I came across advice for making shiva visits. The author’s stated goal is:
One of the biggest chasms I’ve encountered between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox communities is the way the shiva customs are observed. So I’m here to demystify Orthodox shiva, cuz it’s a whole ‘nother animal. Some of the below might be familiar to you, and some may not; I’m approaching the subject as though I am addressing someone who is not familiar with any of the customs.
Subsequently, she provides a list of basic aspects of Jewish mourning and how to conduct oneself in a house of mourning. To me, the list is also a valuable itemized explanation of Jewish mourning for non-Jews, for often I have had colleagues looking to have a basic understanding of how to conduct oneself when visiting the bereaved. As such, I am including the whole list but will reserve my addendums and comments to a couple of the items.
1. Shiva is observed beginning after the funeral for 7 full days, excluding Shabbat and holidays (since on those days there is a mitzvah to be happy).
2. Mirrors are covered to symbolize that it’s not a time to focus on the physical.
3. Shiva is to honor the memory of the deceased, and to comfort the loved ones of the deceased. Tradition teaches that the soul is present during the shiva and is aware of all that transpires.
4. The mourners (blood relatives+spouse) sit on low chairs and do not wear shoes made of leather. They continue to wear their clothes that have been torn in grief (there’s a custom to tear clothes in grief upon learning of the death of a loved one – again, blood relatives+spouse).
5. The food at the shiva is meant for the mourners, and those that are staying with them. It is not intended for visitors; this is to prevent the atmosphere from becoming too festive.
6. The visitors are to enter without knocking and without greeting or being greeted. They are not to initiate conversation until addressed by the mourners, so they can gauge the mood of the mourners and read their cues as to where their wishes are and what they would like to discuss. The mourners are not to “host” – greet, introduce, make sure everyone has somewhere to sit.
7. The best length of time to stay is 10-15 minutes, unless you sense the mourners want you to stay longer, or unless you are very close.
8. Finally, the ideal conversation is about the deceased – specifically, inspiring stories about his/her life; memories; what we can learn from their legacy.
If we consider the last three items, they provide insight into how people should act around the bereaved in general, not just in a Jewish house of mourning. The first point is to gauge were the person is at. If the mourner is not up to speaking, it is not the job of the visitor to try and spark conversation. If the mourner does want to talk, more than likely the mourner will focus on the deceased. Yet, sometimes I have found that mourners need to take a break from this focus and will steer the conversation towards something more mundane to the moment. As such, it is not the job of the visitor to force the mourner to return to the conversation about the deceased.
Both of these points are also aspects of the seventh piece of advice, about limiting the time of visit. Visitors need to be sensitive to the feeling of the mourners that they feel they have to be hosts, which especially can be the case with people staying long. If one is the lone visitor at the time, perhaps spending more time is appropriate. However, since the goal of visitation is in the comfort of being present, amount of time is irrelevant as long as the time is used well qualitatively.