Understand Grief to Better Offer Your Sympathies

May 18, 2016

[Ed. Note: This offering is a more practical piece, targeted at advising what to say and expect in the face of grief. In  a future entry we will look at what NOT to say or do. There is also information on the Kavod v'Nichum Jewish Funerals website at   — JB]


Do you find that you avoid people who have had a death in the family? Do you feel awkward when you are around them? Maybe you trip over your words or say something and immediately think how dumb it sounded.

One of the reasons it is so hard for people to know what to say is that they aren’t familiar with grief in the same way. They may not have lost someone close to them so they aren’t sure what words would make the person feel better or worse. When you take the time to understand the grieving process, it makes it easier to know what to say.


Grief Happens in Many Ways

No two people grieve the same way. One person may cry a lot while another may seem stoic. A mother with young children often has to pretend that everything is fine even when it isn’t. Just because a person doesn’t act the way you would expect doesn’t mean that they aren’t grieving.

Don’t be oversensitive. Don’t spend time analyzing your every word to figure out how the other person will react. Most of the time, the bereaved person appreciates the sentiment even if the words don’t come out the right way.

Be prepared for intense and extreme emotions. Don’t assume that what you say is the cause. The person is feeling all kinds of emotions and they can vary from one moment to the next. While something may trigger a change in emotion, sometimes it just happens. Unless you are intentionally cruel, what you say is not going to make the person feel worse.


When Silence is Golden

Sometimes a person’s presence is all the comfort that is needed. Just sitting in silence can let the other person know that he or she is not alone. This is especially true for the first few days after someone’s death. The family may receive numerous expressions of sympathy and just appreciate the quiet companionship. [Ed. Note: remember that this is what is recommended for visitors to a Shiva home; allow the person who is grieving to guide and direct the conversation – or lack of it. — JB]

Physical contact can speak volumes, sometimes even more than words. A hug if you are close to the bereaved or even a pat on the arm or squeeze of a hand lets them know what you can’t say in words. It’s a gentle reminder that they are not alone even though they may feel like it.


A Listening Ear

Sometimes the person who needs to do the talking is not you. The grieving family member may need to talk about his or her feelings and your job is just to listen. Offering a shoulder to cry on and an ear to listen can be the best way to offer your sympathies in many cases.

You may hear stories about the deceased or other random thoughts many times. You don’t need to feel like you have to respond other than to show that you are listening. For the other person, the healing comes through talking.

Understand how grief works in different people so that you can offer the right message of sympathy to a grieving loved one.


Suzie Kolber is a writer at  





Now Online: information about the 14th Annual North American Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference, to be held in Lexington, MA Sunday to Tuesday, June 5-7, 2016. Register Check online for information on almost anything you might want to know. Click here to ” target=”_blank”>more about the conference and our plenary ” target=”_blank”>options. Look at the direct   


Gamliel Institute students (past and present) are also encouraged to attend the conference and plan to remain for an additional day (through mid-day/lunch Wednesday) following the conference for a live educational program we are calling Day of Learning. During the conference, we will be celebrating the first group of graduates of the Gamliel Institute, and looking forward to the next cohort. Immediately following the close of the conference, we continue with learning specifically geared to Gamliel Students. We have as our instructors for this fabulous closed session series of Text study opportunities Reuven Kimmelman on Kaddish, Eddie Feld on Psalm 49, and Ruth Langer on Tziduk Hadin. This will be an in-depth, informative, and inspirational program! Mark your calendar, make your plans, and register to attend now! The class is free to Gamliel students, but donations to help us offset the cost are very welcome.  Please RSVP to David Zinner info@jewish-funerals.org to let us know to expect you.   

And please visit our website for Gamliel Institute information, and look over the amazing Gamliel Student projects posted there at  




Please Tell Anyone Who May Be Interested!

Fall 2016:

Gamliel Institute Course 5, Chevrah Kadisha Ritual, Practices, & Liturgy (RPL) will be offered from September 6th, 2016 to November 22nd 2016. The focus is on practices and all ritual and liturgy, excluding Taharah & Shmirah (which are covered in Course 2). Please register, note it on your calendar, and plan to attend.

You can “>jewish-funerals.org/gamreg. A full description of the courses is there as well. For more information, visit the “>Kavod v’Nichum website.

Please contact us for information or assistance. info@jewish-funerals.org or j.blair@jewish-funerals.org, or call 410-733-3700, or 925-272-8563.



Donations are always needed and most welcome. Donations support the work of the Gamliel Institute, help us provide scholarships to students, support programs such as Taste of Gamliel, and many other programs and activities. You can donate online at  “>here (http://www.jewish-funerals.org/money/).



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