment. We weren’t ready to accept help.
In a traditional Jewish world, when a death occurs, the community just takes over. People come and clean the house. They gather for twice-daily minyanim at the mourners’ home. Food appears regularly. A community tzedakah (charity) box appears, filled with funds, so that the mourners confidentially can withdraw whatever they need to get through.
No one need ask how they can help. A community founded in faith knew what to do. And the mourners just let it happen.
Keeping Control While Losing Control
We live – most of us – in a very different Jewish world. Few imagine other people entering their homes and taking over their comfort and care. Our congregations and communities are neither prepared for nor have the predilection for doing the same for every member of the community. Mourners and their immediate families, so committed to being in control of our lives, fear giving over control even when faced with death. We are more comfortable being in control of our misery than with stepping aside so others can tend to our comfort and perhaps lessen the challenges of enduring the day to day.
So we don’t allow others to help.
So we wander in the wilderness, stumbling along the path alone.
Can communities change?
Can mourners release control so a communally-designated do-good-er can personally assist mourners in getting through the first week of mourning?
I don’t know. I was as controlling in my lack of control as the rest. And my family had specific ideas of what to eat and who to see, and I just wanted to wallow in the pain as I tried to ignore that which was itching in the back of my brain: that dad (then mom) was dead and there was nothing I could do about it.
Even in this new Jewish world, there are ways to help.
8 Meaningful Ways to Help the Mourners
1. Educate Yourself and Others on Ring Theory, also known as the Circles of Grief, so that your interactions don’t inadvertently harm the mourner. Imagine concentric circles. The mourners are in the center circle. Other family are in the next one out. Then dearest friends. Then community and coworkers and others. Be honest about where you stand in the circles.
When approaching people in a circle more to the center than yours – especially the mourners – I focus on the LIPO rule: Love In; Pain Out. We pour our unconditional and unconditioned love in to the more central circles. We dump our own pain out to more outer circles. In that dump add in our many questions about what happened, our frustration in being able to connect, and our unclarity on how to help. Read (or re-read) the article before contacting the family so you are sure to support and do not harm.
2. Write a Card. Addressed to the mourner, use the card to send love, share stories about the deceased if you knew them, and include wishes for wellness, strength and solace. Cards make no claim on the mourners’ immediate time but just pour in love when the mourners is ready or in need. Cards can be reread to remind the mourner they aren’t alone. Since a year of mourning lasts a year, and the sense of aloneness can increase over time, send cards multiple times – monthly even. One dear person still sends me cards at irregular intervals that just brings warmth to my heart when I don’t even realize I am still mourning. Which I am.
3. Donate Tzedakah to a charity or tzedakah fund of their choice. Or donate to the synagogue – theirs or yours. Better than flowers which blossom and die, charitable donations in the name of the deceased ensures that their name will live on in the good works that the fund supports. While the mourners may not know that you donated for a few weeks or more and may not thank you for even longer, they eventually will and they will be warmed by your wonderfully meaningful act.
4. Mark Your Calendar monthly with the deceased’s name and send comfort to their mourners multiple times. Everyone reaches out to the mourner in the first two weeks. Then they are surrounded and often overwhelmed by the warmth. But life has its way of redirecting the caring attentions even the most attentive friends and family. That’s when the loneliness and sadness sinks in. This poem – The Secret Life of the Mourner – illuminates the inner workings of a mind in mourning, a soul so often seeking solace. Whether through a card, call, text, or invitation to lunch or coffee, your outreach reminds the mourners they are not alone.
What Else Might You Say or Do?
5. Ask Questions. You might ask: What is it like? What do you miss? What did the decease like? In what ways do you carry them within you? Can you to tell me a story so I can remember too?
6. Listen. Whatever the mourner’s response – sharing, seeking space, shutting you down, or staying silent – that trumps your need to receive. If they talk, stay quiet and listen. Nod your head. Smile.
If they don’t want to talk, hold the moment as a moment of love shared. Your precious presence provides the most clear communication that you care. If they don’t respond to your call, text, or invitation, know they noticed and that your love shared warms them.
7. Forgo the Faith-based Food Fetish. The Jewish impulse to love through making meals or to smother the pain with food – Essen mein kin (eat, my children) – can conflict with the individual concerns of the mourner: Multiple dietary needs within a family, special eating regimens in the home, hidden health issues, or a preference for home cooked over store bought or restaurant prepared. Needing to explain is exhausting. If a meal train can be set up with the family’s permission, wonderful. If not, back off… for now. Check in again in a few weeks.
And remember: loss is complex and mourning is a multifaceted journey through the Valley of the Shadows of Death. Most of us are unfamiliar with it. And those who are familiar often forget that our experience may not be theirs. Their relationship with the deceased may seem one way outwardly but be more complex in private. Or it might be simpler and sweeter and just private.
Yes, you can help: re-educate yourself, write cards, give tzedakah, mark your calendar to reach out regularly all year, ask, and listen.
Finally, be Patient
Mourning is exhausting.
So just be there.
That, more than anything you do in the first weeks, will make a huge difference and truly helps.
Read more poems about mourning.
Watch this video about what to say to a mourner.