THE BLOG
09/12/2013 11:02 am ET Updated Nov 12, 2013

The Ten Commandments of Talking to Friends in Mourning

Recently, there was a tragic death in my community. A beloved man went on a morning bike ride with his wife and didn't come back.

The pain of the tragedy was deep and pervasive throughout the community: He was young, healthy, and active; he had a vibrant marriage, a strong relationship with his son, close connection with his extended family, many friends, immense professional success, and profound philanthropic achievement. His family is highly involved in the synagogue, especially his parents who, to compound the horror of having to bury a son, lost another of their sons many years earlier.

Several hundred people attended the funeral. At the shivah minyan (a service held at the house of a mourner on each of seven nights following burial), there was literally no room to move. The loss hit many people extremely hard, and all the more so the utterly devastated family.

In the days that followed, many people asked me what they could or should say to the bereaved, their friends, who were in so much pain. What follows is the guidance I offered, refashioned here into "Ten Commandments."

Of course, "Commandment" is a bit misleading. These are not the only rules, and you might discover good rules to supplement this list. You might also find that pieces of this list do not work for you. I hope you'll share your thoughts for additions or subtractions in the comments.

Like the biblical Decalogue, this list consists of five directives and five prohibitions. Many are mirror images of each other (for example, number 1 is essentially the antidote for numbers 8-10). Some of this wisdom is derived from the Jewish tradition and other sources. And some is borne of my experience as a rabbi, both from things I have found effective, and, more often, from mistakes I have made. My "Ten Commandments of Talking to Friends in Mourning" are:

  1. Speak from the heart and be honest.
  2. Share memories of the deceased. If you didn't know the deceased (well), ask the bereaved if he or she would be up for sharing some stories so you can get to know their loved one through their memories.
  3. Say how you feel about the deceased (if you knew him or her), about the bereaved, about yourself (if you knew the deceased and are going through a process of mourning the loss yourself).
  4. Give a lot of hugs and a lot of kisses, and be liberal with your expressions of love. As Bruce Feiler writes, "When all else fails, simple, direct emotion is the most powerful gift you can give a loved one going through pain. It doesn't need to be ornamented. It just needs to be real." The Talmud (B'rakhot 5b) echoes this wisdom, offering a series of stories about suffering individuals. In each story, a friend physically reaches out and holds the person suffering without once being asked for help. The message is that unsolicited and unambiguous demonstrations of love are often the best things one can do for another in pain.
  5. Make 'em laugh. Mourners, especially those who have experienced extraordinarily tragic losses, say to me all the time that humor is a profound help in getting through difficult times. Tell jokes and funny stories, especially if they are funny stories about the deceased. Of course, as with all attempts at humor, timing is everything.
  6. Don't say too much. As the old adage goes, "It is better to remain silent at the risk of being thought a fool, than to talk and remove all doubt of it." Or, as Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel says in the Mishnah (Avot 1:17), "I grew up my whole life among the Sages, and I found nothing better for the body than silence... anyone who increases words increases sin." The more you say, the more opportunity you have to say the "wrong" thing, and the more likely you will be to inflict more harm than comfort with your words. This was perhaps the wisest advice I ever received from a senior colleague. He said, in moments of grief, "say as little as possible. An understanding look and a hug speaks volumes."
  7. Don't give advice. Even if you are asked for advice, give it only sparingly, if you have tried it yourself, if it worked for you, and always with the caveat "This worked for me, and may not work for you..."
  8. Don't offer empty optimism (i.e., "Time heals all wounds," or "It'll get better").
  9. Don't compare pain. What you mean as an expression of empathy can come off as dismissive of the reality of others' pain. The last thing people want or need when they are mourning a loss is a tzuris competition.
  10. Avoid, at all cost, theological or religious platitudes and clichés (i.e., "He's in a better place," "God never gives us more than we can handle," or "Everything happens for a reason"). Even if you believe a particular theological argument, the moment calls for a friend, not a defender of God.

Finally, I think in this case, as in many instances, there is really only one commandment, uttered by Hillel in the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 31a), "What is hateful to you, do not do to your friend. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and learn."