Shiva calls are not the most favored social visits to make. In addition to being generally sad, many people find it very awkward to be there, especially if they did not know either the deceased or the surviving relatives very well.
This is normal. One feels that there is not much to do or say that will make anyone feel much better at the time. But nichum aveilim is a choice mitzvah – after all, Hashem himself does so, and to walk in His ways is the highest calling of a Jew. So we try to do it, and often feel like we bumble our way through. What to say? When to say it?
Of course, the halacha actually addresses this issue and instructs visitors to a mourner’s house to remain silent until the mourner speaks first. This is helpful guidance, and it is worth further recalling that once you do speak, you don’t need to fill the time by nattering on – silence is uncomfortable, but, as they say, golden (or, in Jewish terms, lo matzasi laguf tov ela shesika – Avos 1:17).
The truth is, it is really your presence more than your words that is needed. Rav Noach Orlowek says that the foremost message that a mourner needs is, you are not alone. And you communicate simply by showing up. (For this reason, there really is great value in being there even if you don’t know the mourner or the deceased – for mourners to see that there is a community around them is uplifting. And a community comprises not only your friends but also people you don’t know very well. If those people are there for you too, that means a lot.
This idea is strongly reflected in the classic statement of nichum aveilim, namely, “HaMakom yenachem eschem besoch shaar aveilei Tziyon v’Irushalayim” – may the Omnipresent One comfort you among the rest of the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
HaMakom literally means “the Place” – Chazal explain that Hashem is the Place in which the universe is located and not vice versa; thus, He pervades every physical space, so to speak. He is everywhere – Omnipresent. When we are faced with tragedy, we tend to feel distant from Hashem, like He is absent. But in truth there is no place that is void of His presence. He is here with you even in your darkest moments.
And so are the Jewish people – you are among the mourners of our long history. You are not alone in your grief. Others have been there, and can be there with you and for you.
But I want to suggest another critical meaning of this phrase. “HaMakom yenachem eschem” translates as “May Hashem comfort you” – but it also translates as “Hashem will comfort you.”
It is only normal to feel in our deepest grief like the pain will never end, like the sadness will never ebb. The truth is that emotion is never permanent, although it is in the nature of emotion to feel precisely like it is. Emotion is engulfing, and it’s hard to imagine you will ever feel a different way when you are caught in its grip.
HaMakom yenachem eschem means yes, you will find comfort. It is a reminder to the mourner that the pain will eventually end, that there is a light at the end even if it’s not in sight right now. Our people has seen many mourners throughout its storied past, and just as they have passed through their grief and found comfort eventually, so too shall you.
The classic statement of comfort has much to offer to those in grieving.
What else can you say?
Truly, saying nothing is an option. You can sit silently with the mourners, and when it’s time to depart, leave them with HaMakom yenachem eschem. This is probably easier when there are other visitors, but pretty awkward when it’s just you.
So if you feel you have to say something, the main principle is to not try to distract the mourner from mourning, natural an inclination as that is. Trying to get their mind off of it is generally not helpful to them (and is probably more helpful to you so you don’t feel so awkward). Again, better to say nothing than to ask about their house renovations or talk politics.
Instead, what is often appreciated is for you to share stories of your experiences with the deceased, especially ones the mourners may not have heard and that reflect the deceased’s good middos or likable personality points.
Another helpful approach is to get them talking more: ask them, “what was s/he really like?” Allowing them to share their own memories and experiences helps them to move through the grief stage.
Ultimately, the message you want to convey is that they are not alone. There is little more that you can or should try to offer. Your presence at a time of tragedy speaks far more than words.