Should I wish an old person in mourning A Long Life?

November 1, 2012

strong> Question: I have often found it strange or uncomfortable to wish mourners “a long life” if they are already old, or unwell, or are relatively young but clearly devastated by the loss of their partner. Are there alternative Jewish greetings that I could use?

Rabbi Naftali Brawer

Naftali Brawer is the CEO of the Spiritual Capital Foundation.

Wishing a mourner long life is a practice unique to Anglo-Jewry. I never encountered this custom before coming to these shores although I found it very helpful. Shivah visits can be awkward under ordinary circumstances and the discomfort is only compounded when the mourning is for a tragic or untimely death. In such situations what can one say?

The traditional phrase “May the Almighty comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem” is a mouthful. It resonates when intoned formally by a rabbi at the conclusion of a service but it lacks the brevity of a more personal greeting.

Wishing someone long life is concise, yet meaningful. It derives from the concern that having suffered a devastating loss, the mourner might not see the point of living. This sense of the meaninglessness of life often resides just below the surface, although at times it can become manifest in most disturbing ways.

I recall visiting an elderly widow who was so devastated by the loss of the love of her life that she refused nourishment. It got so serious that we had to call in professional services. Wishing someone long life is an elegant way of saying “hang in there, you will get through this immense pain and you will live to discover comfort and even joy again”.

Of course, this greeting is not appropriate in all circumstances; only you can be the judge of when to use it, when to substitute another phrase, or when just to remain silent. Jewish law says one should remain silent in the presence of mourners because nothing that can be put into words is adequate to the situation.

While it is difficult to maintain total silence in a shivah house, I think we have gone too far to the other extreme. We now talk incessantly of banalities in a subconscious effort to avoid having to deal with the reality and finality of death.

Sometimes ,when as a communal rabbi visiting a shivah home in an unfamiliar neighbourhood, I would be able to detect the house half a block away by the sounds of chatter and laughter spilling out into the street. This can not be right. King Solomon famously wrote that: “There is a time for every experience under heaven. A time for being born and a time for dying. A time for weeping and a time for laughing.”

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

It may be meant well, but wishing long life to someone who has just lost the person they love the most, and who feels that they do not want to carry on without them, can grate on their ears. It also seems banal saying it to a 92- year-old.

On the plus side, it is a well-recognised phrase that transcends the literal meaning of the words, and it is a very useful greeting when you do not know what to say to a bereaved person.

Moreover, if you see them distraught with grief, whatever you utter will sound inadequate your end. For their part, if they feel they are sleep-walking through a nightmare, they may not even register exactly what everyone around them is saying.

It means that, to a great degree, the words themselves do not matter. It is the tenderness of your voice or the kindness in your eyes that will get across the message and say that you are there for them and want to comfort them. So the phrase serves as a cipher for what cannot be expressed fully, but is sincerely felt.

Still, the main object is to be helpful, and so there is no reason why alternative greetings cannot be used if you think they are more appropriate in the circumstances. One option is “I am so sorry to hear about your loss”, while another might be “I wish you much strength”. The only wrong thing is to say nothing at all and leave the person without the warmth of human contact.

Just as important is what you say after the funeral and formal mourning rituals. Do not say “Call me if you need anything” — they won’t — but instead arrange a time for you to come over and help sort clothes or fill in paperwork.

Also avoid saying “Let me know if you’d like me to call round’ — but instead fix a date and get them out of the house, be it shopping, going for a walk, having a coffee, attending a shul event together and helping them slowly re-enter the stream of life.

For their part, mourners should adopt the rule of always saying yes to invitations, even when they do not feel like company; they will still have plenty of time to be alone at other times, while those offers will quickly dry up if they are refused.

Last updated: 2:04pm, November 1 2012