How Should Non-Jews Grieve For Jewish Friends?

Dear Miriam, 

Do Jewish folks do sympathy cards? Do non-Jewish friends visit while a family is sitting shiva? What’s the etiquette a) around death in general, and b) coming from a non-Jewish friend?


Goy in Grief


Dear Grief, 

Thank you so much for your sensitivity to the cultural differences inherent in grief and mourning. But before I even answer your question, I want to be sensitive to a cultural issue as well: your use of the word “goy.” Though you (lovingly, I think) refer to yourself as such, it’s actually a bit divisive as to whether this term is crude bordering on derogatory. But, like it’s ok for someone Jewish to call oneself a Jew (or to tell Jewish jokes, etc), but not ok for a non-Jew to do the same, if you, as a non-Jew, are choosing to identify yourself as a goy, I’ll let it stand. 

I realize that’s quite a digression for a serious question about respect around mourning rituals, but key turning points in life often highlight cultural differences and promote an ingathering among people who are part of your inner cultural circle. None of us know what we don’t know, and even if you have friends of a religion or culture not your own, there’s no reason to have an understanding of these close-held cultural experiences. And, unlike a wedding or bris or bar mitzvah that might come with lots of patient and festive explanations for those who are unfamiliar, in times of grief, the family can’t – and shouldn’t – use any of their energy to make sure others can experience the ritual more comfortably. 

To answer your question in earnest, though, Jews do send sympathy cards, but you should look for something minimalistic that doesn’t feature flowery language or any actual flowers. Flowers have no place at a Jewish funeral or house of mourning, and that is definitely a tradition you should respect. (When Jews visit a grave, they leave a rock. You should not bring rocks to a shiva house, but it’s a tradition worth knowing about.) Many store-bought sympathy cards have language about God or references to heaven that are clearly geared towards a Christian understanding of death, so you should avoid those as well. 

Shiva is a week of mourning following the funeral, where visitors come to the family’s home and sit with the family members. Traditionally, the mourners will sit on low stools, and guests will come in and just be present. Visitors often wait for the mourners to begin talking rather than greeting them or asking how they’re doing. Mourners may tell stories about the deceased while those gathered listen and perhaps share their own memories. There may be a couple of short services throughout the day, and visiting hours are often arranged around those service times. 

No one expects you to know what to do in a shiva house if you’ve never been to one, so just sitting there is a good bet. Don’t bring flowers (see above), but if you feel you must bring something, bring food. Something kosher and non-perishable is a good idea since there will likely be a lot of food already there. If you’re offered food, go ahead and eat it. Eating gives people something to do, and the family likely will have a lot of food in the house.

There’s a script of sorts that people might say that translates to “May God comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem,” so you may hear people say that in English or Hebrew. You might also hear someone say “May his/her memory be for a blessing.” Just saying, “I’m so sorry,” is also more than sufficient. There are many, many other traditions around shiva and mourning, which go beyond the scope of what I can cover here and which also vary widely depending on the family’s style of observance. 

Jewish or non-Jewish, whether you’re particularly close with someone or not, whether you’ve been to a shiva house before or not – if you can be there for someone while they’re in mourning, you should go. You’ll probably leave with a lot more questions than you even knew to ask me, but the most important question – of whether or not you were there to support someone in a time of need – will be answered.

Be well,


P.S. This post is already almost twice as long as my typical columns, which seems fair after having taken the past couple of weeks off because of Passover. But I’m back, and I’m eager to answer your questions about lifecycle events (like today’s post), parenting, relationships, holidays, or just the everyday annoyances that could use a new perspective. Submit your questions here.