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:
- Speak from the heart and be honest.
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."
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