What Should I Say to a Mourner?

Question of the Week:

A friend recently lost his father, but I haven't gone to visit. I have all types of excuses, like maybe he wants to be left alone, and I'm not so close anyway, but the real reason is, I just don't know what to say in these situations. What can I possibly say to make him feel better when the fact is that his dad died?


Your hesitation to face a grieving friend is understandable. But it is based on a wrong assumption.

When we visit one who is in grief, we often assume that we have to become philosophers, and present a profound thesis to explain their loss, or we feel we should become counselors, and try to soothe their pain.

That is not true. Your job is not to play the theologian or the therapist. Your job is to be a friend, and just be there. Your very presence, the fact that you made the effort to show your face, is a comfort to the mourners. It means that they are not alone in their sorrow.

Jewish tradition says that when you visit a mourner, you should stay silent and wait for the mourner to initiate the conversation. They may want to laugh, they may want to cry, or they may want to sit in silence. Let them set the tone, and respond accordingly. And when they seem to want to be left alone, then take the hint and leave. Don't assume anything, take the cues from them.

If you have some words of comfort and wisdom to share, then do so. But if you have nothing to say then that's fine too. The purpose of the visit is to show your support, and you have done so just by being there. Your presence is more powerful than words. The philosopher's explanations may help us understand pain, but the presence of a friend can help us endure it. Words can bring comfort to the mind, but the heart is comforted by simple togetherness, knowing that you are not alone.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Moss

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