a stone statue of a woman in mourning
(Photo/Wendy Scofield via Unsplash)

What do I say to a mourner at High Holiday services? 

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Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah are a time when humanity and the divine unite in a common bond of service to support those in grief. Not only do the High Holidays emphasize the value of comforting those who are grieving, but through the Avinu Malkeinu prayer God is called upon to intervene in order to provide solace.

It is imperative that during the High Holidays we create a supportive environment for mourners to come together, share their grief and find comfort in the presence of community.

With grief so present during this season, what do we say to someone who is mourning? Actually, given the layers of support that can be offered, a more apropos question would be “How should we be present with someone in grief?”

We each have an innate ability to comfort. As young children we were able to express our care openly and naturally. As adults, however, sometimes we’ve forgotten, or it got lost along the way, and communicating our sentiments can be a bit daunting.

Our tradition provides specific instruction about when to speak, offering prescribed words of comfort, such as Baruch Dayan HaEmet — “blessed be the Judge of Truth.” It also guides us as to when not to speak, especially when their dead lie before them and there’s little that can be offered except for supportive presence. It’s important not only to recognize the value of silence, but to acknowledge the pain and not minimize the grief.

During the High Holidays this year, it is quite possible we will find ourselves crossing paths with someone in grief. To bridge the moment and attempt to provide support and/or comfort, we may end up relying on an admixture of cliches and traditional expressions — “I’m sorry for your loss,” “Let’s talk,” “They are in a better place now” — while at the same time trying to move on to whatever is next, whether locating our seat, finding a family member in the crowd or heading home.

Cliches can come across as indifferent or insincere, suggesting a lack of emotional connection or understanding. Some mourners may be gracious in receiving such expressions of support. Others, however, will feel it takes considerable extra energy while they are already grieving to politely respond to a sentiment that feels perhaps inauthentic.

So what does one do?

Arguably, one of the most valuable gifts to offer a grieving individual is time and a listening ear.

Arguably, one of the most valuable gifts to offer a grieving individual is time and a listening ear. It’s a rare and precious gift to encounter someone who can comfortably sit with another person’s pain without trying to fix it.

Often, the grieving person is asked questions about their well-being under circumstances that give them little time to respond. They may feel compelled to reply “I’m fine” even when they’re not.

Being able to more fully express their emotions can begin to mitigate a sense of isolation or even alienation permeating their grief. And if we do offer the gift of time, it is important to be reliable and be present, showing up when we say we will and offering reassurance during a critical and vulnerable period.

If time is limited, a brief, personalized comment can be more comforting than some of the expressions standard in our culture. Mentioning a specific trait, anecdote or act illustrative of the person who died can be powerful and meaningful. Nonverbal gestures, like a hand over the heart or an authentic sympathetic look, can convey true empathy.

If you didn’t know the deceased or their family well, you can be honest. One sincere expression in such a circumstance might be some variation of: “I’m sorry I did not know your loved one, but I hope you are finding the comfort and care you need from friends and family during this time.” Acknowledge the unknown, but embrace the hope for care and support.

It’s also worth remembering that no two deaths are the same. Just because two people experience the death of a parent does not mean their grief is alike. It is therefore prudent to avoid saying “I know how you feel,” unless you actually do know. Nevertheless, given that none of us gets through life unscathed, it can still be valuable to recognize that there is at least a shared kind of loss.

Some people may offer unsolicited advice about how to make things “better” or move past the grief — but comments in this vein may actually exacerbate the pain.

Often people just need to grieve. To try to move someone out of that space may be more of a reflection of our own discomfort. Instead of trying to “fix,” we tend to better serve when striving to be a good listener, witnessing and acknowledging the range of emotions the mourner is experiencing and understanding what the death means in the context of their life.

Being present, attentive and giving of our time is a rare and valuable gift. Listening frequently provides more support than almost anything else offered. It bonds us with another, and captures the sense that Yom Kippur is not only a day of atonement, but a day of “at one-ment” — one with each other in our shared humanity and perhaps even in our shared loss.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

Rabbi Jon Sommer
Rabbi Jon Sommer

Rabbi Jon Sommer provided counseling and support for 17 years through the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center. He is currently a local grief and pastoral counselor in private practice.